The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

The Aesthetics of Violence: Reading the Body in Kim Ki-Duk’s Address Unknown and Sony Labou Tansi’s La vie et demie

Rachel Park

My deepest and profoundest thanks to Professor Karl Britto for his invaluable help and guidance on the French translations.

This paper endeavors to explore the effects of violence in postcolonial settings through a comparative analysis of two works: the novel La vie et demie by Congolese writer Sony Labou Tansi, and the film Address Unknown by South Korean film director Kim Ki-Duk. I argue that La vie et demie and Address Unknown are particularly fruitful for discussions of postcolonial violence because of their extreme representations of corporeal violence. The extreme, nearly grotesque episodes of violence in these texts are seemingly at odds with each author’s self-proclaimed stance against violence—particularly the violence of colonialism. Through close textual readings, I attempt to reconcile this apparent contradiction by demonstrating how corporeal violence is a mere entry point into the more insidious types of violence particular to the postcolony. That is, the violence that unfolds on the body is the material manifestation of the violence inherent in colonialism. Yet the grotesque violence in Address Unknown and La vie et demie is complicated by the fact that there is no clear figure of the colonizer. Instead, the texts offer a way to examine the vestiges of colonial violence through the way violence is deeply embedded in the very perspectives of the characters. Corporeal violence is merely a lens that diffracts violence into discrete components so that we can see the pervasiveness of colonial violence even after the alleged decolonization. The materiality of violence gives way to the violent perceptions of the world by each character and finally, forces them to express themselves through the only way they know how—through violence. Ultimately, La vie et demie and Address Unknown raise larger and still prevalent questions of how to ethically represent historical violence and its atrocities and how representation could possibly begin the project of rehabilitation from such acts of violence.


La vie et demie was published in 1981 as Congolese writer Sony Labou Tansi’s first novel. Despite the novel’s insistence on being read purely as a work of fiction1, its origins are inseparable from its historical context. Sony Labou Tansi detailed these circumstances in an interview with David Applefield:

Sony Labou Tansi: The book [La vie et demie] was written in somewhat painful circumstances. In 1977 Brazzaville was the scene of a major social and political crisis following the assassination of President

Marien Ngouabi…Innocent people were blamed for the killing and were subsequently eliminated. I was aware of the conspiracy because I knew some of the victims personally; they were friends of mine…I was so upset by the situation that I decided to write La vie et demie.

David Applefield: So it’s fiction based on a historical reality?

Sony Labou Tansi: Yes. The starting-point of the story was the death of those friends… I wrote the book because I wanted to rehabilitate people like Cardinal Byayenda, Luti Nganga and the former president Massamba-Débat.2

La vie et demie takes place in the fictional African nation of Katalamansie and follows the seemingly endless succession of ruthless dictators and the violence these dictators use to maintain their power. The names of these dictators, variations of “Le Guide Providentiel” [The Providential Guide], are just one example of the irony and satire used in the novel to criticize the “painful circumstances” from which Sony Labou Tansi writes. Yet the most striking feature of La vie et demie is the forceful manner in which the violence inherent to dictatorial regimes is represented. As Dominic Thomas has argued in his chapter on Sony Labou Tansi in Nation-Building, Propaganda and Literature in Francophone Africa, “sexuality, cruelty and violence are everywhere in Sony Labou Tansi’s vision of the postcolony, and his treatment of the theme is considerably more forceful than that of his literary peers.”3

In 2001, South Korean film director Kim Ki-Duk echoed Sony Labou Tansi’s sentiments of creating “fiction based on a historical reality” in an interview where he explained the inspiration for his film Address Unknown.

KS: Going into this film, you raised the question, ‘Where does our cruelty come from?’

KK: By dealing with the lives surrounding the U. S. military base, I wanted to ruminate on the history of the Korean War down to the time of Japanese imperialism. Perhaps the cruelest scene of this film is when the father repairs the gun found in the front yard of the family’s house and shoots the chicken he has been raising. The violence repeated through generations—I believe this is the most uniquely Korean form of violence.4

Address Unknown takes place in a kijich’on (a Korean military camptown) during the 1970s and follows the lives of three teenagers who are all in some way outcasts in the kijich’on: Chi-hum, a quiet, effeminate sketch artist who is constantly bullied by the other village boys; Eun-ok, a young girl with an eye disfigured by a childhood accident; and Chang-guk, a half-black, half-Korean teenager whose mother was formerly a yanggongju.5 By following the lives of these three characters, Address Unknown shows the insidious effects of living under prolonged militaristic rule. La vie et demie and Address Unknown are the authors’ specific attempts at representing certain historical atrocities, but they also raise two general questions: first, what is the role of representation in the face of historical violence? And second, how can representation of such violence accomplish the project of “rehabilitation”?

This essay is essentially a comparative analysis of La vie et demie, a novel by Congolese writer Sony Labou Tansi and Address Unknown, a film by South Korean director Kim Ki-Duk. This comparison may appear to be an arbitrary and counterintuitive project; La vie et demie and Address Unknown are narratives produced in different media and are separated historically, linguistically, and nationally. Despite these differences, both texts use representations of extreme violence in order to condemn instances of historical violence. In this essay, I will demonstrate how representations of extreme, corporeal violence can serve as a criticism of historical violence.6 But beyond the how, I also hope to address why such a mode of representation was chosen by each author and why, specifically with regards to violence, such a mode of representation is particularly effective.

The first section of my essay, “Eating and the Embodiment of Violence,” focuses on the way Address Unknown and La vie et demie represent eating as the avenue to all subsequent acts of violence. In turning the act of eating into an act of violence, these texts challenge conventional notions of violence and underscore the banality of violence in their universes. Yet eating also becomes the physical manifestation of the processes that show how violence is consumed, incorporated, and reproduced on the surface of the body. In this manner, the bodies of Address Unknown and La vie et demie act as semiotic surfaces where violence is rendered visible.

While eating demonstrates how violence is fabricated as an intrinsic component of individual and social bodies in Address Unknown and La vie et demie, the second section of my essay focuses on how violence continues to write and re-write these bodies. Throughout the course of Address Unknown and La vie et demie, means of self-expression—such as writing and language—are increasingly conflated with acts of physical violence. As language and writing become increasingly visceral, communication between characters is also reduced to the primal level of the body, the only common denominator left between humans as all traces of individual subjectivity are written out.

In each text, the breakdown of communication, or the inability to “read” and comprehend others, mirrors the breakdown of individual subjectivity in the face of historical violence. By the act of reading, La vie et demie and Address Unknown force the reader to become a spectator to the grotesque acts of violence they represent. Insofar as they acknowledge the readers of their representations, Sony Labou Tansi and Kim Ki-Duk question the ethics of representing violence, as well as the ethics of spectatorship. Ultimately, La vie et demie and Address Unknown end with the question of the spectator’s role once a representation ends and the fictional violence of representation is no longer fictional—of whether or not they will remain a spectator and thereby complicit to the deployment of violence. Sony Labou Tansi and Kim Ki-Duk resuscitate the bodies erased by historical violence in their texts; the decision to either finally recognize the bodies lost to history or erase them again is left to us.

Eating and the Embodiment of Violence

Eating seems like a peculiar point to begin a discussion about representations of extreme violence. Yet the instinctive dissonance in imagining eating as a form of violence is what allows La vie et demie and Address Unknown to interrogate conventionally held notions of violence. Before delving into specific examples from each text, it is worth spending some time on how this dissonance is due partly to the difficulty in precisely defining and identifying violence and partly to the mundane character of eating.

In Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, Slavoj Žižek divides violence into two specific types: subjective and objective. This subjective violence, “violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent,” has come to dominate our conventional definition of violence so that “the obvious signals of violence are acts of crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict.”7 The mindset that an act can be considered violent only if it can be traced back to a single entity is precisely the mindset that obscures objective violence, the invisible violence that enables subjective acts of violence to occur in the first place:

The catch is that subjective and objective violence cannot be perceived from the same standpoint: subjective violence is experienced as such against the background of a non-violent zero level. It is seen as a perturbation of the ‘normal’ state of things. However, objective violence is precisely the violence inherent to this ‘normal’ state of things. Objective violence is invisible since it sustains the very zero-level standard against which we perceive something as subjectively violent.8

The extreme, corporeal nature of the violence in La vie et demie and Address Unknown—arbitrary executions of anyone who disagrees with Le Guide Providentiel, cutting off a tattoo with a pocket knife— seems to be at odds with Žižek’s definition of objective violence as invisible. Yet in the universe of these texts, these highly visible acts are considered to be this “zero-level standard” or the “normal state of things.”

La vie et demie and Address Unknown’s gesture of introducing violence within the framework of eating helps us understand how such grotesque acts of violence could ever become normalized. As a basic biological impulse that is required for sustaining life, eating has the same invisible, background quality that is typically seen in objective violence. But the act of eating is also typically thought of as an act of creation:

At its most modest, man’s recreation of himself occurs in his activity of providing himself with sustenance to renew his body each day. The activity of eating, regarded as an exclusively natural process when initiated and controlled by animal instinct, becomes its entry into human consciousness the starting place of self-artifice, the first occasion of man’s assumption of his responsibility for his own making and remaking.9

In the following sections, I will discuss how the analogous relationship between eating and violence in La vie et demie and Address Unknown associates the normally banal and quotidian nature of eating with acts of violence. The horror and distance associated with subjective acts of violence disappear as violence is continuously made and re-made in the universe of these texts. And like eating, violence unfolds on the level of the body, making abhorrent acts of violence visible for all to see. Yet the most notable aspect of these texts’ representations of eating is the complete erasure of any boundaries separating violence from eating, eventually collapsing the two into the act of cannibalism. To eat, then, is to also commit an act of violence, distorting the way violent actions can be categorized according to Žižek. Cannibalism emphasizes the destructive nature of human relationships in La vie et demie and Address Unknown, but as the form of eating that has historically been associated with “savages” or “barbarians,”10 cannibalism also points out the tendency to attribute violence on an easily identifiable figure, usually the figure of the Other. Yet the texts’ portrayals of cannibalism are disconcerting precisely because there is no effort by either author to excuse cannibalism as the behavior of the Other. In order to understand the complexity of these representations of violence, it is first necessary to understand how violence could become so deeply woven into the fabric of society—how the violence committed by a single body is perpetuated and enabled by an entire social body.

Dog-Eat-Dog World: The Destructiveness of the kijich’on in Address Unknown

One of the most controversial aspects of Address Unknown is the way it freely depicts the consumption of dog meat in South Korea, openly showing how dogs are bred, captured, beaten, butchered, and cooked. Eating dog meat is a practice that has a long history in Korea, originating during the era of Samkung (Three Kingdoms, 57 BC to AD 676),11 but it has only recently become an ethical issue between South Korea and the rest of the world. During the 1988 Olympics, which were hosted in Seoul, the South Korean government banned all dog restaurants in order to “avoid offending the sensibilities and palates of visitors.”12 The subject came up again when South Korea was selected to host the FIFA World Cup in 2002, when FIFA called on South Korea to stop the mistreatment and eating of dogs, as FIFA President at the time Sepp Blatter said, “the issue was harming the country’s international image ahead of next year’s World Cup.”13 FIFA’s statement was the result of receiving numerous protests from animal rights’ activists, perhaps the most famous among them being the actress Brigitte Bardot, who, several months before the 2002 World Cup, told a Korean radio interviewer: “Cows are grown to be eaten, dogs are not. I accept that many people eat beef, but a cultured country does not allow its people to eat dogs.”14 While Bardot’s statement cannot be generalized to apply to all the protestors, it does reflect a general mindset where violence is associated with not being cultured—with being the barbaric figure of the Other.

