The Korean War (1950–53) changed the material and affective landscape of the Korean peninsula and ushered in a new era ruled by a military dictatorship dependent on US military power. With bases dotting the South Korean peninsula, former agricultural villages became camptowns that catered to the needs of American soldiers. This article focuses on the South Korean melodrama Chiokhwa (Hellflower, 1958), directed by Shin Sang-ok, which narrates a love triangle between two brothers and Sonya, a camptown prostitute or yanggongju. It examines the role of the postwar environment in constructing the spaces of the subject. Using the yanggongju figure as a technology of postwar memory, this work reevaluates the ecology of ruination left in the wake of the Korean War—as portrayed through Sonya, scenes of the city, the camptown, the base, and the surrounding fields and marshes—to explore the sense of loss and displacement of this period.

Produced five years after the end of the Korean War, Chiokhwa (1958, hereafter Hellflower) is considered by Korean film critics, along with Chayubuin (Madame Freedom, 1956), Hanyŏ (The Housemaid, 1960), and Obalt'an (Stray Bullet, 1961), a major masterpiece of Golden Age South Korean cinema.1 With a strong female lead and a narrative that focuses on the social and economic predicaments encountered by survivors of the Korean War, Hellflower is one of a larger body of films that dramatize the everyday postwar condition.2 Generically, it can be called a woman-centered melodrama, yet, as Steven Chung remarks, “Neither feminist or misogynist, pro- or anti-American, and indeed not beholden to any one genre, the film confounds the standard classifications of postwar Korean film and cultural history.”3 Broadly, the 1950s produced films that, like Hellflower, addressed a changing social and cultural landscape that evidenced a divided nation undergoing capitalist modernization.4 This fragmented process is especially visible in films of the 1950s and 1960s where such themes as modern love, modern work, anti-communism, women's independence, changing family values, and postwar survival take center stage.

In this essay, I offer a new reading of the theme of postwar survival through Hellflowers portrayal of two Cold War creations: the yanggongju and the camptown.5 As one of the first films of this period to showcase the military sex worker as a central character while including on-location shots of a military base and camptown near Seoul, Hellflower illustrates a postwar epistemology that relates the environment of the camptown, the city, and the country to the figure of the yanggongju.6 If Trinity, the first nuclear detonation test in 1945, marked the beginning of the Anthropocene, the Korean War and its “decompositions” comprise one such instance of this human-made epoch.7 In what follows I (re)map the figure of the yanggongju—one that is associated with violence, loss, and trauma—against the history of camptowns in order to examine the postwar ecology of the Korean peninsula.8 The ensuing intersectional analysis investigates the ruptures in the relations of sociality that arose out of the destruction of space and the debris that followed in its wake.9

Hellflower's basic storyline revolves around three main characters: a dutiful son, Tong-sik, his wayward brother, Yŏng-sik, and their femme fatale love interest, Sonya.10 Sonya works as a military sex worker, and her lover, Yŏng-sik, works with local men to steal goods from the US military base. Because he is stigmatized by his black market connections, he accepts Sonya's involvement in sex work. Yŏng-sik is enamored of Sonya and wants her to marry him and leave for the countryside. However, with the arrival of Tong-sik, who tries to convince the prodigal Yŏng-sik to return to the countryside to help care for their mother, a love triangle ensues, as Sonya secretly pursues Tong-sik. The love triangle is the primary plot device that moves the narrative forward, but more importantly, the characters themselves engender new subject positions within the scarred landscape of postwar Korea.

Through narrative and visual interludes, Hellflower's allegorical use of the three characters and the landscape chronicle the postwar condition. Sonya and Yŏng-sik, in their respective ties to the US military, represent the changing social, political, and economic climate of a nascent South Korea in which postwar capitalist modernity takes hold, while Tong-sik symbolizes a nativist desire to uphold traditional patriarchal ideals. Tong-sik is the moral counterweight to Sonya's prostitution and Yŏng-sik's thieving, both of which are direct repercussions of the Korean War. The countryside is positioned as a pure Korea, unsullied by the presence of US troops and where Confucian values of family are upheld. In contrast, urbanized spaces such as the camptown symbolize commerce and corruption, where cash and the presence of foreigners intermingle with the local economy.

Hellflower juxtaposes documentary footage of Seoul and Tongduch’ŏn against a fictional narrative.11 Much of the film is shot on location, interspersed with a few on-set scenes such as Sonya's room and the restaurant where Tong-sik and Sonya have their last tête-à-tête. Locations range from Seoul Station and its vicinity, to the shopping district in the camptown, to the less inhabited spaces of grassland, beach, and later wetland where Sonya and Yŏng-sik meet their demise. The camera moves from one habitus to another, from the hustle and bustle of city and camptown life to desolate expanses of nature. Sonya's peregrinations through these various spaces and places highlight how the affective presence of the Korean War—as portrayed through scenes of the city, the camptown, the base, and the surrounding fields and marshes—generates a sense of loss and displacement.

Landscape itself features prominently in highlighting the significance of space and place while accentuating the material conditions of the environment. According to film studies scholar Martin Lefebvre, landscape is an autonomous space free from “eventhood,” whereas setting functions as a space for an event to unfold. Due to the temporality of cinema, space is further complicated by the gaze of the spectator, which switches from narrative to spectacular mode throughout a film, at times focusing on the narrative and at others meditating on the “filmic spectacle.” Based on this back-and-forth process, Lefebvre asserts that the filmic landscape is doubly temporalized, “subjected simultaneously to the temporality of the cinematographic medium and to that of the spectator's gaze, which is given to shifting from narrative to the spectacular mode and back again from one moment to the next.”12 The result is an ephemeral landscape that disappears and reappears over the course of the film. While Hellflower's on-location shots primarily serve Lefebvre's function of setting, the brief segments in between dialogue allow the viewer to contemplate the camptown, the base, the fields and marshes, and even the female lead herself, whose face, often held in soft-focus close-ups akin to a Hollywood starlet, arguably mesmerizes the spectator. Landscape not only arrests the narrative but allows the viewer to ruminate on the material conditions of postwar Korea. These spectacular moments, along with the filmic narrative, comprise a postcolonial, militarized heterotopia that seeks to make intelligible the afterlives of the Korean War.

