We should note from the outset that slapstick is named not after the genre from which it originally derives but from that genre's defining prop. Although most often associated with Hollywood silent films from 1910s to the 30s in which kinesthetic geniuses like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd made careers of elegant pratfalls, cheeky brawls, and frantic chases the genre originated in the live performances of Italian Comedia dell'Arte, in which the original slapstick was an actual device that made a loud crack when a performer was hit. 1 A weapon of a kind that appealed to primal pleasures, it was designed to imply pain that was not actually felt. Accordingly, slapstick remains a visual strategy for simultaneously displaying and mitigating violence. The appeal of this classically lowbrow humor has persisted in popular entertainment: from these Italian roots, through the traveling vaudeville performances of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, through Hollywood and, as I will explore in this article, in moviemaking late in the age of globalization.

Slapstick's popular appeal seems to have something to with the communal function of its ritualized form.2 For Georges Bataille (citing Chaplin's 1925 film, The Gold Rush, though not the term itself), the laughter prompted by slapstick comedy affords a divine experience of feeling exempt from anguish and a joy of communication among laughers3 Bataille here echoes an element of Walter Benjamin's characterization of such laughter, also with Chaplin in mind, as a therapeutic amelioration for the challenges of modern technological change.4 Bataille skirts some of the most conflicted aspects of Benjamin's vision by linking this communal laughter to a key element of his philosophy, namely ritualized sacrifice, which he characterizes as a "passionate release" that serves "to liberate violence while marking off the domain in which violence reign absolutely."5 The victim of violence in Bataille's containment strategy is given over to destruction in order to save the community at large from ruination.6At stake for Benjamin in slapstick was something more vexed and ultimately more radical than containment or therapy as it was as well for Henri Bergson in his own landmark essay on the topic namely the unresolved tension in modern comedy between the liberatory potential of machines and their contrary tendency to foreclose freedom.7 Although it seems to stem from Benjamin's analysis, Bataille's instrumental vision of slapstick humor dispenses with the antinomic nature of Benjamin's thought. As Miriam Hansen so carefully chronicled, Benjamin's formulation of American slapstick comedy (and of early Disney films) was part of a desperate gamble to locate in modern technology the possibility of a fate other than "the alienation of the senses that abets the deadly violence of imperialist warfare and fascism" for which this technology had already been appropriated.8 Benjamin was indeed horrified by this capacity in modern technology, but hoped that within "the linkage of laughter and violence with the sadomasochistic slant of spectatorial pleasure" that characterized such popular forms, he might also find "alternative visions of technology and the body, prefiguring a utopian mobilization of the 'collective physis' and a different organization of the relations between humans and their environment."9 Unlike Bataille's cruelly pragmatic collectivity, then, slapstick for Benjamin offered the utopian possibility of the reorganization of social relations outside of fascist teleology by rehearsing violence as pleasurable spectacle. Hansen points out that this was theory conceived under great duress in the late 1930s, with Adorno's disapproval making clear the extent to which Benjamin's gambit risked valorizing the very ruthless powers that had come to determine the meanings of modern technologies. Nevertheless, "by activating individually based mass-psychotic tendencies in the space of collective sensory experience and, above all, in the mode of play," Benjamin hoped that slapstick and its collective laughter "might prevent them from being acted out in reality, in the form of organized mob violence, genocidal persecution, or war."10

Benjamin's antinomic reading of slapstick also offers a crucial understanding of the genre as it moves temporally through history into the present and spatially as it becomes a global generic form. Benjamin understood that slapstick's mitigation of violence always simultaneously preserves the violence it is meant to relieve, along with the fascist potentiality it might diminish. While funny, slapstick is also distressing, demonstrating a subject's vulnerability to harm in the same breath that it proposes to solve it. It mimics the systemic hostility that it works to undo with revolutionary reversal. According to Hansen, Benjamin believed that the "alienation of the senses that abets the deadly violence of imperialist warfare and fascism can be undone only in the realm of technology itself, by means of new media of reproduction that allow for a collective and playful (that is, nonfatal) innervation."11 The innervation proposed here, a "mode of adaptation, assimilation, and incorporation of something external and alien to the subject,"12 contrasts with Freudian introjection. Neurophysical rather than psychological, innervation is more mechanical, allowing for an instrumental view of the kind of internalization it describes. Accordingly, comic characters, such as those that Benjamin wrote about in Molière, pose less "the inner life of man understood empirically" and more "the brilliance of a single trait, which allows no other to remain visible in its proximity."13 In the case of slapstick, the singular comic trait, particularly in the Chaplin model that Benjamin had in mind, most always highlights a relation between violence and technology that the comic performance, in toggling between them, emphasizes both the fact of their relation, and also the ease with which slapstick pivots in both directions, between the cruelty of machines and the release of humor.