Address Unknown (2001) was thus released in the midst of renewed complaints and protests against what was perceived by the Western world as the inhumane and cruel treatment of dogs in South Korea. Rather than shying away from the issue, Address Unknown blatantly and unabashedly depicts dogs being captured, beaten, butchered, and consumed by the villagers in the kijich’on. While dogs are not the sole source of food in the kijich’on, the film certainly seems to give that impression,15 as nearly all instances of eating in the film consist of eating dog meat. Yet the reductionist and ethnocentric view that eating dog meat is “barbaric”16 is complicated by the film’s varied depictions of dogs. While dogs are most prominently featured in scenes involving their butchering and consumption as food, they are also shown as random strays left free to roam the kijich’on and as beloved pets.

The symbolic complexity of dogs in the kijich’on is best exemplified by the two insert shots at the beginning of the film. Address Unknown does not begin with any kind of establishing, but with a black screen depicting the sentence “No animal was harmed in any way during the making of this film” (see figure 1). The scene right after is a brief flashback that shows how Eun-ok first injured her eye during a childhood accident, which then turns into the title screen. As the only scene that takes place outside the timeline of the film’s central narrative, the flashback functions more as an interlude in the film than the opening scene. The establishing shot finally comes after the title screen, showing a field in the rural kijich’on with subtitles that denote the specific time the film’s narrative takes place.

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-2-28-44-amFigure 1

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-2-29-07-amFigure 2: The establishing shot of Address Unknown. The subtitle reads “Fall 1970.”

The content and chronological placement of these two shots seem to disconnect them from the rest of the film. They do not represent any of the film’s characters or show any kind of action— instead, they are the film’s only expository moments, reinforced by the use of text in these shots. While the two shots may both be expository, intended to provide background information or explanation to the film, the explanations provided by each shot seem to contradict each other. The first screen, telling the viewer that “No animal was harmed in the making of this film,” seems to be a kind of reassurance, or even a warning, to the viewer that all the images in the film are just that—mere images and thus works of fiction. However, the second screen frames the film within a specific sociohistorical context—in rural South Korea in the fall of 1970. The setting thereby evokes inevitable associations with the militaristic regime of President Park Chung-hee and the kijich’on.17

These expository shots raise the question of how to read the film—as a pure work of fiction or as a fiction “based on a historical reality”18—but with specific reference to Address Unknown’s portrayal of dogs. The first screen anticipates the audience reaction to seeing images of dogs being captured, beaten, hung, and cooked into meals that are served at restaurants all around the kijich’on. But this screen comes at the very beginning of the film, before any scenes of violence towards animals are shown.19 In this manner, the “No animal was harmed” screen serves to inoculate the viewer from the violence that is to come, but its form reveals that it was intended to inoculate a specific kind of viewer. The screen is written entirely in English with no Korean subtitles because it was only included in cuts of the film intended for distribution outside of South Korea, to be seen then by non-Koreans. The decision to include a disclaimer solely for European/Western audiences anticipates the cultural difference between these audiences and South Korean ones. To some extent, it also demonstrates that Kim Ki-Duk was aware of the criticism the film would draw for its representations of the violence involved in dog butchering and consumption. Thus the same audience that labeled South Koreans as barbaric for eating dogs is made to watch this very practice in extreme, grotesque detail.

However, to say that Address Unknown is simply the director’s way of forcing Western audiences to accept South Korean customs is also reductionist. The second screen, the establishing shot that gives the film’s setting, is accompanied by orchestral music that is abruptly interrupted by the sound of a dog’s bark. Visually, there is not a single dog present anywhere in the shot. But the incorporation of the dog’s bark in this shot demonstrates the crucial role of dogs in understanding the setting of the kijich’on; dogs are as much part of the film’s setting as the specific year, time, and place. In fact, dogs seem to be as much as part of the landscape as the endless fields and trees that make up the kijich’on. The centrality of dogs to the film’s overall milieu challenges the notion that dogs are only ever food for South Koreans. Instead, the film is interspersed with random scenes showing dogs walking or sitting on the road as the characters walk by. In addition, the inclusion of Eun-ok’s pet dog further problematizes the Western stereotypes held about eating dogs in South Korea. Like most Western audiences, South Koreans are capable of having dogs as beloved companions.

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-2-29-50-amFigure 3

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-2-30-09-amFigure 4

This complicated portrayal of dogs neither justifies dog-meat consumption nor denounces it. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that dogs are most frequently shown in scenes related directly to the practice of eating dog meat. These scenes ultimately show that Address Unknown represents dogs mostly to form a commentary on humans, showing how violence is the thread that ties together dogs, humans, and eating. In one of the movie’s first scenes, Chang-guk is brought to the dog-farm20 by his mother’s boyfriend, a character who goes by the name “Dog-eye.” Dog-eye tries to teach Chang-guk the trade (presumably as a favor to Chang-guk’s mother), which entails stuffing the dog into a cage, bringing it to the woods, stringing it up, and then beating it to death (see figure 5). The next scenes show Dog-eye taking the dog’s corpse and butchering it, preparing it into slabs of meat ready to be cooked and eaten. The sequence finally ends by cutting to a scene at a restaurant that serves bosintang [보신탕],21 a stew made with dog meat (see figure 6).

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-2-30-26-amFigure 5

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-2-30-34-amFigure 6

This blatant depiction of animal cruelty pushes us, as the audience, to reconsider instances of “human cruelty” throughout the film. One of the film’s earliest scenes consists of Chang-guk relentlessly beating his own mother, proving that he is no stranger to violence nor incapable of using it. Yet when he is ordered by Dog-eye to beat the dog, his hesitation and distress are clearly evident. His reluctance is so apparent that Dog-eye angrily pushes him away, calling him a “fucking moron,” and takes over to finish the job. Even then, as Dog-eye is beating the dog to death, the camera cuts away to Chang-guk’s face, showing him cringing and turning away from the sight of the dog in pain (see figure 7). The juxtaposition of the ease with which Chang-guk beats his own mother and his hesitation in beating the dog seems contradictory.

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-2-30-55-amFigure 7

Chang-guk’s hesitation and sympathy with the dog cannot be read as the film’s criticism of the practice. In another scene that deliberately parallels this initial encounter, Chang-guk is again brought to the woods by Dog-eye to beat and butcher the dog. In this second instance, Chang-guk is first beaten, goaded, insulted, and threatened by Dog-eye who calls him “worthless.” Angered by this abuse, Chang-guk grabs the bat from Dog-eye and relentlessly and furiously beats the dog, to the point where Dog-eye has to restrain him, telling him that he will “ruin the meat.” The violent, almost ecstatic, portrayal of Chang-guk attacking the dog prevents us from viewing these representations of violence as sympathy towards the animals and disdain for the humans. Rather, Chang-guk’s treatment of his mother and the dogs implies the universality of violence in the kijich’on.

The universal character of violence is further emphasized by the conversation that takes place after this scene between Dog-eye and Chang-guk, when Dog-eye gives Chang-guk what essentially amounts to “career advice”: “To be a dog dealer, you gotta outstare them! You know why dogs look away from me? Because there’s fire in my eyes. When a dog looks straight at you it’s scary right? You know what the scariest eyeball of them all is? It’s the human eye.” Dog-eye’s words reveal the relationship between humans and dogs in the film: the relationship between the human and the dog in the kijich’on is one of dominance and subordination, predicated on the act of looking and out-staring the other. Dog-eye’s name can then be traced back to his ability to out-stare dogs and thereby overpower them. In his essay “Ethics and Spectatorship in the Global Economy,” Steve Choe takes this relationship one step further by saying that in Dog-eye’s words:

We recognize the Hegelian battle for recognition and the mutually exclusive, either/or relationality it fosters, but what is even more fascinating is the appropriation of the human-dog relationship. Dog-eye takes great pride in the mastery he has achieved over the canine solely by means of the human gaze… this rhetoric effectively maps the human-dog relation onto that of the master-slave, constantly posing the question of which characters constitute the dogs and which their human masters.22

It is no coincidence that Dog-eye immediately afterwards challenges Chang-guk to “Look at me like Dog-eye!” The following series of shots is composed of close-ups of Chang-guk and Dog-eye’s faces, but only shows one face at a time. The back-and-forth counter shots, going from Chang-guk’s face to Dog-eye’s and then back, mimic this idea of looking one another in the eye. The initial close-up of Chang-guk’s face, after Dog-eye challenges him, shows Chang-guk unable to meet Dog-eye’s gaze and looking at the ground. Satisfied that he has out-stared Chang-guk, Dog-eye uses the moment to berate Chang-guk for beating his own mother, reminding Chang-guk that “she may be your mom, but she’s my girlfriend!” All of a sudden, Chang-guk looks up and stares at Dog-eye. The shot turns back to Dog-eye, who cannot maintain this gaze and remarks, “Stop looking at me. My eye’s about to explode!” The exchange reinforces the notion that relationships between two humans cannot exist in the kijich’on; there is only the relationship between the human master and the subordinate dog.


But the mise-en-scène of the exchange between Chang-guk and Dog-eye also forces the audience to similarly experience the inability to meet another’s gaze, this time between the audience and the characters in the film as the close-up shots seem to show each character staring back out from the screen. As Choe phrases it, “the face-to-face relation in the encounter between Dog-eye and Chang-guk is reiterated as an encounter between cinema and spectator that poses the question of what it means to look ethnically, or, what it means to look so as to allow the otherness of the other to appear.”23 Choe sees the otherness of the film primarily as the representations of violence towards dogs and their consumption as food. Yet seeing the treatment of dogs as the film’s principal representation of violence towards the Other stops us from seeing how this violence towards dogs is indicative of a deeper violence between humans in the film and the self-destructive nature of this violence. Choe’s essay also points out that this master-slave relationship is determined entirely by looking, or the gaze. To be more precise, it is the inherent inequality of looking that creates this unequal power relationship. Chang-guk, because of his skin color, is automatically designated as the object to be looked at, the “dog” in the figurative relationship mentioned by Choe.24 Dog-eye, because he (and the rest of the kijich’on villagers) has the power to look at him, but not be looked at—because he “out-stares” Chang-guk—is therefore granted the role of the “master.” This looking takes place on the body’s surface and the fact that nobody seems to be able to meet each other’s eyes, to look at each other equally, further reinforces that any (in)sight into others is strictly limited to their outer appearance.

In a final variation of the dog-beating scene, Chang-guk, unable to bear Dog-eye’s abuse any longer, ties him up and brings him to the same location where the two of them previously strung up and beat the dogs to death. Chang-guk places the noose over Dog-eyes head and hangs him. He leaves Dog-eye’s dead body hanging from the noose and in a final act of defiance, frees all the dogs on Dog-eye’s farm from their cages.