Drawing from writers who utilize concepts of spatiality and “geographies of domination” to reassess the “politics of location,” this article uses Hellflower to unpack the spaces of the subject as represented by the yanggongju.13 Not only is Hellflower's introduction of the yanggongju novel, but more importantly, her relations with other key characters and her perambulations through the postwar landscape reveal what Gastón R. Gordillo calls the “erosion of social-spatial configurations and the emergence of new spatial forms punctuated by unwanted material surplus.”14 That is, the film masterfully portrays the social and material conditions of postwar survival while (re)mapping a spatial discourse of militarized violence that addresses the epistemological and ontological transformations the Korean peninsula experienced in the aftermath of the Korean War. I argue that Korean postwar identity, which includes new subject positions like the yanggongju, emerges out of an ecology of ruination as demonstrated in Shin Sang-ok's Hellflower. In this effort, I weave in the story of camptowns, militarized labor, gender, landscape, and environment to question how postwar structures of feeling such as trauma and loss are translated in the visual space of the film.15


On August 15, 1945, a few days after the atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan's surrender brought World War II to an end. On September 8, 1945, the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK) established itself on the southern half of the peninsula. As a result, less than a month after being liberated from colonial rule, Korea underwent yet another form of annexation. The history of camptowns and their relation to empire stems from such instances of colonial dissolution and neocolonial occupation. Built around US military bases, which occupied (and continue to occupy) allied lands like South Korea, Okinawa, and the Philippines, to name a few, camptowns have provided services and local goods for US military personnel. With US military bases dotting every continent and a number of archipelagos, one can presume that with each base comes a camptown.16 Borrowing from Ann Laura Stoler, I propose that camptowns are “ruinations” of empire, here rendered as the “imperial debris” of Japanese colonialism and Cold War containment tactics wherein Asia becomes the off-site battleground for US military might.17

Katharine H. S. Moon has documented how farms in South Korea, once deemed strategic military sites, were turned into R&R boomtowns by the mid-1950s: “For example, Tongduch’ŏn sprouted from agricultural fields into one of the most notorious camptowns, having housed four different U.S. infantry divisions since the end of the Korean War … Similarly, Songt'an, which had been a small unknown farming village until the Korean War, grew to be the ‘darling’ of U.S. Air Force (USAF) camptowns since the early 1950s.”18 In a July 23, 1962, article, the Tonga Ilbo reported that “right after Liberation, Ŭijŏngbu, with one silk mill, was a quiet and secluded province of 10,000 residents. But with 6.25 [the Korean War] and the extended presence of UN troops, desperate hordes swarmed in from all over the country, including crooks looking to make a quick buck.”19 These statements attribute the destruction of former farming villages to the arrival of US military bases. Crucially, they point to the sizable shift that happened as sleepy agricultural spaces transformed into spaces of global military capital and became extensions of the military base. The political economy of places like Tongduch’ŏn was turned on its head, as the land was no longer a source of subsistence or sustainability. Instead, locals became reliant on the US military for their livelihoods, working in service economies that catered to US military personnel and jockeying against the tide of transient, hungry Koreans “swarming” in for opportunities.

Dramatic transformations of the local economy went hand in hand with the displacement of thousands who lost their homes to Cold War expansionary logic. Songt'an was one such town whose political economy changed significantly with the introduction of Osan Air Force Base, which is still, along with Kunsan, one of two major US Air Force bases in South Korea. In describing the change the residents of Songt'an experienced in June 1951, Ji-Yeon Yuh states that five thousand people had lost their homes when the 417th Squadron of the US Air Force bulldozed the land to build an airfield: “These families had farmed the same plots of land in Songt'an for generations … As they left their ancestral lands, each family held a piece of paper from the U.S. military promising monetary compensation in neatly typed Korean and English. The promised compensation, which was much less than the market value of the land, never materialized despite years of legal battles.”20 Displaced from their homes without remuneration, the residents of Songt'an had little choice but to turn to the base for survival. Going from an agricultural to a service economy, they supplied US military personnel with services that included laundry, tailoring, entertainment, and sex.

The influx of the US military not only impacted ways of living but also exercised its own form of necropower over the land. Locals were exposed to a new possibility of violence and death because of their social and economic ties to the US military. Violence ranged in type and intensity from displacement to murder. Streams where women washed their laundry were no longer only places of camaraderie and gossip but became potential sites of violence as accounts of US soldiers attacking female villagers emerged.21 Other, more insidious forms of violence included the thousands of women who turned to sex work to survive, becoming addicted to drugs smuggled in by GIs.22 One 1966 Han'guk Ilbo article reported that at least half of the three thousand yanggongjus working in Tongduch’ŏn were addicted to heroin.23

Local women were not the only demographic affected. In his searing account of US military brutality on Korean locals, Oh Yŏn-ho writes, “Those who were killed by the US military were for the most part taxi drivers, farmers working and residing near the base, and yanggongjus.”24 My point is not that violence, especially gendered violence, did not exist prior to the arrival of the US military, but rather that Koreans living and working near or on the bases experienced a new form of everyday violence of neocolonial occupation. Moreover, the significance of this everyday militarized violence lay not only in the encounter itself but also in the US military's attitude toward Korean lives. One 1964 Kyŏnghyang Sinmun article eloquently reported:

Languishing in poverty, the wretched poor follow the troops like migratory birds, dragging their meager belongings along. Seventy percent of the local inhabitants survive by working for foreign troops, yet they cannot avoid suspicion. Locals have protested, “In America, do they catch thieves by shooting them dead? Even if theft is repugnant, is there no respect for human life?” In response, the Americans [US military] have stated, “Stealing from the US Army base, on the front lines of freedom, is akin to helping the enemy.”25

The war brought deprivation on a scale previously unknown. Living as refugees, those working on and around US bases were caught in a double bind of subsistence and violence. Correlating petty theft with treason, the US military justified shootings as security protocol. For Koreans, the shootings, rapes, and other forms of extreme violence were inhumane actions of the everyday. Defining colonial occupation, Achille Mbembe writes, “Space was therefore the raw material of sovereignty and the violence it carried with it. Sovereignty meant occupation, and occupation meant relegating the colonized into a third zone between subjecthood and objecthood.”26 With their lands usurped, Koreans in these spaces were caught in a third zone where their sovereignty was superseded and their lives devalued by the logics of a Cold War state of exception.