In toggling, I mean to invoke not only the specifically mechanical sense of switching between different modes implied in, say, computing but also the antinomic quality that Benjamin ascribed to Chaplin. Slapstick's utility as a critical tool inheres precisely in this toggling quality, which allows both the visualization of persistent historical violence as well as means to seek distance from it. Encompassing both sides of the comedy/tragedy dyad, slapstick suspends a pre-determined moment in which one might sense manifold possibilities before their foreclosure. Benjamin understood that the interwar industrial period was particularly salient for viewing the alignment between modern advancement and fascist catastrophe when, as Horkheimer and Adorno famously put it in 1944, "the wholly enlightened earth [was] radiant with triumphant calamity."14Slapstick became relevant in this historical context because it called attention to the capacity of genre to realize past forms into present contexts. Theodore Martin has suggested the "double life" of genres as both historical and contemporary: that is, they "explain how aesthetic and cultural categories become recognizable as well as reproducible in a given moment" and at the same time "demonstrate how the conventions and expectations that make up those categories are sedimented over time," and in so doing, they offer "a set of shared conventions for categorizing our otherwise disorienting experiences of the present."15 Benjamin's account of slapstick isolates the dynamic interaction between past and present as a paradigmatic transitional moment in the broader historical morphology of genres. Hansen points out that that Benjamin turned not to the classical cinema of the immediate period but to the comedies of the previous decade (Chaplin and early Disney films) in order to locate an aporia for the critical historicism that staged the terms of the present crisis in a manner that left open an alternative revolutionary possibility.16 Perhaps due to its inevitably primal quality, slapstick humor always seems both of and prior to the present, whenever that may be. Because of its toggling quality, slapstick self-reflexively foregrounds genre's double life in the manner that Julie Orlemanski has ascribed to metaforms, which "illuminate certain facets of what they encompass, connecting these highlighted features in a complex and never fully articulable web of relations."17 In what seems a protracted moment at which aesthetic practices seem to hem and haw before a crossroad, historical relations become more legible.

This toggling between past and present also highlights slapstick's historical utility in dilating specifically on technological innovation. We recall this feature most famously Chaplin's Modern Times (1936), in which slapstick technique comically foregrounds and troubles the kind of coordination that industrial modernity demands of the human body. At the same time, filmic slapstick represents not so much the movie magic of special effects but an older tradition of trickery based on bodily movement and coordination. And so, even when slapstick methods have been deployed in not specifically industrial contexts, they have always emphasized precision in timing and delivery, remaining true to the origin of the genre in a stage prop. Especially as contemporary filmmaking comes to rely more on CGI technology to dazzle its audiences with spectacles of mechanized action, slapstick atavistically draws attention to the performer's physical relation to the prop itself. As a result, slapstick remains useful for thinking about machinery at human scale, both in the sense of literal technology and in the more metaphoric register of the systemic machinery that drives different iterations of capitalist accumulation.