The manner in which we see dogs treated in the film is strikingly brutal and cruel—dog-butchering renders them into meat to be consumed and used by others. In many instances, dogs and humans seem interchangeable; in one scene, Chang-guk is stuffed into the cage on the back of Dog-eye’s motorcycle, the same cage in which Dog-eye places the dogs he transports to be butchered. And of course, the last scene that shows Dog-eye being strung up in the same way he strung up his own dogs is an unmistakable instance where dogs and humans are transposed. While the scene where Dog-eye is strung up may seem like an instance of well-deserved karmic payback, the events in the rest of the film prevent us from reading it as a justified form of revenge. Shortly after this scene, Chang-guk, while riding Dog-eye’s stolen motorcycle, crashes and dies in a field. His body is buried and frozen under a pile of snow, only to be discovered by his mother and Chi-hum some time later. Chang-guk’s storyline effectively ends with his mother digging his frozen body up and dragging him back to their trailer. By now, his mother has descended into a state of psychosis and the film depicts her chewing mindlessly—the assumption being that she is eating her dead son’s body.25 Shortly afterwards, she takes old Polaroid pictures of Chang-guk and uses them to start a fire in an act of self-immolation.

The complicated relationship between Chang-guk and his mother is indicative of a deeper ambivalence towards the character of Chang-guk as a whole. On one hand, the film frequently depicts Chang-guk being verbally and physically abused for no apparent reason other than his skin color. On the other, Chang-guk himself is often the perpetrator of such senseless acts of violence, yelling and beating his mother, culminating in a scene where he cuts a tattoo of his mother’s breast with a pocket-knife. Rather than acting as the character to invoke sympathy or compassion, Chang-guk’s role in the film seems to be the perpetual figure of the “other”—to re-orient the audience’s gaze and make them aware of how the other is treated within society. The film begins and ends with an act of eating—first with dogs as food, and finally with the cannibalization of Chang-guk by his own mother. The repetitions of the scenes that detail the butchering of dogs are in effect, condensed episodes of violence that reflect the cycle of violence Chang-guk is subjected to throughout the film. Chang-guk is treated no better than the dogs in the film—he is beaten, abused, and in the end, even eaten like the dogs in the film. The most disturbing part of using eating as the primary mechanism to introduce violence is the simplicity it attaches to violence and its deployment. There are no extreme villains or evil figures to whom violence can be attributed. Violence is used by and inflicted equally among all the residents in the kijich’on. Like eating, violence is a fact of life in the kijich’on that everyone seems to partake in.

“Je suis carnassier”:26 The Consumption of the Dictatorship in La vie et demie

As in Address Unknown, the general function of eating in La vie et demie is to underline the quotidian nature of violence in the text’s universe. As we have also seen in Address Unknown, eating becomes a metaphor for the consumptive relationship between people in a society where violence has become normalized. While Address Unknown portrayed all the characters in the kijich’on as complicit in the production and transmission of violence, La vie et demie centralizes the destructive and consumptive nature of violence in the relationship between the dictator and his people.

Representations of the relationship between The Providential Guide (and his successors) and his subjects in La vie et demie exemplify the figuration of bodies as either agents or recipients of violence within texts. Historically, the dictator, with his absolute authority, becomes the sole person that decides truth and meaning for the rest of his state:

Postcoloniality could be seen behind the façade of a polity in which the state considered itself simultaneously as indistinguishable from society and as the upholder of the law and keeper of the truth. The truth was embodied in a single person, the president. He alone controlled the law, and he could, on his own, grant or abolish liberties—since these are, after all malleable.27

Mbembe’s analysis identifies the truth in the body of a single person, the president, but this double sense of the word body does not just stop at the president. In the same way that the physical body of the president becomes associated with the abstract notion of truth or the law, the nation is distilled into a single body; that is, the individual bodies within the nation are reduced to a single social body. But it is this reduction of numerous individuals into a single collective that permits the dictator’s ability to act as the figure that eliminates any dissenting voices or views in order to maintain and impose his own meaning on the rest of the nation. The capacity to determine “truth” is largely the result of erasing subjectivity, or erasing the individual bodies of
the nation until they become indistinguishable from one another in a collective body. In this manner, the dictatorship is seen as the figurative consumption of the people that comprise the state. In the dictator’s determination to hold on to his authority and pursue his own interests, the dictator uses the political body that he rules over. This consumption can take many forms, such as the embezzlement of funds from the country, control over media and censorship, but regardless of its form, consumption is an action that only benefits the dictator at the people’s expense.

In La vie et demie, Sony Labou Tansi takes this notion of the dictator one step further by literally turning the dictator into a cannibal that eats his subjects. La vie et demie begins with Le Guide Providentiel, the ruler of the fictional African state of Katalamansie, about to execute Martial, the leader of a rebel movement. Yet the author’s description of this scene makes it impossible to view it as a mere killing—it is a brutal, visceral slaughtering: “Le Guide Providentiel se facha pour de bon avec son sabre aux reflets d’or il se mit à tailler à coups aveugles le haut du corps de la loque-père; il démantela le thorax, puis les épaules, le cou, la tête”28 [The Providential Guide became angry and with his gold saber, he blindly cut away the upper body of the wretched-father; he dismantled the thorax, then the shoulders, the neck, the head].29

The execution of Martial is arguably political in that he is executed for being a threat to the political power. Yet the dictator’s use of violence is never confined to the political sphere and pervades every single aspect of quotidian life. Violence does not stop with the physical death of Martial’s body; Le Guide Providentiel then proceeds to order Martial cooked and prepared for the next day’s meal: “Il ordonna qu’on vint prendre la termitière et qu’on en fit moitié du pâté et moitié un daube bien cuisiné pour le repas du lendemain midi” [He ordered them to take the termite mound and make half of it into a pâté and half of it into a stew for the next afternoon-day’s meal].30 The dehumanization of Martial further continues; he is no longer described as even a body, but is referred to as a “termite mound” that is to be turned into the next day’s meal. In this sense, violence as used by the dictator is a transformative force—turning the individual into objects for the dictator’s consumption. More precisely, violence is a negating force, one that is used by the dictator to negate individual subjectivity.

The conflation of violence with the act of eating underlines the quotidian, banal nature of violence in the imaginary universe of La vie et demie. In ordering Martial to be cooked into a meal, the dictator uses violence in preparing food. Yet Le Guide Providentiel proceeds to force Martial’s children to eat the meal made with his father’s body so that violence permeates the act of eating as well. When Jules, the oldest child, refuses to eat, Le Guide Providentiel simply smiles and stabs him in the throat, continuing the meal as Jules’s corpse soaks in its own blood at the table.31 I earlier introduced Elaine Scarry’s definition of eating as “the first occasion of man’s assumption of his responsibility for his own making and remaking.”32 But in La vie et demie, the individual no longer has the right to freely eat. Thus the violent appropriation over an individual’s right to freely eat can be seen as a violent appropriation over the individual’s very life. However, the connection between eating and violence also problematizes defining violence in these texts as solely a physical, corporeal force. The forced cannibalization of one’s father is undoubtedly gruesome, but it is the language used to construct this scene that makes it particularly foreboding. The act of killing Jules comes naturally and is done “simplement” [simply], causing absolutely no disruption to the meal. While the death of Martial is undeniably violent, the subsequent scenes of eating—while gruesome and abhorrent—are not necessarily violent actions in themselves. These scenes of eating are violent not because violence is directly inflicted upon any of the children, but because the act of eating is forced and coerced by the dictator. Essentially, with the threat of death hanging over them, the children lose autonomy over their own bodies as they are faced with the choice of cannibalism or death.

Le Guide Providentiel’s control over their eating is perhaps the ultimate expression of authoritarian power as defined by Achille Mbembe: “to exercise authority, is above all, to tire out the bodies of those under it, to disempower them not so much to increase their productivity as to ensure the maximum docility.”33 Mbembe’s point about the productivity of bodies (or lack thereof) also highlights the sheer senselessness of this scene. Forcing Martial’s children to consume their own father has no discernible purpose or benefit to the dictator; he forces them simply to show that he can. In other words, the dictator’s use of violence has become so naturalized that violence is embedded into the framework of the state. What appears to us, the readers, as a monstrous act of violence is merely a fact of everyday life in La vie et demie’s universe. There is nobody that protests or questions Le Guide Providentiel’s orders, and anybody who refuses him is quickly silenced. The visible violence committed by an easily identifiable agent—the subjective violence defined by Žižek—is turned into the “normal,” or the “non—violent zero level” inherent to objective violence. Of course, calling objective violence in La vie et demie the “non-violent zero level” is misleading as violence is the zero level or the norm under Le Guide Providentiel’s rule.

The transformation of subjective violence into objective violence raises another problem with defining and identifying violence: Žižek defines objective violence as invisible, but it is clear that this is not the case in La vie et demie. The Providential Guide makes no attempt to conceal his use of violence, and his actions are visible to all. If the normally invisible objective violence is made visible, the question is then what makes it invisible? The answer comes later when Chaidana, warned by her father’s ghost, is told by the doctor that helps her escape: “C’est le pays, ma chère. Et le pays nous demande d’être forte dans l’acte de fermer les yeux” [It’s this country, my dear. And this country demands that we are adamant in the act of closing our eyes].34 The escalation of violence to the extent that it has been completely normalized is caused, in part, by the decision to “close one’s eyes”—to not see.

Thus life under Le Guide Providentiel’s rule seems to offer no viable form of escape or protest, at least not within the imaginary world of the novel. However, Chaidana and Tristana’s reactions to Le Guide Providentiel’s violence provide the possibility of undermining the apparent invincibility of Le Guide Providentiel:

Le soir du septième jour de viande, elles remplirent la salle d’un tapis de vomi d’un noir d’encre de Chine où le Guide Providentiel glissa et tomba, il salit le côté à gauche de son visage d’une tache indélébile, semblable à celle qu’il avait sur les mains, tache qu’il allait garder jusqu’au jours des obsèques nationales prévues par la Constitution, tache que les gens eurent bien raison d’appeler ‘noir de Martial.’

On the seventh night of [eating the] meat, they filled the room with a tapestry of vomit black as China ink, upon which the Providential Guide slipped and fell, leaving an indelible mark on the left side of his face, similar to the mark on his hands, a mark that he would keep until the days of the state funeral foretold by the Constitution, a mark that the people had good reason to name ‘the black of Martial.’35

Here, by having the dictator trip and fall, Sony Labou Tansi undercuts the figure of the all-powerful dictator by the act of fictional representation. For Lydie Moudileno, this is why it is so important to read La vie et demie as a fable: “as soon as the tyrant is made into a character in the tale, he immediately loses the exclusiveness of authority by becoming the subject of an author who can now have him suffer the whims of his imagination. Displacing the tyrant into the narrative space therefore appears as the first reversal of power.”36 The subjection of the dictator to the “whims” of the author’s imagination is a particularly powerful form of critique because of the way the dictator’s power is constructed and exercised. According to Mbembe, the dictator’s power is formed “by taking over the signs and language of officialdom, so that they have been able to remythologize their conceptual universe while, in the process, turning the commandement into a sort of zombie.”37 Essentially, the dictator is involved with the project of myth-making in which he is the ultimate determinant of meaning and “truth”—a project that largely depends on maintaining the notion that he is somehow superior to any of the other bodies in the nation. By daring to represent the dictator, the author undermines this myth and treats the dictator like any other subject matter. The same way that dictators control the “signs and language of officialdom” to determine meaning, Sony Labou Tansi controls the signs and language of his novel in order to frame the dictator in a conceptual universe that is no longer determined by the dictator.