Here I would like to focus on a spatial politics that centralizes the “interconnectedness of material and metaphorical space.”27 In other words, what might an examination of these two dimensions of space reveal about the topography of camptowns and the spaces they occupy? For example, the US military viewed the Korean peninsula as a strategic site for military defense and expansion. Koreans who lived around these militarized sites viewed them as home. The distinction between space for the US military and place for Koreans is one of many that became muddied in the landscape of the camptown. A local reporter discussed one such instance: “Most of the signage in the shopping quarter is in English. If you enter a ‘Cabaret,’ you'll see posted at the entrance to the toilet, ‘US Army Only,’ as if you've set foot in a foreign country. This is what it is to live near those barbed wire fences, where such strange sights exist.”28 The camptown itself contains both epistemes, generating an in-between space of soldiering, sex work, capitalism, modernity, and the English language, all through the use of Korean bodies and on Korean soil. Ann Laura Stoler writes, “To speak of colonial ruination is to trace the fragile and durable substances of signs, the visible and visceral senses in which the effects of empire are reactivated and remain.”29 Behind the barbed-wire fence is a space of indistinction, of neither Korea nor America but also of both. The yanggongju is one such figure constructed from and tied to this indeterminate site, made indeterminate herself. Tracing Sonya against the postwar landscape helps decipher the process of colonial and neocolonial ruination wreaked on the Korean peninsula.


Hellflower's opening scene, reminiscent of Italian neorealism in its numerous on-location shots and scenes of everyday life, is a bricolage of postwar modernity as Plymouths, human-drawn carts, and military trucks pass by against a backdrop of traditional Korean thatched roofs, colonial buildings, and modern square structures (fig. 1). The story begins with Tong-sik, who upon his arrival in Seoul Station is greeted by hoodlums who beat and mug him. He wanders the streets of Seoul searching for his brother, passing through crowded spaces of commerce—of fishmongers and snack sellers, even sitting with a fortune teller—before he eventually encounters Yŏng-sik. The condensed nature of the city, in both spatial and temporal terms, is out of sync with Tong-sik. The city is portrayed as tough and heartless while the countryside remains innocent. Raymond Williams summarizes this stereotype well: “On the country has gathered the idea of a natural way of life: of peace, innocence, and simple virtue. On the city has gathered the idea of an achieved center: of learning, communication, light. Powerful hostile associations have also developed: on the city as a place of noise, worldliness and ambition; on the country as a place of backwardness, ignorance, limitation.”30 In Hellflower, these dualistic constructions help organize Korea's postwar disarray in which the countryside is imagined as undefiled while the city is viewed as a product of colonialism, occupation, and a fratricidal war. This country-city binary is palpable in Tong-sik, who represents an atavistic Korea and whose “simple virtue” cannot cope with the sins of the city.


A scene of postwar modernity in Hellflower (Chiokhwa, dir. Shin Sang-ok), 1958.


A scene of postwar modernity in Hellflower (Chiokhwa, dir. Shin Sang-ok), 1958.

The virtuous Tong-sik finds his counterpart in Sonya. But in postwar Korea, the country-city binary cannot sufficiently account for Sonya's subject position because her worldliness is due not to her connection to the city so much as to the camptown. The camptown functions as a kind of third space that, like Mbembe's third zone, exists in between two states of being—in this case between the country and the city, tradition and modernity, Korea and America. Derived from this third space, the yanggongju is made both familiar and strange. Beginning with her etymology, yang (Yankee) + gongju (princess—used ironically) was meant to describe and denigrate impoverished women and girls servicing US GIs during the post–Korean War period. It is a dated term that easily situates our psychic space within postwar history, US-Korea relations, nationalism, the Cold War, and the Korean diaspora. One cannot think of, hear, or read the term yanggongju without it conjuring an image of a Korean woman dressed in a Western-style outfit soliciting a US soldier.

This image, briefly illustrated in an earlier part of the film as two Korean women solicit GIs in a stopped truck, is reinterpreted through the character of Sonya, who, having experienced war, occupation, and poverty, transforms into a mysterious and glamorous vixen on the silver screen (fig. 2). As Jinsoo An writes, films like Hellflower “feature yanggongju as fascinating objects of spectacle, exoticism, sexuality, and social dilemma.”31 Sonya is made strange through her spectacularity, accentuated by soft-focus close-ups of her gazing directly at the camera and long shots of her in opulent dress against a backdrop of postwar poverty (fig. 3). Steven Chung describes how Sonya exudes a glamor incompatible with the image of a camptown prostitute: “everything in Ch'oe Ŭn-hŭi's embodiment of Sonia signals that she is something more than the yanggongju; she inhabits the seedy, makeshift brothel but is not of it, leaping out of that space with an abstract, lurid intensity. While Tong-sik and Yŏng-sik are entrenched in the brutal materiality of modern Seoul, Sonia is aloof from it.”32 Sonya's absent internal world is substituted by her spectacular filmic sexuality, mesmerizing the brothers and viewers alike. Often humming while doing mundane activities, she lives in the present, with little care for the future or her social status. Sonya, in fact, is made queer: without a past or a family, seemingly content with being a camptown prostitute and indifferent to getting married, Sonya's spectacularity is tied to her monstrous sexuality, one created through and by US-Korea relations and contained within the margins of the camptown.33


Sonya as spectacle in a close-up in Hellflower (Chiokhwa, dir. Shin Sang-ok), 1958.


Sonya as spectacle in a close-up in Hellflower (Chiokhwa, dir. Shin Sang-ok), 1958.


A long shot of Sonya in glamorous attire against a backdrop of abandoned buildings in Hellflower (Chiokhwa, dir. Shin Sang-ok), 1958.


A long shot of Sonya in glamorous attire against a backdrop of abandoned buildings in Hellflower (Chiokhwa, dir. Shin Sang-ok), 1958.