Under this final rubric, we turn now toward the afterlife of slapstick in the context of western deindustrialization and the globalization of production and distribution networks that results. Here, the just-in-time comedy of slapstick technique, which emphasizes orchestration and co-ordination comes to meet the Just-In-Time (JIT) logics of contemporary containerization and world supply chains,18 in which, as Lucy Hunter and L. Ryan put it, "it doesn't matter where parts are put together, it matters when."19 Placing this more contemporary context alongside Benjamin's historical moment, we see a scalar expansion of Benjamin's logic and the general utility of slapstick toggling as a critical tool to investigate systemic crisis. Whereas industrial slapstick grappled with the machine itself as synecdoche for industrial systems and Fordist logics, postindustrial slapstick grapples with the more abstract machinery that constitute global circulation systems. Our transhistorical juxtaposition recalls Benjamin's strategy at his troubled historical juncture: to reach back to the recent (and not distant) past for an aesthetic practice that suspended the moment before its determination by holding out the possibility of laughter against that of violence.20The relevant crisis here is the collapse of the Washington Consensus global liberal world order, which was most clearly epitomized by the failure of the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) trade alliance in 2017, when the Trump administration formally withdrew the U.S. from the negotiations that it had been leading since the Obama administration. Here, the semiperipheral perspective of South Korea offers a paradigmatic picture of global trade anxieties of the period.21 Beginning in the second decade of the 21st century, South Korea began to face the growing contradiction between its economic interests, increasingly tied to China, and its security alliances with the U.S. The high stakes of this conflicted position became painfully clear in 2016 during the controversy over the South Korean decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), a U.S. missile defense system, on the Korean peninsula to protect the nation from the burgeoning North Korean nuclear weapons program. In an episode that resonated with the U.S. Cuban missile crisis in 1962, China expressed its displeasure about having U.S. missile technology so close to its border by quickly imposing a series of economic sanctions on Korean products that threatened the Korean economy to the tune of $15 billion, potentially reducing Korean GDP growth by 20% in 2017.22 While this military context is outside the purview of this article, it reminds us of the more direct forms of violent conflict that lurk behind trade conflicts.

The more important point here is that, as an export-dependent nation in a historical moment in which the largest economies have increasingly ducked behind their large domestic markets with more protectionist strategies, South Korea found itself having to manage a high-stakes improvisation under uncertain conditions, in which once dependable markets and trading partners suddenly became unreliable and new growth opportunities came with considerable costs. In this respect, South Korea occupied a position in this new world order that becomes paradigmatic not only for the many export-dependent nations that enjoyed stability under Washington Consensus protocols but also for large corporate entities like Hollywood motion picture studios and the U.S.'s National Basketball Association (NBA), both of which have been forced to weigh significant compromises in order to realize growth markets in Asia (mostly in China). These state and non-state actors have had to engage in a kind of slapstick toggling, ad-libbing economic relations in an unstable environment while fending off the many dangers and pitfalls that attend such a tenuous strategy. US depression-era slapstick logics in the Benjaminian mode thus become useful for thinking about this post-Washington Consensus world order, a transitional moment when economies like that of South Korea, having built according to a globalized blueprint for decades (for better or for worse), suddenly had the rug pulled out from under them.

Economists have historically justified free trade agreements using David Ricardo's notion of comparative advantage, which argues that international trade "expands a nation's consumption possibilities frontier even if it has an absolute productivity advantage in producing every good."23 But as critics have pointed out, such logic requires perfect competition, free of the "monopolies, oligopolies, cartels, state-trading enterprises, and parastatal organizations" that dominate contemporary global commerce.24 Throughout the Washington Consensus era of free trade, particularly after the establishment of the World Trade Organization in 1995, the nature of trade agreements has changed considerably from their initial focus on lowering high postwar tariffs to a more recent attention on pressing the advantages of multinational corporations by strengthening international regulatory standards in rent-seeking ventures and decreasing flexibility in cross border capital flows.25 Notwithstanding the persistence of sanguine 1990s rhetoric about free trade's salutary benefits, a profound imbalance currently determines interstate trade relations. As Anwar Shaik has pointed out, the results are already encoded in the rules of the game, and are just as determined as the fates of stock characters in Comedia dell'Arte, in which the young, wealthy hero would wield the slapstick to punish the old, poor fool: "Simply opening up the markets of a developing country exposes its businesses to powerful international competition, whether or not they are internationally competitive. And if they are not, they will lose out on a large scale."26In the South Korean films discussed below Veteran (Beterang, 2015), Psychokinesis (Yŏmnyŏk, 2018), and a pair of otherwise unrelated movies both entitled (though they are slightly differently in Korean), El Condor Pasa (K'ondurŭn naraganda, 2012;, El kkondorŭ ppasa, 2016) slapstick toggles between violence and humor, alternately acknowledging and obscuring this basic fact. All of these films deploy slapstick conventions in this historical context as part of a broader attempt to grapple with the stakes of the global realignments that become necessary after the end of the Washington Consensus. None of these films are primarily slapstick comedies, but three of the four deploy the generic language of slapstick to produce comedic effects, while the fourth offers an illustrative counterpoint.27 In most global cinemas, slapstick has become less a discrete genre and more a filmic lexicon of generic stunts, gestures, and techniques that blends with local traditions of folk humor and is worked into other genres, which in turn become more hybridic. Veteran, for example, is an action comedy. Within this frame, these films deploy slapstick features to mimic the hostilities of a free trade system that purports to form more salutary global communities, and thus slapstick paradoxically reveals the violence that it intends to mitigate. If it proposes to render violence inconsequential, it also exposes the violence that inheres in seemingly inconsequential activities. But whereas Veteran and Psychokinesis use slapstick in a more or less Bataillian fashion in order to consolidate nationalist sentiments and to adjudicate the villains that would prevent a more harmonious system of free trade (chaebol, China) the El Condor Pasa films, in different ways, realize a Benjaminian antinomic vision that emerges when logistics becomes a mode of redemption.