This scene also criticizes a specific aspect of the dictator—that is, his use of physical violence as a tool to maintain his power. At first, Chaidana and Tristana’s fulfillment of Le Guide Providentiel’s demand seems like an affirmation of his authoritarian power. However, immediately upon completion of this act, they vomit up the entire contents of what they just ate. It is on this very vomit that The Providential Guide slips and falls and permanently marks his body, exemplifying the manner in which “in the postcolony the search for majesty and prestige contains within it elements of crudeness and the bizarre that the official order tries hard to hide, but that ordinary people bring to its attention, often unwittingly.”38 The automatic, visceral rejection of force, seen through the act of vomiting, also echoes the “unwitting” manner in which the “ordinary people” point out the absurdity of the dictator. What began as The Providential Guide’s demonstration of power ultimately ends up as the very reason we see the ridiculousness of his bases for authority.

Yet the dictator’s power is not just undermined by the unwitting acts of others. The “tache indélébile” [indelible mark] demonstrates that the dictator’s demise is the direct result of his own actions. This stain is the blood of Martial’s corpse, so his murder literally stains the dictator’s hands and face. The permanence and visibility of this mark suggest the inescapable consequences of using violence in such a manner—that it is impossible to use violence without leaving some sort of mark. But as a permanent stain on his face, the mark also points out the dictator’s dependence on visibility and sight to maintain his power—a dependence that Mbembe defines as the “baroque character of the postcolony; its unusual and grotesque art of representation, its taste for the theatrical, and its violent pursuit of wrongdoing to the point of shamelessness.”39 The “postcolonial dramaturgy”40 is the result of all the extravagant displays of power by the dictator—parades, countless ceremonies, laws that demanded effigies of the state in or around people’s houses—that forced the people to see the dictator’s power.

The permanence and visibility of the stain undercut Le Guide Providentiel’s power by forcibly distorting the dictator’s representation of himself to his people, but the manner in which Sony Labou Tansi describes this stain also highlights the centrality of representation in determining relationships of power. As I have early pointed out, the stain is the result of Le Guide Providentiel’s own act of violence—he obtains it by slipping and falling on the vomited up body of Martial. Yet in this scene, the vomit is first described as “black as China ink” [d’un noir d’encre de Chine]. The transformation of the vomit into the more poetic description of the stain as “black as China ink” momentarily lets us forget about the gruesome origins of this stain. But the paragraph ends with the story of how this mark was named by the people as “the black of Martial,” serving as a reminder that the stain is actually the vomited-up remains of Martial’s cannibalized corpse. Sony Labou Tansi links the stain and Martial’s murder through the color black and its description, first describing it as vomit that is as “black as China ink,” and then describing it as the “black of Martial,” calling attention to the color of Martial’s skin and thus, his murdered body. The initial comparison of Martial’s chewed-up, half-digested body to “China ink” recalls the action of writing and representation. Thus the initial scene of La vie et demie is one of extreme, grotesque violence, but it also demonstrates how descriptions of violence can be transformed into the ink that allows stories to be written. La vie et demie portrays the act of writing in an ambivalent manner: on one hand, writing is what allows for the critique of the dictator, trapping him in a prison where he is subject to the author’s whims of imagination, but the very impetus for writing is the dictator’s violence. However, this conflation of writing, what is normally seen as a non-violent action, and corporeal violence points out the nuances of violence and the way it permeates all aspects of quotidian life. The ink used to write stories in La vie et demie may be from the bodies suppressed by the dictator, but it also writes these erased bodies back into the story, not allowing their voices to be erased despite the dictator’s violent attempts at erasing them.

Violently Reading: The Deconstruction of Bodies

La vie et demie and Address Unknown use eating as a way to physically manifest theways in which violence is produced, transmitted, and reproduced within the social body. Thus the violence of eating is the force that constructs the social body, but also the individual body. In this section, I will discuss how violence reduces communication between individuals in these texts to their only common denominator: the body. Over the course of Address Unknown and La vie et demie, bodies become increasingly like texts, turning into surfaces that can be read and gazed upon by others. Yet the increasing materiality of texts is paralleled by the increasing materiality of writing and reading until writing and reading become physical acts of violence as well. Reading the bodies of others becomes inherently violent by writing (or writing out) certain aspects of these bodies. If the body exists as a kind of textual surface in La vie et demie and Address Unknown, it is only so that it can be forcibly altered by others.


In the previous section, I discussed how Martial’s body was transformed into a stain on Le Guide Providentiel’s own body. The notion of Martial’s blood as “black China ink” that writes the stain on Le Guide Providentiel’s face for the entire nation to read establishes the body as a semiotic surface, but also shows how it is a semiotic surface that can be written on by others. The disturbing aspect of having bodies as texts in La vie et demie is the absolute lack of agency or control over one’s own body. Writing and other means of self-expression are increasingly conflated with violence so that ultimately, bodies are forcibly written by others and there is no room for individual subjectivity.

In La vie et demie, it is Martial’s body that incorporates eating and violence, and it is Martial’s body that also links writing and violence. Martial lives on after his death as the ink-stain on The Providential Guide’s face, but he also continues to reappear throughout the novel in the form of a ghost. He continuously revisits his daughter (and later in the novel, his great-great-granddaughter) to warn her “Il faut partir” [You must leave].42 Even though he cannot speak43, his refusal to completely disappear is a continuation of his dying words: “Je ne veux pas mourir cette mort [I do not want to die this death].44 His ghost may be the most explicit way in which he has “refused to die this death”—death dictated on The Providential Guide’s terms— but Martial’s last words also become a profound motto for the rebel forces. As the novel continues, Martial’s identity becomes increasingly conflated with his last words until they come to symbolize the same notion of rebellion. Martial’s body and Martial’s last words become interchangeable symbols, but they also become increasingly visceral symbols. Later in the novel, Chaidana, in memory of her father, recruits young men to write on all the doors of Yourma:

la célèbre phrase de son père: ‘Je ne veux pas mourir cette mort.’ Le beau bataillon de pistoletographes avait fonctionné à merveille : ils avaient pu écrire la phrase jusqu’au troisième portail des murs de palais excellentiel. Certains d’entre eux, les plus audacieux sans doute, avaient réussi à écrire la phrase sur le corps de quelques responsables militaires tels que le général Yang, le colonel Obaltana, le lieutenant-colonel Fursia et bien d’autres. Amedandio disait avoir écrit la phrase sur mille quatre-vingt-dix uniformes. 

the celebrated phrase of her father: ‘I do not want to die this death.’ The beautiful battalion of writer-shooters had worked wonderfully: they were able to write the phrase up to the third doorway of the Excellential Palace. A certain number of them, undoubtedly the most audacious, had succeeded in writing the phrase on the bodies of some military officials such as General Yang, Colonel Obaltana, Lieutenant Colonel Fursia, and many others. Amedandio had said to write the phrase on one-thousand-and-ninety uniforms.45

The insurgent army’s act of resistance is writing, but a form of writing that is strikingly corporeal. While the names of the military officials follow conventional military titles, such as “General,” “Colonel,” and “Lieutenant Colonel,” the members of the rebel force are called “pistoletographes” [writer-shooters]. The neologism coined by Sony Labou Tansi frames the act of writing as an act equivalent to shooting—a form of violence in itself. Writing Martial’s last words on the bodies of those working for The Providential Guide preserves Martial’s body despite Le Guide Providentiel’s attempts at erasing it.

However, the way in which Martial’s body is preserved through writing is problematic in that it also depends on forcibly writing on the bodies of others. La vie et demie’s portrayal of Martial problematizes the simple characterization of Le Guide Providentiel as “evil” and Martial as “good.” While Martial’s initial death may have hinted at setting him up as a martyr, Martial’s continual reappearance throughout the novel as a ghost prevents such a simple reading. Martial survives as a ghost, but he also survives symbolically through his last words “Je ne veux pas mourir cette mort” and as a symbol for the rebel forces. Yet even this survival is contingent upon the forcible seizure of others’ words and voices. Martial’s own devolution into using violence and force like Le Guide Providentiel is best seen through the character of his daughter, Chaidana. Chaidana, in many ways, keeps the memory of her father alive, but her own subjectivity is also often sacrificed for the sake of preserving her father’s memory. Apart from ordering les gens de Martial to write her father’s last words on the soldiers’ bodies, Chaidana also begins writing poetry: “elle composa des chansons, des cris, des histoires, des dates, des nombres, un véritable univers où le centre de gravité était la solitude de l’être” [she composed songs, cries, histories, dates, numbers, a veritable universe where the center of gravity was the solitude of being].46 Amedandio takes her writing and distributes them to the rebel army, “les Gens de Martial. Ainsi naquit la ‘littérature de Martial’ qu’on appelait aussi littérature de passe ou évangile de Martial. Les manuscrits circulaient clandestinement de main en main” [In this way, the ‘literature of Martial’ was born, which was also called the ‘literature of passwords’ or ‘the Gospel of Martial.’ The manuscripts circulated clandestinely from each person hand-to-hand].47

The name of Chaidana’s writing preserves the body of Martial in a curious way: by conflating the material text, the “body” of the writing, and the body of Martial, literature and writing become strikingly visceral and material. However, because it is Chaidana’s own writing, naming her work collectively as “la littérature de Martial” denigrates Chaidana’s own subjectivity and turns her into a mere instrument of her father and the insurgents. While Martial’s body is represented throughout the text in multiple ways (as a physical body, a ghost, a body of literature, a symbolic stain), Chaidana’s body—and by extension, Chaidana herself—is represented only to emphasize its physical beauty. Her physical body is undeniably acknowledged and celebrated, as she becomes known for her beauty “elle était déjà la plus belle fille du pays” [she was already the most beautiful girl in the country],48 but any readings of her body are opaque.

Shortly after the birth of “the literature of Martial,” Chaidana passes away without anyone else present. Unlike Martial, once Chaidana’s physical body dies, so does her presence. Chaidana’s instrumental status can perhaps best be captured by the words written on her tombstone: “J’ai été une sale parenthèse” [I have been a dirty parenthesis] as well as a line from her collection of poetry, “Moi, maintenant que tous les crus sont cuits?” [Me, now that all the raw are cooked?]49 Significantly, only these phrases and two dates are written on her tombstone—not even her name is written. If Martial’s body is an entire, complete book, Chaidana’s body is only a “dirty parenthesis”—something that is an afterthought or unneeded. For Martial’s body to be preserved as a work of literature, Chaidana’s body had to be turned into a parenthesis, something disposable. The second line inscribed on her tombstone is another reminder of the way Chaidana’s subjectivity was sacrificed for Martial’s memory to be preserved. In the attempt to keep the rebellion alive, les gens de Martial turned Chaidana into an ideological instrument. Yet after this ideology has been constructed, where then, is the individual? Although les gens de Martial are against Le Guide Providentiel’s dictatorship, neither can they be so easily classified as the heroes of the novel. They may not use physical violence to the extent that Le Guide Providentiel does, but les gens de Martial nevertheless erase individual subjectivity for the sake of their own plans and purposes in the same way as Le Guide Providentiel.