The yanggongju is an assemblage of tensions—of colonial and imperial violences, of postwar trauma—and a “figure of perpetual exile” that has haunted Korea.34 She functions palimpsestically as a paradigmatic figure of loss that came out of the various violences of the war and its aftermath. This loss is articulated in its postwar contradictions, reflected in the epistemic structure of US empire and South Korea's complicity with this empire. That is, these losses are not narrated as losses but as discourses of democracy and economic development. While the yanggongju is relegated to being a shadowy figure within the Cold War dustbins of Korean history, Hellflower returns us to this moment when yanggongjus were a material reality of postwar poverty. Moreover, as a figure of labor, the yanggongju functions not only as a historical palimpsest but in a real, material way, as a vital contributor to the political economy of the camptown. Much like the yanggongju, the camptown itself is also a creation of Cold War politics, as the US military installed bases across the Korean peninsula. In essence, the camptown and the yanggongju are deeply intertwined as marked spaces of war, militarism, and neocolonialism.

In their essay on spatial metaphor and materiality, Neil Smith and Cindi Katz explain: “‘location’ fixes a point in space … ‘Position’, by contrast, implies location vis-à-vis other locations … ‘Locality’ suggests a two-(or more) dimensional place, and area within which multiple and diverse social and natural events and processes take place … Notions like subject position, social location and locality borrow this concreteness of spatial definition to impose some order on the seemingly chaotic mélange of social difference and social relations.”35 These points of contact between the subject and other subjects, locations, positions, and locales help (re)map the temporal and spatial relationality of postwar South Korea. While Sonya herself exemplifies a point in space within the postwar landscape, her position vis-à-vis the camptown inhabitants, the US military, and larger Korean polity locates her in a kind of no-man's-land reflective of the equivocal position of the camptown itself. Katharine H. S. Moon writes, “In a sense, kijich'on [camptown] prostitutes have represented a limbo-status that South Korea has witnessed since the Korean War and during its rush-attempts at economic development—a simultaneous uprooting from the past with uncertainty about its long-term viability and identity.”36 This “limbo status” is palpable in both Sonya and the landscape she inhabits, especially in the oddly desolate swaths of field that surround her ramshackle cottage and the neighboring buildings.

Portrayed as undeveloped, stark, and isolated, the fields are a site of both uprootedness and tranquility in which time seems to oddly slow down. The film does not contain any nondiegetic music, adding to the quiet mood. Reflective of the postwar landscape, we see emptied or demolished buildings and gravel roads amid barren fields. This devastation was the result of military initiatives that prioritized a victorious war. In her analysis of declassified materials concerning the use of napalm in the Korean War, Grace Cho writes, “Ultimately, the Pentagon recommended that U.S. forces in Korea stop documenting the bombing of villages and begin calling them ‘military targets’ in order to avoid negative press.”37 The US military's erasure of this devastation forecloses acknowledgment of the trauma and loss Koreans experienced as their homes, lives, and relationships were destroyed. Before Vietnam, Korea was the staging ground for napalm bombings under a “scorched earth” policy that “dumped … 600,000 tons of napalm over the Korean peninsula; … this was more napalm than had been used against Japan in World War II and more than would later be dropped over Vietnam.”38 The death, disfigurement, and displacement of millions of Koreans during this period reconfigured their relationship to their homes. Villages transformed into military targets and back again. The end of the war enabled these spaces to repopulate and nature to slowly return, but the bodies of survivors and the physical landscape of Korea embodied the trauma and loss of this experience. The ambivalent character of Sonya and the bleak camptown topography reflect these transitions of the immediate postwar period, constituting the biopolitical degradations of imperial ruination.

As mentioned earlier, Hellflower was made in 1958, when postwar reconstruction was still under way and the Republic of Korea was under Syngman Rhee's rule.39 Seungsook Moon elucidates the characteristics of military prostitution of the 1950s: “First, a large number of freelance sex workers operated outside the perimeter of official control … Second, those women … enjoyed relatively more autonomy and more of a collective voice than their counterparts did in the later period.”40 The 1950s offered relative latitude for women engaged in sex work, whereas the 1960s saw heavy regulation and consolidation of military prostitution under Park Chung-hee and the USAMGIK. This autonomy, so to speak, is demonstrated in Sonya's agency over her body, as represented through her unregulated movements in and out of her cottage and through her sexual relationships with foreigners and locals. Medium and close-up shots of Sonya lounging in a field, at the lakeside, or at the beach with her lovers, or long shots of her leisurely walking to and from her cottage while humming a familiar tune, appear throughout the film (fig. 4). This sense of leisure contrasts with the forced idleness of the A-frame carriers in the city sitting around waiting for work, the camptown shopkeepers awaiting the patronage of GIs, the manual laborers waiting for US military base work, and even other sex workers waiting for customers.41 The incongruity between Sonya and her landscape reflects a postwar temporal discordance that is articulated in an early scene in which Tong-sik sits with a couple of manual laborers at the city center:

manual laborer 1: How many times has it been for you today?

manual laborer 2: I barely made 500 pence. Food is not cheap, making money is hard—we're in real big trouble. … In any case, this is a dizzying world.42


Sonya strolling home after a night out in Hellflower (Chiokhwa, dir. Shin Sang-ok), 1958.


Sonya strolling home after a night out in Hellflower (Chiokhwa, dir. Shin Sang-ok), 1958.

Overwhelmed by the stark transformations brought on by the war, these survivors can do little but wait for their next chance at a meal. As those around her live in wretched idleness, shell-shocked by their postwar circumstances, Sonya appears oddly content. Moon's discourse on the autonomy of the 1950s both speaks to the relative freedoms of sex workers of this period and reflects the lack of regulations and structural constraints during this nascent period of nation building. Sonya's autonomy, then, is a product of the dramatic changes of a postwar society that is still searching for footing in a rapidly modernizing and militarizing world. As such, her ostensible satisfaction as observed through her relaxed movements inside her home and work space, her leisurely walks to and from her cottage, and her intimacies in nature can be read as responses to the precarity of life during this period. She makes herself at home wherever she is because of the uncertainty of tomorrow. Sonya blurs the boundary between what might otherwise read as mere space—dirt paths, fields, abandoned buildings, beaches and lakesides—and place, in other words a space of meaning where she experiences a joie de vivre in the face of the unknown.