Just-in-time Humor

Part of the appeal of the 2015 CJ Entertainment hit, Veteran, was its generic mashup of police thriller and comedic conventions. The film topped the Korean box office that year ahead of the historical drama Assassination (Amsal) and even the Marvel extravaganza partially shot in Seoul, The Avengers: The Age of Ultron. Its success was owed partly to its use of a slapstick mode. The film begins with a sting operation in which undercover police officers bait a group of car thieves into revealing their base of operations, an auto paint shop, where a comic fight ensues. Slapstick elements in Veteran are faithful to generic tradition: the hero's wily fighting style produces laughs more than bruises. Though short on the choreographic genius of Jackie Chan, the fight owes a debt to the Hong Kong martial artist's style of quirky combat, in which acrobatics are punctuated by clever improvisations weaponizing ordinary objects on hand, sophomoric stunts ending in groin injuries, and funny ironies where a fool injures himself in a fight that moves too fast for his capacity to follow (Fig. 1).28 Chan's innovation in 1970s Hong Kong filmmaking was his realization of the possibility for humor already implicit in the Kung Fu action film that is, the absurdities of staged violence that, however balletic, were ultimately faked. Ackbar Abbas links this comedic turn, a far cry from Bruce Lee's avenging angel, to "the relaxation of colonial tensions" in the period that lasted until Thatcher's visit to Hong Kong in 1982, an optimistic period when colonialism seemed more a cause for laughter than consternation "no more than a formal administrative presence that did not interfere with the real life of the colony."29 We might add here that the protests and violence that re-emerged in Hong Kong during the Umbrella Movement in 2014 and the Anti-Extradition Law Protests in 2019 revealed that the violence was not so much dissipated by comedy but held in abeyance.

Fig. 1. Slapstick fight in Veteran (2015).

In the manner of Chan, slapstick in Veteran manifests Detective Seo's easy charisma, offering comic relief from the villain, Cho Tae-oh (Yoo Ah-in), the maniacal scion of the Sinjin Group, a family-run chaebol (large Korean conglomerate). In 2015, Hwang Jung-min, the actor who plays Detective Seo, was fresh off of his performance in Ode to My Father (Gukjesijang, 2014) as a Forrest Gump-like nationalist everyman who is co-incidentally present at all the major events in modern Korean history. Ode to My Father, like Veteran, thrived at the box office, giving Hwang a pair of hits in consecutive years. Despite the generic difference, a populist line runs through these performances.30 A hero for the masses, Detective Seo is principled and jocular whereas the villain Cho is violent and humorless. Slapstick thus registers class difference as temperament, marking the difference between everyone else and the world of the Sinjin Group, in which Cho is a high-placed executive vying for power against his siblings as the elderly Chairman faces other challenges. The chaebol son is not in on the joke.

