Fireworks and Massacre in Grey (Spasmodic) Room On Hangjun Lee’s Phantom Schoolgirl Army

Yung Bin Kwak

Fireworks or Massacre?

On one of the 4th of Julys, i.e., Independence Day, sometime around the mid-2000s, during my stay in the U.S., I went to a local park at night to see fireworks with my families and friends. The park was packed with people, either sitting in their portable chairs or simply lying on the grass, and they were enjoying the show. Often lasting for thirty minutes, the fireworks finally reached its climax and started shooting up everything into the air with blasting sound. Then, all of a sudden, a baby caught people’s attention as he began crying hysterically. As it turned out, he cried as he was terrified by the fireworks’blinding explosions as well as the huge noise. As we know from the stories by those who suffer from PTSD, say, veterans who came back from war fronts or rape victims haunted by voices reminiscent of rapists, however, the baby cried less because he was a baby than because he had a hard time telling if it was a show or a real event (e.g. a series of explosions or machine gun firing during air raid).

I came to ruminate on this dormant episode and mull over its implications intensely after I watched/listened to Phantom School Army [Phantom hereafter]. South Korea’s trailblazing avantgarde filmmaker and performer Hangjun Lee’s most recent work to date, Phantom is a remarkable work of art as it blinds, if momentarily, viewers with a series of flashes while bombarding audiences with noise-induced sound blast. What’s more striking is that this literally vertiginous audiovisual performance work addresses Yeosu-Suncheon Rebellion (1948), one of South Korea’s dark historical traumas whose immediate aftermath (the number of casualties overall is estimated to reach 10,000) and long-term repercussions in effectively establishing the‘red scare’or anticommunism proved vital, or rather, lethal to many lives as well as the egalitarian imaginary in post-war South Korea.1)

To those who knew Lee’s work solely from the perspective of putatively‘pure’experimental vein, however ‘materialist’ it aspires to be, this engagement with such a historic event could come as a surprise. Conversely, for those whom‘experimental cinema’means nothing less than a vacuous audiovisual acrobatics in the name of the so-called‘aesthetic experiments’, the abovementioned description of Phantom alone serves to discredit its practical value: in what sense does this non-narrative performative film work relate to the actual historical event? Is this not another proof of artwork’s irrelevance to the so-called ‘real’ world?

Hence the following questions: how do these elements relate to one another? How does a performative film work reconcile its performative aesthetic dimension with the heavyweight historical trauma without sacrificing either pole?