Sonya's nihilism is challenged when she encounters Tong-sik, who awakens a longing that had lain dormant in her relationship with her current beau, Yŏng-sik. At first, Sonya's attraction to Tong-sik seems merely sexual. But it soon becomes evident that it is Tong-sik's youth and innocence, an allure that derives from the country-city binary discussed earlier, that attracts her. The following seaside rendezvous scene (fig. 5), during which she caresses his hair, elucidates this point:

sonya: How is it that your hair smells like corn?

tong-sik: Why? Are you making fun of me because I'm a country boy?

sonya: No, that's not it. For some reason I really like that fresh smell.


A seaside rendezvous between Sonya and Tong-sik in Hellflower (Chiokhwa, dir. Shin Sang-ok), 1958.


A seaside rendezvous between Sonya and Tong-sik in Hellflower (Chiokhwa, dir. Shin Sang-ok), 1958.

Tong-sik represents a return to innocence, one that even Yŏng-sik's marriage proposal to Sonya cannot accomplish. Her interest in running away with Tong-sik is rooted in a desire for a space and time that predate the war, the camptown, and the miserable conditions that follow warfare and occupation. This space and time, symbolized by the countryside, represent both prewar innocence and a site where marriage and family exist, without which a moral, traditional Korean society cannot prevail.43 The inability of camptown sex workers to marry and “return” to the countryside is thereby akin to being denied their humanity. We can observe this sentiment in the scene between Julie, another sex worker, and Tong-sik (fig. 6). They are sitting by a lakeside in an undeveloped field, and Julie has just viewed Tong-sik's photograph of his family:

julie: If it wasn't for 6.25 [the war], I would've been married already.

tong-sik: Then your parents?

julie: They both died in the war.

tong-sik: Hm.

julie: Ha, what is the use of talking about the past? All we can do is just live as the wind blows, that's all.

tong-sik: It's not too late. You can quit this life and get married.

julie: Ha, how could a person like me get married?

tong-sik: Why, how could a kind and good person like yourself not be able to marry?

julie: Then will you marry me Tong-sik?

tong-sik: [silence]

julie: You see? You say these things, but your expression says it all.


Julie and Tong-sik sitting by the lakeside in Hellflower (Chiokhwa, dir. Shin Sang-ok), 1958.


Julie and Tong-sik sitting by the lakeside in Hellflower (Chiokhwa, dir. Shin Sang-ok), 1958.

Tong-sik's embodiment of tradition, innocence, and heteronormative family values is deeply imbricated in the conservatism he displays when confronted by Julie. This embodiment is also heavily gendered within his heteromasculine subjectivity, which allows him access to the countryside and also permits him to act as a gatekeeper. His approval or disapproval can open or foreclose possibilities for the camptown women. Even within his dichotomous country-city position, Tong-sik (and even Yŏng-sik) possesses a social and physical mobility denied to the women. He may not feel at home in the unfamiliar space of the city and the camptown, but he can stay or go, whereas Sonya and Julie cannot leave the camptown space on their own.

In her essay on gender and nationalism, Chungmoo Choi reminds us how chastity plays an important role in the discourse of Korean nationalism. A woman's “promiscuity”—willing or forced—determines her social value, and thus female characters must navigate within a patriarchal morality that governs their social relations: “The unifying impulse of nationalism demands moral purity, which is often articulated in gendered rhetoric.”44 For women, moral purity cannot be acquired without virginal or matrimonial status. The same gendered logic that allows Tong-sik mobility limits Sonya and Julie, as their “unchaste” bodies are bound to the camptown. Conversely, Tong-sik's youthful, “unpolluted” masculinity is made natural along with his affiliation with the countryside, a place regarded as bereft of modernity's vices, where a pure Korea exists.

In her short story “Days and Dreams” (1986), Kang Sŏk-yŏng underscores the interrelated geography of the camptown and its sex workers:

If you think about it, the camptown is like an island that stands between Korea and America. An island that is not part of the land or the sea, but is its own space, and the women of this island are just yanggalbo. They are temporary “honeys” for the GIs while their own motherland turns its back on them.45

While the countryside has stood for a pure prewar Korea, the camptown is viewed as a no-man's-land that houses Korea's social detritus, the yanggongju. Their chastity lost to foreigners, Sonya and Julie take on a laissez-faire attitude rooted in the recognition that their lives in the camptown have little meaning beyond their value as sexual laborers. Leaving the camptown would mean achieving a spatial sovereignty camptown life cannot offer. Likewise, just as the camptown is viewed as an island, the bodies of the women are displaced once they enter military sex work. They also exist as islands unto themselves, as their corporeal bodies are no longer accepted by or acceptable to the larger Korean polity. The spatial politics of the bodies of the female sex workers and the camptown are thereby imbricated with one another in their narratives of displacement.

At the same time, this island concept is challenged by novelist Pok Kkŏ-il, whose semiautobiographical account of his childhood growing up in a camptown offers a different perspective:

The villagers knew everything about Camp Seneca. They knew which troops were there, they knew what kinds of weapons were hidden in the cave in the hillside, they knew in minute detail how many GIs were present. They knew not only about Camp Seneca but the other surrounding bases. For instance, it was common knowledge among the village elders that Camp Seneca stored nuclear missiles while nuclear launch stations were located in T'ae-an, Tae-chŏn, Chin-ch’ŏn, and Kim-chae.46

In contrast to Kang Sŏk-yŏng, who researched camptowns as a journalist and writer, Pok Kkŏ-il writes from lived experience, and the difference is apparent in his depiction of the inhabitants and laborers of the camptowns. Pok Kkŏ-il's narrative underscores working-class, local knowledges that contradict the assumptions of educated, urban Koreans. Depicting locals as connected to and informed by the larger network of camptowns dotting the South Korean peninsula, these inhabitants do not merely serve the interests of the nation or the US military but are active agents in ascertaining and producing knowledge about and around these militarized spaces. In (re)mapping these spaces as places of home, their relationships to neighboring camptowns and bases reflect an inter- and intra-connection to fellow villagers, neighboring camptowns, the US military, and the Korean polity at large. When Yŏng-sik and his gang plan to rob the US military of supplies, it is such native knowledges that enable them to do so. This complicates our understanding of camptowns and representative figures like the yanggongju. That is, the yanggongju and the camptown are not merely isolated spaces that partition respectable Koreans from boorish American soldiers. Figures like Sonya, Yŏng-sik, and Tong-sik metaphorically reflect the postwar loss and trauma of the Korean peninsula, and their relationships with one another reveal the varied subject positions of postwar South Korea. These relations of sociality—destroyed and reshaped—are negotiations of Korean subjectivity arising from the spatial and ecological changes inflicted by war, occupation, and neocolonialism.