The Eye of Violence50

The second most frequently occurring motif in Address Unknown (the first being dogs) is the eye. In the last section, I briefly mentioned Address Unknown’s opening scene—a flashback that shows Eun-ok as a child accidentally getting shot in the eye by a toy gun while playing with her brother. This eye injury is central to Eun-ok’s character development and storyline in the film. As a visible scar, the injury renders Eun-ok into a kind of spectacle for the rest of the villagers. Like the color of Chang-guk’s skin, Eun-ok’s damaged eye also acts as a visible sign that marks her outsider status in the kijich’on.

However, Eun-ok arguably occupies the most curious role throughout Address Unknown, because she is the most explicit reminder of the film’s self-reflexive character. Like the other bodies in Address Unknown, Eun-ok’s body is also a semiotic surface, able to be read and gazed upon like a text. However, Chang-guk’s and his mother bodies, the other bodies I have discussed in this essay, are read as reminders of the film’s sociohistorical context. The color of Chang-guk’s skin is a perpetual sign to all the kijich’on villagers that he is not fully Korean, that he is a “half-breed” compared to their presumably “pure-breed” status, and that he is the son of a prostitute. Chang-guk’s mother can pass as Korean, but she has a tattoo on her breast given to her by Chang-guk’s father, an African American service member who has since abandoned them. The tattoo, which she does not bother to cover up, brands her as a former prostitute, but worse, in the villagers’ eyes, as an unashamed prostitute who has betrayed her home country. Within this spectrum, Eun-ok seems to be the body that does not really fit with the others; her eye injury was not the result of any sociohistorical conditions of neocolonialism, but is merely the product of a childhood accident.

In fact, apart from her disfigured eye, Eun-ok is, in every other way, an ordinary South Korean village girl. Nevertheless, no amount of conformist behavior can erase the disfiguration of her eye and her injury dominates her characterization. In the film, Eun-ok purposely wears her bangs so that they cover her injured eye, but even when it is not visible, her eye completely dominates how other people see her. In one of the film’s earlier scenes, a group of little kids sneak up behind Eun-ok in order to try and get a glimpse of her usually hidden eye. Angered, Eun-ok chases after them as they try to run away. She grabs the ringleader of the group and forces him to look straight at her, demanding “You want to become like me too?!”

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-2-31-49-amFigure 8

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The fact that the young boy starts to cry when he is forced to look directly at Eun-ok’s eye raises an important point about the eye’s relation to film. In her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Carol Clover discusses the ubiquity of the “screen eye”— individual shots of eyes in the film, the mention of eyes in the title of the film—in the horror film as a formal element that allows horror films to “introduce a narrative that necessarily turns on problems of vision—seeing too little (to the point of blindness) or seeing too much (to the point of insanity)—and insofar as its scary project is to tease, confuse, block, and threaten the spectator’s own vision.”51 While Address Unknown is not a conventional horror film, it shares many of the generic conventions that have come to characterize the horror film genre: first, its extreme violence and second, the prevalence of the “screen eye.”52 However, the screen eye in Address Unknown is never just an eye—while the eye of horror is “not the eye that kills, but that eye that is ‘killed’”, the eye of violence seems to be the eye that is damaged, but also damages others through the act of looking. The difference in the violent eye is that the damage done through looking seems to be reciprocal. While the eye of horror clearly designates a killer and a victim, the little boy’s reaction at being forced to look at Eun-ok’s eye indicates that her gaze is potentially just as violent as those looking at her.

Eun-ok’s relationship with James, the American soldier at the military base next to the kijich’on, helps us understand this double sense of the eye and thus, the double sense of looking. In one scene, James and Eun-ok look at some of his American magazines together. Commanding her to “look at me,” he peruses the magazine and tears out the eye from the model’s face in the advertisement. He then places it over her damaged eye and remarks “Wow! With a normal eye you’d be a shoo-in for Miss America. Do you want eye surgery?” Eun-ok timidly nods and James boasts about how this is easy for the American military hospital. But we quickly see that this offer is not out of sheer kindness as he asks right after, “If I help you, will you be my sweetheart?” Eun-ok, still hesitant, asks if he can really fix her eye and he responds with a confident, “You bet!” His confidence is enough to convince her and she nods, giving her consent to be his “sweetheart” in exchange for receiving surgery.

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-2-32-28-amFigure 10

The exchange between Eun-ok and James highlights how a person’s body is constructed by the gaze of others and how this gaze can also be a form of violence. Importantly, Eun-ok’s eye does not seem to cause her any undue discomfort or pain or prevent her from living her life. As James’ comment indicates, the main problem that Eun-ok seems to have with her eye is that it is not a “normal eye”—her eye is the only thing keeping her from achieving normalcy in the eyes of others. But her eye is also the avenue for others to control her: James commands her to look at him and then, without asking for permission or with any warning, he pushes her bangs back and places the magazine eye over her damaged one. In this entire sequence, James does not once stop and ask for Eun-ok’s consent, permission, or opinion. If Eun-ok’s body is a text, it is a text that can be manipulated or written on by others. The juxtaposition of the paper magazine eye on Eun-ok’s own face also demonstrates how bodies become increasingly conflated with physical texts in Address Unknown, but it also demonstrates the way Eun-ok’s body is, like a magazine, turned into an object and commodity for others to use and read.

Eun-ok’s timidity and hesitation around James make her true feelings about the surgery unclear. However, the scene afterwards depicts Eun-ok alone, gazing into the river at her reflection: first, with her hair covering her eye and then, uncovered to show her still wearing the magazine picture cut-out over it.

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The mise-en-scène of Eun-ok gazing at her reflection copies the mise-en-scène of the moment where Dog-eye challenges Chang-guk to look at him.53 Like the scene between Dog-eye and Chang-guk, this moment of looking between Eun-ok and her reflection is constructed so that only one face is depicted in the shot—either Eun-ok’s reflection or her face. The scene’s similarity to the earlier exchange between Dog-eye and Chang-guk is also reinforced by the counter-shots of each face’s close-up; the shot goes from Eun-ok’s reflection and then quickly cuts back to Eun-ok. While the face-to-face encounter between Dog-eye and Chang-guk mapped the human-dog relationship onto their own, Eun-ok’s own “face-to-face” moment is complicated by the fact that she is looking at her reflection. The composition of the shots showing Eun-ok gazing at her reflection invariably split her identity, but who, then, is the “human master” and who is the “dog slave”? With the previous scenes, the presence of another person (James, the children) meant that Eun-ok’s status as an outsider could be attributed to other people’s perceptions. In this scene, however, there is no other person looking at Eun-ok and in looking at her reflection with the magazine eye, it is clear that she is entranced and mesmerized by this image of herself with a “normal” eye. Even with the possibility of having her appearance corrected, Eun-ok’s self-reflexive gaze suggests that other people’s readings of her have permanently caused her own conception of herself to fragment. Thus, we see how in Address Unknown, “looking” is never an innocent activity; reading or the gaze of others is always a violent activity that forcibly shapes and affects the text that is being gazed upon.

This implication that the disfiguration of Eun-ok’s eye runs far deeper than the body’s surface proves to be true when she undergoes the surgery and it is declared to be a “success.” Her surgery proves to be successful and she finally has the “normal” eye that she has so desperately longed for. Even the “cost” of this surgery— becoming James’ sweetheart—does not seem to be a burden as she seems to develop feelings and a kind of affection for him. The possibility of a happy ending is effectively dispelled towards the end of the film as James, who is addicted to LSD and increasingly losing his sanity, starts becoming paranoid and believes Eun-ok is going to leave him. He confronts her about her feelings for another boy, Chi-hum, and despite her attempts to placate him, he grabs his pocket-knife and tries to carve his name onto her body. Eun-ok manages to grab the knife away from him, but she does not attack James. Instead, finally coming to terms with the full weight of the strings tied to accepting his “gift” of surgery, Eun-ok takes the knife and stabs herself in her newly restored eye, causing James to look at her with horror and run away.

In Hye Seung Chung’s essay, “Beyond Extreme: Rereading Kim Ki-Duk’s Cinema of Ressentiment,” the eye’s “postcolonial significance cannot be overemphasized.”54 She reads the relationship between James and Eun-ok as an allegory for the relationship between South Korea and the United States, particularly in the context of the kijich’on, essentially reducing their relationship to that of the neocolonial abuser (James) and the subaltern woman (Eun-ok).55 Thus, in this scene, Chung believes that her

eye-knifing is a symbolic act of ‘speaking back’ to the cruelty of the physical and mental violence committed by US military personnel against countless Korean women during and after the Korean War. James can finally see the atrocious nature of his own violence when Eun-ok fearlessly exhibits its mechanism, using her own eye as the target. Only then does he cower and turn away from his victim in shame.56

While I agree with Chung’s contextualization of the scene in real historical conditions, her sole emphasis on the “postcolonial” aspect of this scene prevents a thorough and complete reading. In reducing the relationship to that between the “neocolonial abuser and the subaltern woman,” the self-inflicted wound is read by Chung as an act of resistance, agency, and strength. Yet this ignores the personal cost of such an action on Eun-ok’s part. Tragically, she has ended up right back where she was at the beginning of the film— arguably even worse as her now-injured eye bears no hope of ever being restored again. To say that she “fearlessly exhibits its mechanism” also seems to imply that there is some kind of pleasure or strength that Eun-ok finds in committing such an act. However, when watching the scene, we can clearly see Eun-ok’s hesitation and reluctance as she brings the knife closer to her eye. She does not stab herself in the eye because she wants to or because she wants to show James the atrocious way the U. S. military treats Korean women; she tabs herself because she must. The restoration of her eye keeps her permanently indebted to James and it is only in this brutal act of self-inflicted violence that she can extract herself from her subjugated relationship with him.

It is also crucial to remember that the initial damage to her eye is not directly linked to the American military whatsoever; the flashback at the beginning shows that it was her brother who first shot her in an accident. In addition, her own intense desire to have the surgery in the first place cannot be ignored. In an earlier scene when Chi-hum tries to convince her not to get the surgery, Eun-ok replies, “You want me to spend the rest of my life only half-living? Does this look okay to you? Tell me the truth! Can you smile at this confidently for the rest of your life? Can you?!” Chi-hum, instead of reassuring her, simply falls silent and looks away, unable to answer. Interestingly, it echoes James’ own reaction to Eun-ok stabbing herself in the eye—they both turn away and cannot look at her directly—and the similarities between James’ and Chi-hum’s reactions further problematize Chung’s reading as Chi-hum cannot also be defined as the “neocolonial abuser.”

Instead, the parallels between these two moments can be understood in the idea of looking and the importance it plays in the interactions between the characters. Both these scenes with Eun-ok can then be linked as moments when Eun-ok reclaims her agency by being able to control another’s sight. Normally, she deliberately wears her hair in a style to hide her damaged eye. When Chi-hum begs her not to get the surgery, she pulls her hair back and forces him to look at her eye directly. His turning away seems to signify his own inability to understand her—to face her directly. In the scene with James, Eun-ok again reclaims her ability to control how others see her, but it is only done at great cost to her own self. Eun-ok’s surgery, and subsequent re-injuring, proves that it is impossible to erase or undo the violence inflicted by the gaze of others.

By defining “the face-to-face encounter as grounds for an ethical relationship to the other,”57 Choe suggests that there needs to be two separate people, or two separate faces, in the encounter between the Self and the Other. Looking, for Choe, “reinstates the absolute Hegelian logic: the face off in which only one can emerge as master over the other.”58 While Choe limits the application of this definition of “looking” to the scenes between Chang-guk and Dog-Eye, the power struggle imbricated in the action of looking can be applied to all instances involving the eye or sight within the film. An equal gaze between two people, the ability to meet each other’s eyes without coercion or force, thereby constitutes an ethical and equal relationship of understanding for Choe. Thus, it is the film’s distinct lack of these kinds of gazes that demonstrates how sight or looking is a means of establishing control and denoting the complete inability between the characters to form any kind of true empathetic relationship. What Choe’s reading does not take into account, however, is the way in which the constant violence of others’ gazes can break down the Self entirely.

I stated earlier that eyes are the second most frequently occurring motif in Address Unknown but it would be more accurate to say that it is the injuring of eyes that comprises this motif. Eun-ok’s eye demonstrates the double violence that takes place in eyes in general. On one hand, Eun-ok’s eye is the site where physical violence takes place. On the other hand, her eye and its disfiguration demonstrate how the eye is the instrument of reading—specifically, reading the bodies of others. Used as an instrument of reading, the eyes of others also inflict a symbolic kind of violence—a violence that may not be physical, but is a negating force nevertheless. And like corporeal violence, this symbolic violence destroys individual subjectivity. Reading becomes imbricated in a framework of control, power, and violence, destroying any possibility for sight, both physical and metaphorical.

The Ethics of Reading and Spectatorship

Thus far, I have discussed reading and violence in La vie et demie and Address Unknown as it takes place on a diegetic level—how acts of violence reduce human interactions to their lowest common denominator, at the level of the physical body. But reading takes place on an extradiegetic level as well, and this meta-textual dimension of La vie et demie and Address Unknown—reading about reading bodies, looking at bodies looking at other bodies—announces the texts’ concern “with the way we see ourselves and others and the consequences that often attend our usual manner of perception.”59 This “usual manner of perception” in these texts is invariably violence. The corporeal, graphic nature of La vie et demie and Address Unknown’s representations of violence makes it easy for the reader to perceive violence, at least in its physical manifestations. Yet what I am interested in is the ways both authors evoke violence in modes of perception without explicitly depicting acts of violence—how the authors, only through formal gestures and techniques, create a “confrontation of points of view” between the reader and the text’s content, thereby forcing “an investigation of the nature of our conventional manner of seeing and a stripping away of those masks behind which we so often tend to cloak the more disturbing visions which our world ever holds in store.”60


Thus far, I have offered close textual readings of scenes of violence in La vie et demie and Address Unknown to demonstrate how representing such grotesque episodes of violence has larger sociohistorical ramifications. How then, should we think about violence after the representation? That is, analyses of specific scenes of violence allow us to contextualize and discern the source and significance of these representations, but how do we then move forward? To help think about these questions, it is helpful to turn to an analysis of the ways in which La vie et demie and Address Unknown represent non-corporeal violence—to see how Sony Labou Tansi and Kim Ki-duk do not only represent violence, but violently represent life in the postcolony.

Military Occupation in (and out of) Address Unknown

To understand how the act of perception in film can be violent without showing an image of violence, it is helpful to turn to Carol Clover’s description of how horror films represent assaults, and also assault their audiences by sheer representation:

And, of course, horror films do attack their audiences. The attack is palpable; we take it in the eye. For just as the audience eye can be invited by the camera to assault, so it can be physically assaulted by the projected image—by sudden flashes of light, violent movement (of images plunging outward, for example), fast-cut or exploded images… It is also no surprise that the narrative flow of images should burst into fragments at the most gruesome or shocking moments.61

At the risk of redundancy, I would like to emphasize again that Address Unknown is not a horror film. But just as horror films attack their audiences through certain formal elements, Address Unknown commits a kind of violence against its viewers. In Address Unknown, representations of extreme violence—of showing corporeal violence to its fullest extent—force the audience to become a witness to acts of violence. But violence towards the audience takes place on a more insidious level as well. Throughout the film, Kim Ki-Duk incorporates elements of the American military into his shots, even when the scene has nothing to do with the military. Whether it is shown explicitly or implicitly, the perpetual presence of the American military in the film’s portrayal of the kijich’on villagers’ lives demonstrates the pervasive influence of the U. S. military occupation of South Korea after the Korean War. Just as the villagers in the kijich’on can never entirely escape the presence of the American military, neither can the audience ever see the film without the specter of the military clouding their vision.

One of the principal ways Kim Ki-Duk folds the American military into the film’s narrative is through the constant use of English in both its spoken and written forms. This dual existence of English and Korean in the kijich’on is present from the beginning of the film, starting with its title screen. The movie’s title is shown as written in the traditional Hangul62, below which its English translation is set upon a camouflage-print background that undoubtedly echoes the military. (see Figure 14).

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-2-33-41-amFigure 14: The film’s title screen

Unlike the initial “No animal was harmed” disclaimer which is only in English because it was in cuts of the film intended for Western audiences, this title screen is integrated into the film’s narrative. In other words, this screen is included in all showings of the film, regardless of the audience’s nationality and notably, the English translation is not given in subtitles but is actually a part of the shot’s composition. The words “Address Unknown” are printed on the background, as if the English language were just as integral to the understanding the film’s title as the Korean language. The fact that the title screen, the moment where the film announces itself, is in both Hangul and English indicates how deeply English—and by extension, the United States’ presence—is embedded into the framework of the kijich’on.

Yet the co-existence of English and Korean in the kijich’on does not mean that the languages are given equal weight. Instead, the kijich’on is a space where language is diglossic—that is, two separate languages exist in the same community, but the use of these languages is divided by social situations. In the film, the linguistic situation of the kijich’on is such that English becomes a kind of status symbol—proof of education or better upbringing. One of the main characters, Chi-hum, is often beat up by two bullies who mock him by asking him questions in English, and then laughing derisively when Chi-hum misunderstands the question and gives a nonsensical response in English. These scenes of mocking Chi-hum’s English language skills (or lack thereof) always come right before the scenes where the bullies physically beat him up. In Eun-ok’s case, her English is what allows her to establish a relationship with James, the American GI, and thereby receive the surgery that fixes her eye. But of course, it is this deal that ends with Eun-ok maiming her own eye. In addition, while all the Korean kijich’on villagers in the film seem to be able to speak and understand at least a few words of English, none of the American soldiers ever speak Korean or are even shown trying to understand it. In the interactions between the American soldiers and the villagers, the American soldier is shown confidently speaking his native language while the Korean villager attempts to communicate in broken English.


However, the use of English is also a source of shame and resentment for the inhabitants of the kijich’on. In one scene, Chang-guk’s mother enters a convenience store while the store clerk is busy arranging the display. Without looking up, the store clerk welcomes her in Korean. Chang-guk’s mother then asks the clerk for a can of mackerels in her broken, heavily accented English. At the sound of Chang-guk’s mother’s attempts at speaking English, the store clerk looks up and says “What?” as if she cannot believe her ears. Chang-guk’s mother repeats her question in English and the store clerk angrily refuses to sell anything to her. Chang-guk’s mother asks (again in English), “Why not?” The store clerk yells at her, “This is Korea! Speak in Korean!” Chang-guk’s mother defiantly raises her head and says, “I will go to America!”63

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-2-34-17-amFigure 15

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-2-34-33-amFigure 16

In a later exchange between Dog-eye and Chang-guk, Dog-eye comments on how Chang-guk can speak English well because his mother “violently beat it into him” from when he was a child. Learning a language, particularly a foreign one, becomes an unnatural, forceful act. While the scenes with Chi-hum and Eun-ok involve formal English, taught and learned in the classroom, this scene with Chang-guk’s mother displays a form of English that was born from her status as a yanggongju—as a prostitute for American GIs. The discrepancy between the characters’ attitudes towards English demonstrates that the language being spoken is not as important as the body that it is being spoken from.

The violence of language is transposed on the physical space of the kijich’on as well. The military base is surrounded by chain-link fences and numerous signs that are written in both Korean and English. These signs, written in both Korean and English, are there to keep the Koreans from entering this strictly “American” space. Yet there is no equivalent space for the Koreans as the Americans are free to go anywhere in the kijich’on. The mapping of this racial difference onto the film’s landscape is seen when Chang-guk’s mother, after having yet another one of her letters returned, goes to the military base in desperation. She claws at the chain-link fence, crying, “Where is he? Please tell me!” in her broken English, begging for the American soldiers to tell her the whereabouts of Chang-guk’s father. The soldiers impassively stare at her and proceed to remove her. She seems to think that by entering this forbidden space for Americans, she will somehow find Michael, Chang-guk’s father, and the freedom she has come to so closely associate with him.

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-2-34-45-amFigure 17

The caged-in nature of life for the Koreans in the kijich’on is further reinforced by Kim Ki-Duk’s use of metaphorical shots, often depicting interactions between the Korean characters in front of images such as chain-link fences and barred windows, or from within enclosed spaces, such as the cramped, run-down bus where Chang-guk and his mother live.

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-2-34-57-amscreen-shot-2016-12-07-at-2-35-09-amscreen-shot-2016-12-07-at-2-35-24-amFigure 18

These shots that evoke the prison-like atmosphere of the kijich’on all invariably show the Korean characters, or are shot from their point of view (see figure 18). As the audience watches the film, their perception of the characters is unavoidably influenced by the composition of these shots. In watching the movie, the audience also begins to “see” like the Korean villagers in the kijich’on, seeing in a world that continuously treats them like second-class citizens, like “dogs”, but one without any escape.

Compared to the trapped and restricted way the Koreans are represented, the American soldiers seem to be everywhere. Kim Ki-Duk further incorporates the pervasive presence of the American military in Korean life by frequently cutting to seemingly random shots of American military life in the middle of otherwise unrelated sequences involving the three main (Korean) characters. These shots of the American military are generally at the end of long sequences without any hint of the American military. It is as if Kim is constantly forcing us to remember that this is not a typical Korean village—the abrupt shots of military airplanes flying over the sky, the American soldiers running drills through the forest—forcibly bring us back to the setting of the kijich’on. These constant returns to the American military presence seem to suggest that the extreme violence throughout the film is also somehow directly linked to the American military presence in the kijich’on, and that any kind of perception or vision in the kijich’on is inevitably tainted by the influence of foreign military occupation.

The final scene of Address Unknown shows that the inevitable result of living in a world where violence and cruelty are the only forms of communication is self-destruction. Throughout the film, Chang-guk’s mother is seen writing letters to the last-known address she has for Chang-guk’s father in America, even enclosing Polaroid pictures of Chang-guk so that his father can see what he looks like. Every day, she rushes out to meet the mailman and asks whether a letter has arrived for her. The mailman, fed up with her constant questions, tells her to simply “give up already,” but Chang-guk’s mother is determined to get to America, believing that it will somehow guarantee her and her son a better life. Towards the end of the film, after Chang-guk’s death, the mailman finally brings a letter for Chang-guk’s mother. However, in her catatonic state, she ignores the letter and the mailman leaves the letter wedged in the bus door. Shortly afterwards, Chang-guk’s mother uses Polaroid pictures of her son to start a fire in the bus she and her son lived in, immolating herself and her son’s corpse. The frame contains Chang-guk’s mother’s face, with the flames growing larger and larger until they consume the shot entirely. The scene ends with an exterior shot showing the burning bus, which has the word “FREE” graffitied on its side.