Hellflower ends in the marshes, where Sonya and Yŏng-sik meet their demise. This area, in which light and fog seem to collide, and where silence resounds even with the main road nearby, serves as an extension of the indeterminate space of the camptown and a reflection of a postwar decomposition reified in the landscape and the characters. This is the last location where the three main characters interact with one another. In order to run away with Tong-sik, Sonya reports Yŏng-sik and his gang to the authorities. Upon getting wind of Sonya's plan, Tong-sik drives off to search for his brother, and Sonya follows in pursuit. In the meantime, a drive-by shootout between Yŏng-sik's gang and the military police results in the gang's truck tumbling over the side of the road. Hurt, Yŏng-sik stumbles away into a small body of water. Sonya finds Tong-sik in the marshes searching for his brother and implores him to go away with her, but he shoves her away. Yŏng-sik hears Sonya's cries and limps over to find her fallen in the mud. After a brief chase in which Sonya stumbles away from Yŏng-sik while pleading for her life, Yŏng-sik avenges himself by stabbing Sonya in the heart. Soon after, he collapses, succumbing to his own wounds.

The scene is significant in its dramatic conclusion, but also because the marshes themselves—considered life-generating spaces with their abundant biodiversity—paradoxically serve as ruins of war. For example, the instant Yŏng-sik spies Sonya, there is a cut from a close-up of his face to a wide shot of the two facing each other knee-deep in mud, while in the background the remains of a concrete bridge remind the spectator of Hellflower's militarized habitat (fig. 7). Like other heterotopic landscapes in the film, the marshes reflect a postwar aporia where space is made strange—the narrative is arrested as we take in the quiet, wet, misty surroundings. Nature as depicted in Hellflower is not pristine but, borrowing from Stoler, portrays the afterlives of imperial formations through landscapes of ruin.


Sonya and Yŏng-sik amid imperial ruins in Hellflower (Chiokhwa, dir. Shin Sang-ok), 1958.


Sonya and Yŏng-sik amid imperial ruins in Hellflower (Chiokhwa, dir. Shin Sang-ok), 1958.

The debris of war is not limited to its immediate or semi-immediate aftermaths; it is experienced for generations thereafter. Rob Nixon writes, “Violence, above all environmental violence, needs to be seen—and deeply considered—as a contest not only over space, or bodies, or labor, or resources, but also over time.”47 In her essay on the ecology of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), Eleana Kim critiques claims that the cease-fire between North and South Korea allowed the DMZ to revert to a “pure” and “virgin” state, shedding light on this weaponized, war-ravaged space: “In response to dominant narratives of the DMZ's nature, locals frequently mobilize examples like the U.S. use of napalm defoliants during the war, the annual spring burnoffs set by both North and South Korean militaries in the DMZ (to ensure clear sight lines), and landmine pollution to illustrate the fallaciousness of any view of nature in the DMZ as pristine or originary.”48 In recent years, local and central governments have invested in ecotourism projects even as residents of the border area are regularly endangered by the environmental fallouts of more than six decades ago. The imperial debris of the war continues to make its mark on the everyday lives of border residents.

In (re)mapping the spaces Sonya inhabits—the city, the camptown and its brothels, the fields, the lakeside, and the wetland—we observe the militarized topography of postwar South Korea. From the concrete presence of the base and its camptown, where we see old women begging for money and younger women engaging in sex work with GIs, to the abandoned spaces of nature, where Sonya strolls to and from her various rendezvous, the affective repercussions of the war are palpable. Sonya as yanggongju embodies this paradoxical condition in which traditional values, colonial influences, and militarized modernity commingle to construct a new world. Her intersectional subject position as war survivor, Korean, woman, and sex worker is a direct consequence of the war and its aftermaths, and as such is an integral aspect of the history of postwar Korea. Similarly, the landscape she inhabits is part and parcel of this history—the yanggongju and the postwar landscape informing one another, and together narrating a story in parts.


This essay has benefited from the various support I have received in its research and writing. I first thank Jessica DePrest and my DWG group including: Sarah Hearne, Rebecca Choi, Sozen Ozkan, Ashleigh Fata, Adrien Sebro, and Viola Ardeni. I am also indebted to Namhee Lee, Grace Hong, Crystal Perez, Sungha Yun, Sanghun Cho, Steven Chung, Marion Eggert, the anonymous reviewer and the editorial staff of Feminist Media Histories, and Jennifer Peterson, each of whom helped strengthen this piece immeasurably.


The Korean title Chiokhwa can be interpreted as either Hellflower or Flower in Hell. I have seen both titles used, and the latter more often. I stick with Hellflower because I believe it is an apt descriptor of Sonya's femme fatale character. In the mid-1950s and late 1960s Korean filmmakers produced diverse and well-made films addressing socially relevant issues of the time. This Golden Age came to a halt in the early 1970s due to increasingly restrictive censorship laws enacted by the Park Chung Hee dictatorship.


Shin Sang-ok himself regarded it highly among his films of the 1950s, which was a rare moment of recognition considering he dismissed all but two made during this time. See Steven Chung, Split Screen Korea: Shin Sang-Ok and Postwar Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 79. Korean motion pictures of this period had three major trends: the anti-communist film, the historical epic, and perhaps the most popular, the woman-centered melodrama. Chung, Split Screen Korea, 53.