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-2-35-38-amFigure 19

The film then cuts to another shot of a fire but this time, in a field where the American soldiers are practicing military drills. One of the soldiers finds the unread letter and begins to read the letter out loud to himself: “Dear Chang-guk’s mother, how are you? My name is Clinton and I own a small deli in California….” We then learn that all the letters that Chang-guk’s mother wrote had been sent to the wrong person and never reached Chang-guk’s father. The film then ends with a shot of the lone soldier in the middle of a barren field, slowly fading to black. The film’s ending refuses giving the viewer any kind of conclusion or resolution to its plot.

The irony of this final scene is something that can only be grasped by the viewer, in watching the film from start to finish. It seems tragic, almost cruel, that the letter Chang-guk’s mother so desperately longed for finally came just moments before she decided to kill herself—crueler still that she never even knew of its arrival or its contents. Her letters convey the failure of language in communication, turning communication into a one-sided act. The composition of this shot also reflects the one-sided communication of the letters: there are no other characters in the scene, no dialogue, nothing to indicate another human presence. It is as if the scene were constructed entirely for the audience’s benefit—the one-sided communication of voyeurism or reading. The film’s ending is troubling because it does not really seem to be an “ending” at all. The two most ostracized characters in the film never obtain any kind of justice for the ways they were treated—instead, they are the ones that are destroyed.

One of the difficulties in reading the film is the abundance of displays of cruelty and violence, but also the fact that we cannot entirely empathize with the victims of this violence. There are moments that invariably invoke sympathy for the characters, but the film turns this back on us by having the same character that was the victim of violence then become the instigator of the same violence. We see Chang-guk being verbally and physically abused by the other villagers, but we then also see a scene where Chang-guk cuts off the tattoo on his mother’s breast. We see Chi-hum getting relentlessly bullied by the other schoolkids, but then Chi-hum takes a makeshift gun and threatens to shoot the same schoolkids. The dominance of fire in the film’s final shots is the not-so-subtle reminder of the destructive nature of violence—a warning against and critique of what René Gerard calls “la violence réciproque” [reciprocal violence]. This “escalade de la rivalité mimique” [the escalation of mimetic rivalry]64 is the driving force of all interactions in the kijich’on and it is what ends up ruining all the characters’ lives in the film.

But the most poignant commentary on this violence may be the final presence of the word “FREE” on the side of Chang-guk and his mother’s home. The word recalls the notion of viewing the United States as a kind of savior figure for the South Koreans in the devastated, poverty-stricken years after the Korean War. The aid provided by the United States—in the form of food, military assistance, money—undoubtedly helped South Korea recover in these precarious post-war years. Yet the way in which the word “FREE” is included into the scene shows the complexities of the U. S.—South Korea relationship: it is graffitied on the side of the outcasts’ “home” and consumed in a fire.

The symbolic significance of fire is further underscored by the subsequent scene, with the American soldiers in a burning field. The film’s last moments do not show any of the Korean characters, only the American soldiers and the sight of their native village on fire. The coalescing of the setting’s mise-en-scènes—from cages and chain-link fences to fire—elicits comparisons of the kijich’on to hell. The thematic message of war being hell is not novel,65 but Address Unknown’s take on the theme makes the important point that wars have an end. What happens, then, if there is no end— if war and hell are home? Of course, the film does not offer any clear answer. Yet the fact that through the act of representation, Address Unknown forces the audience to consider this question at all is perhaps the film’s success by preventing any myopic readings of violence.

On ne brûle pas l’enfer: Self-reflexivity and violence

The avertissement and the novel’s title (La Vie et Demie is also the name of the hotel where Chaidana stays in the novel) are the two most obvious markers of La vie et demie’s self-reflexive aspects. But to understand how the formal element of self-reflexivity is also a way of examining the subtler, non-physical violence of simply reading about violence, it is helpful to turn to one of the subtler moments of self-reflexivity in La vie et demie. Later in the novel, after countless episodes recounting the physical brutality of the novel’s universe, the “gens de Martial” send a letter to Jean-Oscar-Coeur-de-Pere (yet another authoritarian figure in a seemingly endless cycle of dictators) titled “On ne brûle pas l’enfer” [We do not burn hell]:

Excellence. Nous savons que vous ne lirez pas cette lettre jusq’au bout. Nous vous invitons pourtant à ce courage-là. Nous avons toujours dit (nous savons que nous avons raison) : la dictature n’est pas une arme révolutionnaire, mais un moyen d’oppression au même titre que la torture morale ou physique : parce que, si la dictature était comme vous le dites souvent, révolutionnaire, si, comme vous le prétendez, la discipline peut remplacer l’éducation, si l’obéissance est la plus haute vertu des hommes, vous seriez amené établir que l’inhumanité aussi est progressiste. On n’éteint pas le feu avec du feu. On ne brule pas la dictature, c’est elle qui brule. Dès qu’on l’a choisie, on ne peut plus s’arrêter. Il n’y a pas de forme atténuée, mais seulement des étapes, qui vous avaient, qui vous avaient—non, on n’a pas brûlé l’enfer… 

Your excellency. We know that you will not read this letter to its end. We invite you nevertheless to have that much courage. We have always said that (we know that we are right): the dictatorship is not a revolutionary weapon, but a means of oppression on the same level as torture, moral or physical: because, if the dictatorship was as you ofen say it is, ‘revolutionary,’ if, as you claim, discipline could replace education, if obedience is the highest virtue of men, you would be forced to establish that inhumanity is also progressive. One does not extinguish fire with fire. One does not burn the dictatorship; it is the dictatorship that burns. Once one has chosen this, one can no longer stop oneself. There is no lessened form, but only steps, which contain you, which contain you—no, we have not burned hell…66

The reason why this moment is self-reflexive is that le guide Jean-Oscar-Coeur-de-Pere [the Guide Jean-Oscar-Heart-of-his-Father] never reads this message or the letter’s contents: “Au vu du mot ‘enfer,’ le guide Jean-Oscar-Coeur-de-Pere brûla la lettre. [Upon seeing the word “hell”, the Guide Jean-Oscar-Heart-of-his-Father burned the letter].”67 As “enfer” is the last word of the letter’s title, the implication is that Jean-Oscar-Coeur-de-Pere never read the letter’s contents. Instead, it is only the reader of the novel that reads the letter supposedly addressed to the dictator and it is only the reader of the novel that is aware of this message. Yet the way this scene is written makes it so that the reader is only aware of his/her privileged status after finishing the letter; the added part of the guide burning the letter only comes after the text of the letter. The result is a space in La vie et demie where the author, under the guise of addressing the dictator, actually addresses the reader. This subtle comparison between the reader and the dictator figure is troubling considering the dictator’s actions throughout the novel. But it acts as a reminder that “the quotidian is not something to which ‘one’ submits, but, quite to the contrary, a site of constant interpretation and a sign of survival.”68 By involving the reader in the text, Sony Labou Tansi reminds us of our own complicity in the act of reading, but also in the act of writing—of invention. To simply read is to submit to this quotidian and run the risk of becoming a passive spectator. Perhaps this is why the violence in the narratives of Address Unknown and La vie et demie never seems to end—to show the limits of capturing violence fully in the space of the text. Violence continues past the edges of the page or the images of the screen. Instead of seeing this as the failure of representation, perhaps it is the willingness to look at violence, rather than looking with violence, that is the beginning of rehabilitation.


수취인불명 (Address Unknown). Dir. Ki- Duk Ki. Tube Entertainment, 2001. Film. Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992. Print.

Chung, Hye Seung. “Beyond “Extreme”: Rereading Kim Ki-duk’s Cinema of Ressentiment.” Journal of Film and Video Spring/Summer 62.1-2 (2010): 96-111.

“Fifa Warns S Korea over Dog Meat.” BBC News. British Broadcasting Corporation, 6 Nov. 2001. Web. 9 May 2016.

Girard, René. Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde. Paris: Grasset, 1978.

Kim, So-hee. “Interview with Kim Ki-Duk: From Crocodile to Address Unknown.” Kim Ki-Duk. By Hye Seung Chung. Champaign: U of Illinois, 2012. 127-40. Print.

Labou Tansi, Sony. “Interview with David Applefield,” Frank: An International Journal of Contemporary Writing and Art, no. 14, 1992.

Labou Tansi, Sony. La vie et demie. Seuil ed. Paris: Points, 1979.

Lee, Mary. “Mixed Race Peoples in the Korean National Imaginary and Family.” Korean Studies 32 (2009): 56-85.

Mbembe, Achille. On the Postcolony. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California, 2001.

McElroy, Damien. “Korean Outrage as West Tries to Use World Cup to Ban Dog Eating.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 06 Jan. 2002. Web. 9 May 2016.

Moudileno, Lydie. “Labou Tansi’s La vie et demie, or The Tortuous Path of the Fable” Research in African Literatures Fall 29.3 (1998): 21-33.

Moudileno, Lydie. “Magical Realism: “Arme Miraculeuse” for the African Novel?” Research in African Literatures Spring 37.1 (2006): 28- 41.

Podberscek, Anthony L. “Good to Pet and Eat: The Keeping and Consuming of Dogs and Cats in South Korea.” Journal of Social Issues 65.3 (2009): 615-32. Web.

Saletan, William. “Wok the Dog: What’s Wrong with Eating Man’s Best Friend?” Slate. Slate Magazine, 22 Jan. 2002. Web. 9 May 2016.

Scarry, Elaine H. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford UP, 1985. Print.

Telotte, J. P. “Through a Pumpkin’s Eye: The Reflexive Nature of Horror.” Literature Film Quarterly 10.3 (1982): 139-49. Web. 10 May 2016.

Thomas, Dominic. Nation-Building, Propaganda, and Literature in Francophone Africa. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2002.

Yates, Ronald E. “Finding Good Dog Meat Is A Delicacy Matter As Olympics Near.” Chicago Tribune. 16 Aug. 1988. Web. 9 May 2016.

Žižek, Slavoj. Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. New York: Picador, 2008



1See the avertissement to La vie et demie : “Ce livre se passe entièrement en moi. Au fond, la Terre n’est plus ronde. La Vie et Demie devient cette fable qui voit demain avec des yeux d’aujourd’hui. Qu’aucun aujourd’hui politique ou humain ne vienne s’y mêler.” [This book takes place entirely within me. At its foundation, the Earth is no longer round. It will never be again. Life and a Half becomes this fable that sees tomorrow with the eyes of today. And let not a single political or human concern of “today” get involved here], (Sony Labou Tansi, La vie et demie, 10).

2Sony Labou Tansi, Interview with David Applefield, Frank: An International Journal of Contemporary Writing and Art, no. 14 (1992): 93-94.

3Dominic Thomas, Nation-Building, Propaganda, and Literature in Francophone Africa (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2002), 66.

4So-hee Kim, “Interview with Kim Ki-Duk,” in Hye Seung Chung, Kim Ki-Duk (Champaign: U of Illinois, 2012), 128.

5The term yanggongju, the Korean prostitute in the kijich’on, translates to “Western princess” and this euphemistic name is one of the ways the South Korean government under President Park Chung-hee’s rule tried to sanitize the practice of what was essentially forced prostitution to maintain positive relations with the U. S.

6I do not mean to suggest that these differences are unimportant and should be ignored when comparing La vie et demie and Address Unknown; rather, I will argue in this essay that the specific differences in formal elements (language, medium, imagery) are used by each author for the purpose of constructing the same themes. Whether violence is depicted visually as an image or described in sentences, each author attempts to convey the same ideas about violence through representation.

7Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador, 2008), 1.

8Ibid., 2.

9Elaine H. Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford UP, 1985), 251.

10The examples that most immediately come to my mind are Montaigne’s essay “Des cannibales” [Of Cannibals] and Jean de Léry’s travel narrative, Histoire d’un voyage faict en la terre du Brésil [History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, Also Called America]. The genre of the Renaissance travel narrative as a whole, in fact, is a good example of how the figure of the Other or the barbaric was typically associated with the practice of cannibalism.

11Anthony L. Podberscek, “Good to Pet and Eat: The Keeping and Consuming of Dogs and Cats in South Korea,” Journal of Social Issues 65.3 (2009): 619

12Ronald E. Yates, “Finding Good Dog Meat Is A Delicacy Matter As Olympics Near,” Chicago Tribune, 16 Aug. 1988. Web. 9 May 2016.

13“Fifa Warns S Korea over Dog Meat,” BBC News, 6 Nov. 2001. Web. 9 May 2016.

14William Saletan, “Wok the Dog: What’s Wrong with Eating Man’s Best Friend?” Slate. Slate Magazine, 22 Jan. 2002. Web. 9 May 2016.

15I believe it is important to note here that dog meat is not a regular staple of any South Korean diet, regardless of the district or province. Dog meat is actually considered to be a delicacy and dog-meat stew, bosintang, is believed to increase stamina and virility. In addition, dog meat has also been consumed as a medicinal food. Furthermore, contrary to popular beliefs about this practice, the dogs that are consumed are not the kind kept as pets. There is a particular breed of dogs that are bred and raised for the specific purpose of being eaten. I raise these points not to justify or excuse the practice, but to show how Western/foreign beliefs and assumptions have prevented any close examination of the practice and to a certain extent, sensationalized the practice. Anthony Podberscek’s article “Good to Pet and Eat: The Keeping and Consuming of Dogs and Cats in South Korea” provides a thorough and more objective account of eating dog meat in South Korea, both current and past.

16In addition to calling Korean people who ate dog meat “barbaric,” when Bardot’s radio interviewer told her that some Western visitors eat dog meat in Korea, Bardot replied: “French people, German people, and Americans never eat dogs. If they did, it is most likely that South Koreans served them dog meat, saying it was either pork or beef.” Apart from the arrogance and ethnocentrism in Bardot’s comment, the most alarming part is that her comment was met with support and agreement by many others. The French soccer team at the time supported her campaign to ban dog meat in South Korea. Other supporters who echoed Bardot’s sentiments include FIFA (particularly its President of the time, Sepp Blatter) and other animal rights’ activist groups such as RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). For more information, see William Saletan’s “Wok the Dog: What’s wrong with eating man’s best friend?” and Damien McElroy’s “Korean Outrage as West Tries to Use World Cup to Ban Dog Eating.”

17Park Chung-Hee became President of South Korea after staging a successful coup d’état on May 16, 1961. He published several writings (the most notable being Our Nation’s Path and The State, the Revolution, and I) that reflected his state ideology, which envisioned a nationalism that was based on a kind of purity or racial homogeneity of the Korean people. Ironically, it was President Park Chung-Hee who instituted the “Camptown Clean-Up Campaign,” which promoted a disease-free prostitution program in a public effort to foster good relations between U. S. servicemen and the South Korean government. I highly recommend Mary Lee’s “Mixed Race Peoples in the Korean National Imaginary and Family” for a historical overview on how President Park Chung-hee’s policies and the Korean camptowns generated a nationalist discourse that emphasized masculinity and purity—one that is still prevalent in South Korea to this day.

18See interview with Sony Labou Tansi by David Applefield in introduction.

19It is also worth noting that the “No animals were harmed in the making of this film” screen in movies generally comes at the end of the film. In fact, this screen has been copyrighted by the American Humane Society and is referred to as the “No Animals Were Harmed” end credit, implying that its placement at the end of films is part of its definition. See “How to Earn End-Credits,” Humane Hollywood. American Humane Association. Web.

20I use terms like “dog-farm” and “dog-butchering” to describe these practices, but it is important to note that there actually is no official phrase or terminology in the Korean language to denote such practices. Apart from officially banning the distribution and consumption of dog meat, the South Korean government has largely left the practice alone. While there are laws and bureaucratic agencies that oversee and regulate the distribution of other animal meat, such as beef, chicken, pork, there is no such agency for dogs. In fact, despite the legal ban on dog meat, there has actually been an increase in the number of dogs reared for food in South Korea, from 1,027,299 in 1998 to 1,420,046 dogs in 2001 (see p. 622 of Anthony Podberscek’s article “Good to Pet and Eat: The Keeping and Consuming of Dogs and Cats in South Korea).

21In 1945, the Austrian-born wife of South Korea’s first president Syngman Rhee led the first protest against the eating of dog meat. Her protests did not do much in terms of enacting legal or social change, but they did lead to the renaming of dog stew from gaejangguk to boshintang. Gaejangguk literally translates to “dog stew” but boshintang literally translates to “invigorating soup.” The name that has stuck and is used to this day is the euphemistic “boshintang.” In fact, any meal or product made with dog meat does not use the word “dog” in its name. There is youngyangtang (“nourishing soup”), kyejoltang (“seasonal soup”), and sagyetang (“soup for all seasons”): See Podberscek, p. 622. This refusal to explicitly talk about eating dog meat—of refusing to use the Korean word for dog in any of these names–is also why I find Address Unknown’s portrayal of the practice so interesting. Beyond explicitly showing the process, they also explicitly name it, as the dog-farmer in the film is named “Dog-eye.”

22Steve Choe, “Kim Ki-Duk’s Cinema of Cruelty: Ethics and Spectatorship in the Global Economy,” Positions 15.1 (Spring 2007): 75.

23Choe, 79.

24It is perhaps a marker of the director’s own dark sense of humor to have Chang-guk identify so closely with dogs: in the Korean language, one of the most offensive insults is the slang term            [gae sek-ki] which literally translates into “son of a dog” but signifies culturally more along the lines of “son of a whore” or “son of a bitch.” In most English translations (including the English subtitles for the movie), it is translated as “bastard.”

25It is unclear as to whether she is actually eating her son’s dead body. The film never explicitly portrays it, but the manner in which the scene is shot (Chang-guk’s mother’s catatonic state, her dead son’s body next to her, the shots that switch back and forth between the body and her chewing) seems to imply that this is the case. Several essays also mention this act of cannibalism as a factual part of the film’s narrative: see Steve Choe, “Kim Ki-Duk’s Cinema of Cruelty: Ethics and Spectatorship in the Global Economy,” (p. 69) and Hye Seung Chung,“Beyond ‘Extreme’: Rereading Kim Ki-Duk’s Cinema of Ressentiment,” (p. 105).

26“Je suis carnassier, dit-il en tirant le plat de viande vers lui” [I am a carnivore, he said as he pulled the plate of meat towards him]; Sony Labou Tansi, La vie et demie, 18.

27Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California, 2001), 105.

28Sony Labou Tansi, La vie et demie, 16.

29All translations are my own with the assistance of Professor Karl Britto, unless otherwise stated.


31“Le Guide Providentiel lui avait simplement planté son couteau de table dans la gorge. Pendant qu’ils mangeaient, le cadavre de Jules se vidait de son sang” [The Providential Guide simply stuck his table knife in his throat. While they ate, Jules’ corpse sat there, soaking in its own blood]; Sony Labou Tansi, La vie et demie, 18.

32Scarry, 251.

33Mbembe, 110.

34Sony Labou Tansi, La vie et demie, 30.

35Sony Labou Tansi, La vie et demie, 19.

36Lydie Moudileno, “Labou Tansi’s La vie et demie, or the Tortuous Path of the Fable,” Research in African Literatures Fall 29.3 (1998): 23.

37Mbembe, 111.

38Mbembe, 109.

39Mbembe, 116

40Ibid., 123

41A une époque où l’homme est plus que jamais résolu à tuer la vie, comment voulez-vous que je parle sinon en chair-mots-de-passe ? [In a time where man is now, more than ever, resolved to kill life, how would you like me to speak except in passwords-in-flesh?]; Sony Labou Tansi, La vie et demie, 9.

42Sony Labou Tansi, La vie et demie, 28.

43“Martial ne parla pas. Il désigna la blessure qu’il avait à la gorge et qui saignait sous un tampon de gaze” [Martial did not speak. He pointed to the wound he had on his throat which bled underneath a wad of gauze] (Sony Labou Tansi, La vie et demie, 28)

44Sony Labou Tansi, La vie et demie, 13.

45Ibid, 44.

46Ibid, 76.

47Ibid, 77.

48Ibid, 23.

49Ibid, 78.

50I have borrowed the title of this section from chapter four, “The Eye of Horror” in Carol Clover’s book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. I wanted this section’s title to be a play on Carol Clover’s chapter as a kind of hommage to her work. While Clover’s book focuses strictly on the horror film genre and Address Unknown falls outside of her generic scope, “The Eye of Horror” was crucial in helping me think over and articulate the mechanisms of sight and spectatorship in film, as well as how such mechanisms could possibly be considered “violent.”

51Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 166.

52Ibid., 181.

53See previous section or Steve Choe, “Kim Ki-Duk’s Cinema of Cruelty: Ethics and Spectatorship in the Global Economy,” Positions 15.1 (Spring 2007): 75.

54Hye Seung Chung, “Beyond ‘Extreme’: Rereading Kim Ki-Duk’s Cinema of Ressentiment,” Journal of Film and Video Spring/Summer 62.1-2 (2010): 105.

55Ibid, See caption for Photo 4.

56Ibid, 105.

57Steve Choe, “Kim Ki-Duk’s Cinema of Cruelty: Ethics and Spectatorship in the Global Economy,” Positions Spring 15.1 (2007): 71-72.

58Ibid, 74.

59J. P. Telotte, “Through a Pumpkin’s Eye: The Reflexive Nature of Horror,” Literature Film Quarterly 10.3 (1982): 140


61Clover, 202-203.

62Hangul refers to the name of the Korean alphabet and the written form of the Korean language. The term “Korean” refers to the language in general, but also to its spoken form.

63While Chang-guk’s mother actually says, “I will go to America,” the accompanying English subtitles for her words say something different: “I’ll be in the U. S. soon enough!” (see figure 16). It is unclear whether this is an error in transcription or intentional, but I find it interesting that even when Chang-guk’s mother is speaking English, it is translated differently. Her English, while undeniably accented, is definitely clear enough to be understood by any English speaker—even without subtitles. Even if this is merely human error, it reinforces the implication that the English spoken by the Koreans is somehow different from the English spoken by the Americans.

64René Girard, Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde, (Paris: Grasset, 1978), 22.

65This theme is actually an entire film genre, the “anti-war” genre which includes films such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), which has the line: “Somebody once wrote: ‘Hell is the impossibility of reason.’ That’s what this place feels like. Hell.” In Korean cinema, Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War (2004) is probably the best known anti-war movie directly about the Korean War, although it was released three years after Address Unknown.

66Sony Labou Tansi, La vie et demie, 136-137

67Sony Labou Tansi, La vie et demie, 137.

68Moudileno, 31.