Steven Chung, “Chapter Seven: Flower in Hell (1958): Stylization, Landscape, and the Presence of War,” in Rediscovering Korean Cinema (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2019), 135.


Such films crossed over into a number of genre classifications that include, but are not limited to, social realist, neorealist, noir, melodrama, and gangster.


Yanggongju is a Cold War-era derogatory slang term referencing female Korean sex workers involved with US soldiers. However, this misogynist term has also been used to describe or attack any Korean woman in a relationship with a GI. Previous analyses of Hellflower have focused on some of the themes I have noted, or have provided a more formalist analysis. For example see Steven Chung's previously listed works, which offer valuable in-depth research on the film and the director. In Korean, see Hwang Hye-jin, “1950 nyŏndae han'guk yŏnghwa ŭi yŏsŏng chaehyŏn kwa kŭ ŭimi: Chayubuin kwa Chiokhwa rŭl chungsimŭro” [Representation and Meaning of 1950s Popular Films: Focusing on Madam Freedom and Hellflower], Taejungsŏsayŏn'gu [Journal of Popular Narrative] 13, no. 2 (2007): 7–33; Koh Dong-yeon, “Chŏnhu han'guk yŏnghwa e tŭngjang hanŭn chuhan migun ŭi imiji: Chiokhwa (1958) esŏ put'ŏ Such'wiinbulmyŏng (2001) kkaji” [Representing American GIs in Postwar Korean Cinema: From Hellflower (1958) to Address Unknown (2001)], Miguksayŏn'gu [Korean Journal of American History] 30 (2011): 147–75.


Korean films of the 1950s and 1960s occasionally addressed the topic of the yanggongju as part of a narrative of postwar struggle, but the issue of militarized sexual labor and camptowns only entered vehement public discourse in the 1990s, when testimonies of World War II comfort women came to the fore. Films like Ŭnmanŭn oji annŭnda (The Silver Stallion Will Never Come, 1991), Arŭmdaun sijŏl (Spring in My Hometown, 1998), and Such'wiinbulmyŏng (Address Unknown, 2001) reflect this. Asian American documentaries like The Women Outside (1996) and Camp Arirang (1995) also shed light on the lives of military sex workers and camptown life in South Korea.


Here I refer to Heonik Kwon's use of the term “decomposition” to refer to the phenomenological and ethnographic experience of the Cold War in places like Korea, Vietnam, and other sites where hot wars were waged in the name of the Cold War. Heonik Kwon, The Other Cold War (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 8.


I use Mishuana Goeman's concept of (re)mapping to examine the spatial constructions and embodiments generated by colonization, militarism, and neocolonialism in South Korea. I retain her deliberate use of the parentheses to highlight my critical exploration of spaces and bodies that have been elided by discourses of Korean nationalism and US exceptionalism. Mishuana Goeman, Mark My Words: Native Women Mapping Our Nations (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 3.


I propose that the construction of US military bases in South Korea is part of this destruction. I draw from Gastoń R. Gordillo's concept of the destruction of space, which he further conceptualizes as destructive production, “a term I prefer because it captures the twofold movement of production and destruction without recoding destruction as creative.” Gastoń R. Gordillo, Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2014), 81. Space is conceived as material and malleable, and its destruction is not just about the obliteration of matter but also its impact on the social and spatial relations of humans and other sentient beings. Gordillo draws from Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, Neil Smith, Ann Stoler, and others in highlighting how capitalist expansion functions through the destruction of space in the Gran Chaco lowlands of Argentina.


I use the spelling Sonya rather than Sonia because the film's English subtitles use this spelling and I believe it better matches the Korean pronunciation of ya in Sonya. For the transliteration of Korean names into English, I use the McCune-Reischauer romanization except for names that already have been popularized through alternative spellings and capitalizations such as Park Chung Hee or Shin Sang-ok, or already have been listed by their alternative spellings in published works. Please note that the order of Korean names is the surname first, so I reference Korean authors in this manner unless they have published their works in English.


Tongduch’ŏn is a camptown just north of Seoul.


Martin Lefebvre, “Between Setting and Landscape in Cinema,” in Landscape and Film, ed. Martin Lefebvre (New York: Routledge, 2006), 29.


I refer to writers such as Katherine McKittrick, Kathleen Kirby, David Harvey, Doreen Massey, Neil Smith, and Cindi Katz, to name a few.


Gordillo, Rubble, 83.


I use Raymond Williams's concept of structures of feeling to highlight the affective and experiential formations at play in postwar Korea. I specifically draw from this passage, “For what we are defining is a particular quality of social experience and relationship, historically distinct from other particular qualities, which gives the sense of a generation or of a period.” Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 131.


There are several scholarly works on the topic of US military base expansion. In particular see Catherine Lutz, The Bases of Empire: The Global Struggle against U.S. Military Posts (New York: New York University Press, 2009); David Vine, Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2015).


Ann Laura Stoler, Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).


Katharine H. S. Moon, Sex among Allies: Military Prostitution in U.S.-Korea Relations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 28.


Oh Sang-won, “Ch’ŏljogang chubyŏn migun pudae ch'on ŭi hyŏnsil: Ŭijŏngbu” [In the Vicinity of the Barbed Wire Fence: The Reality of Ŭijŏngbu, a US Military Camptown], Tonga Ilbo, July 23, 1962, 3. This article was brought to my attention by Moon's reference in Sex among Allies, although there the date is misquoted as July 22. In Korean, “6.25” is the common moniker for the Korean War. All translations from Korean sources are mine unless otherwise noted.


Ji-Yeon Yuh, Beyond the Shadow of Camptown: Korean Military Brides in America (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 23.


Oh Yŏn-ho, Singminji ŭi adŭl ege pal ro ch'ajŭn panmi kyogwasŏ [To the Sons of Colonialism: An Anti-American Textbook Discovered through Lived Experience] (Seoul: Paeksang Sŏdang, 1994), 103.


Jin-kyung Lee calls US military sex work a form of necropolitical labor due to the disposability of the women involved. Jin-kyung Lee, Service Economies: Militarism, Sex Work, and Migrant Labor in South Korea (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 7.


[Author unknown], “Peil sok ŭi yanggongju mayakch'on: Cha [sarang] kwa pijŏng e ŏlk'in … Tongduch'ŏn pukposan-ri” [Behind the Veil of the Yanggongju Drug Village: Tongduch'ŏn Pukposan-ri Entangled in Love and Cruelty], Han'guk Ilbo, July 22, 1966, cited in Oh Yŏn-ho, Singminji ŭi adŭl ege pal ro ch'ajŭn panmi kyogwasŏ, 111.


Oh Yŏn-ho, Singminji ŭi adŭl ege pal ro ch'ajŭn panmi kyogwasŏ, 105.


Yang Chun-yong, “Palp'osagŏn kkorimunŭn kananch' ongsŏng ŭi p'yŏnghaengsŏn” [No End in Sight to the Shootings: The Parallel between Poverty and US Military Shootings of Civilians], Kyŏnghyang Sinmun, February 19, 1964, 4.


Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” Public Culture 15, no. 1 (2003): 26.


Neil Smith and Cindi Katz, “Grounding Metaphor: Towards a Spatialized Politics,” in Place and the Politics of Identity, ed. Michael Keith and Steve Pile (New York: Routledge, 1993), 68.


Oh Sang-won, “Ch’ŏljogang chubyŏn migunbudaech'on ŭi hyŏnsil: Ŭijŏngbu,” 3.


Stoler, Imperial Debris, 11.


Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 1. As Williams later illustrates, the country-city binary reflected British society's attempt at grappling with the material and affective changes that followed the Industrial Revolution. I similarly connect Hellflower's portrayal of the country versus the city as a way of making sense of postwar Korea.


Jinsoo An, “Screening the Redemption: Christianity in Korean Melodrama,” in South Korean Golden Age Melodrama: Gender, Genre, and National Cinema, ed. Kathleen McHugh and Nancy Abelman (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005), 82.


Chung, Split Screen Korea, 51.


I use “queer” in the tradition of queer of color critique, where the term signals a variety of sexual formations made nonnormative by racialized, colonial, and imperialist processes. For instance, Cathy Cohen explores the concept of “queer” to explore a more inclusive political identity: “Such a broadened understanding of queerness must be based on an intersectional analysis that recognizes how numerous systems of oppression interact to regulate and police the lives of most people.” Cathy Cohen, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 3, no. 4 (1997): 441. Roderick Ferguson uses queer of color critique to challenge liberal ideology: “Approaching ideologies of transparency as formations that have worked to conceal those intersections means that queer of color analysis has to debunk the idea that race, class, gender, and sexuality are discrete formations, apparently insulated from one another.” Roderick Ferguson, Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 4. In Gayatri Gopinath's exploration of queer diaspora, she defines queer in this way: “I use ‘queer’ to refer to a range of dissident and non-heteronormative practices and desires that may very well be incommensurate with the identity categories of ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian.’ A queer diasporic formulation works in contradisctinction to the globalization of ‘gay’ identity that replicates a colonial narrative of development and progress that judges all ‘other’ sexual cultures, communities, and practices against a model of Euro-American sexual identity.” Gayatri Gopinath, Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 11.


Grace M. Cho, Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 136.


Smith and Katz, “Grounding Metaphor,” 69.


Moon, Sex among Allies, 8.


Cho, Haunting the Korean Diaspora, 69–70.


Cho, Haunting the Korean Diaspora, 71. Cho draws from for this information.


Syngman Rhee's presidency, lasting from 1953 to 1960, was a time of instability and transition as South Korea underwent reconstruction. For approximately a decade after the war, South Korea was one of the world's poorest nations and relied heavily on US aid until the 1960s when rapid industrialization and participation in the Vietnam War dramatically changed South Korea's economy.


Seungsook Moon, “Regulating Desire, Managing Empire: U.S. Military Prostitution in South Korea, 1945–1970,” in Over There: Living with the U.S. Military Empire from World War Two to the Present, ed. Maria Höhn and Seungsook Moon (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 57.


An A-frame, as the name implies, is a wooden frame shaped like the letter A, commonly used by farmers and manual laborers to carry wood or other heavy or bulky materials.


This dialogue includes Tong-sik explaining how he was mugged recently and is looking for his brother, who came to the city several months ago to purchase some goods and never returned.


According to Korean literary scholar Noh Ji-seung, while there were certainly representations of rural life and the peasant in Korean literature and arts before the twentieth century, the arrival of modernity (commonly understood as beginning with Japanese colonialism in 1910) brought with it concerns regarding how capitalism and industrialization changed how rural life was viewed. The countryside was made strange, so to speak, in that it became the antipode to the city, which was associated with Western modernity. The countryside was the “foundation,” the “purification,” the “hospital” to the city. Noh Ji-Seung, Yŏnghwa kwan ŭi t'ajadŭl: chosŏn yŏnghwa ŭi ch'ulbal esŏ han'guk yŏnghwa hwanggŭmgi kkaji yŏnghwa pogi ŭi yŏksa [Figures of Cinema: The History of Spectatorship from Chosŏn Cinema to the Golden Era] (Seoul: Dosŏhch'ulp'an elp'i, 2016), 465–66.


Chungmoo Choi, “Nationalism and Construction of Gender in Korea,” in Dangerous Women: Gender and Korean Nationalism, ed. Elaine H. Kim and Chungmoo Choi (New York: Routledge, 1998), 28.


Kang Sŏk-yŏng, “Nat kwa kkum” [Days and Dreams], in Supsok ŭi bang [A Room in the Woods] (Seoul: Minumsa, 1986), 269. For an English translation see Kang Sŏk-yŏng, “Days and Dreams,” in Words of Farewell: Stories by Korean Women Writers, trans. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton (Seattle: Seal, 1989), 1–27.


Pok Kkŏ-il, Kempŭ Seneka ŭi kiji ch'on [Camp Seneca's Camptown] (Seoul: Munhak gwa chisŏngsa, 1994), 178.


Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 8.


Eleana J. Kim, “Toward an Anthropology of Landmines: Rogue Infrastructure and Military Waste in the Korean DMZ,” Cultural Anthropology 31, no. 2 (2016): 169–70.