In this vein, slapstick in Veteran becomes a means to stage the problem of jurisdiction that troubles communal formation, specifically the problem of elites who evade legal restraint and lack concern for the greater good. Their wealth seems to offer reprieve from the kind of adjudication that governs everyone else in the film (including Detective Seo's family) who struggles with the financial demands of daily life. More specifically, Veteran is concerned with the fate of a truck driver named Bae (Jung Woong-in), who brings his complaint to the Sinjin Group when a subcontractor fails to pay him.31 Bae is humiliated at the corporate offices, where he ostensibly attempts suicide (with no witnesses) and falls into a coma. Having befriended this truck driver through the opening case in the film, Detective Seo risks his own career to investigate, against the orders of higher ups who are under the influence of the powerful corporation and insist that this is not his case to investigate (i.e. out of his jurisdiction). Accordingly, until its very last moments, the final showdown between Seo and Cho at the end of the film is not comedic, proceeding according to the violent predilections of Cho (a masochistic mixed-martial arts fanatic) rather than Seo's irreverent shtick. It is only when a thoroughly defeated Seo returns to slapstick, handcuffing Cho to himself as he lies exhausted on the ground that the tide turns. Crucially, at this precise moment, Seo laughs; and it is by making Cho the butt of the joke that the outcome of the fight, and of the film in general, is secured. Just as the slapstick maneuver pulls Cho back into the jurisdiction of comedy, Seo's ultimate victory succeeds in preventing him from fleeing to Singapore where he would be able to evade the reach of Korean law and in valorizing the community from which Cho would otherwise purchase exemption.

By invoking Singapore, a global financial hub, the film gestures toward another relevant characteristic of slapstick  its supralinguistic ability to form transnational communities of laughers. Put simply, slapstick translates. In Veteran, this transnational quality doesn't obviate the kind of national sovereignty that Detective Seo manages to secure at the end of the film, but rather expands its scale to broader accords. Like much of Korean cinema in the decade in which the Transpacific Partnership emerged as a potential elixir for declining global growth under waning U.S. hegemony, Veteran is self-consciously concerned with South Korea's economic options in the devolving world system late in this globalist cycle. The TPP's final effort to preserve a global economic order under U.S. leadership and to establish a bulwark against China's bid for a new world order officially ended when the U.S. withdrew from negotiations, leaving subimperial nations like South Korea in the lurch.32 Veteran reflects this crisis of globalization. The opening police operation about car theft in the movie, we learn, is actually part of an illegal export operation, in which Korean criminals conspire with Russian counterparts to ship stolen luxury cars abroad. The investigation culminates in a confrontation between cops and robbers, appropriately then, in a Busan logistics hub a shipping container facility where the cargo is being prepared for transport. There the police team wait for the illegal transnational transaction to occur and leap into action once it is complete, leading to a comic chase through a nearby labyrinth formed by shipping containers.

Fig. 2. Circulatory chase in Veteran (2015).

Through what we might term a circulatory chase, this scene weds slapstick conventions to the circulatory demands of free trade in the literal milieu of global commerce, invoking what Joshua Clover terms a "circulation struggle."33 Here, massively-scaled distribution serves as increasingly desperate compensation for declining industrial production in formerly developmentalist economies at a moment when the certainty of that trade begins to unravel (Fig. 2).34 The dramatic shipping yard scene in the era of containerization has been something of staple in Hollywood film iconography at least since Warner Brothers' Lethal Weapon 2 (1989), which ends at the Port of Los Angeles with a confrontation between the detective heroes and the apartheid-era Afrikaners attempting to ship millions of dollars of drug money out of the country by freight. The plot device was later refashioned as a red herring in the 20th Century Fox blockbuster Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), in which the villain blows up a tanker ship supposedly with $140 billion in gold bullion on board, feigning a radical act intended to destabilize the global economy in order to hide his actual theft.35 But if both of these are films that express Washington Consensus anxiety about capital flight in a globalizing economy, then Veteran perhaps owes more to a scene in the 2011 film, Hanna, in which the title character is chased through a container park with the industrial electronica of The Chemical Brothers serving as a soundtrack. By situating physical struggles in this mise-en- scène, both scenes figure slightly later economic anxieties than is expressed in the two previous Hollywood examples, in which earlier fears of trade imbalances and improprieties modulate into fears of trade no more.

Veteran's circulatory chase dramatizes growing doubts about the sustainability of massive logistics enterprises, doubts which became fully realized in the failure of Hanjin Shipping in 2016, just a year after Veteran's theatrical release, when dozens of uncapitalized ships were left to drift at sea as the company suddenly went into receivership, the ports refusing entry to vessels (some called them ghost ships) incapable of paying their fees.36 Until such catastrophic breaking points, the driving ethos of these logistics operations has been to to proceed with blinders on. The frenetic nature of Veteran's circulatory chase, here in comic form, encapsulates the imperative toward keeping the system running. Like slapstick with its just-in-time humor,37 logistics operations in this context attempt to defeat contingency with performances of technological coordination. Owing a debt to Hollywood silent comedies, this particular iteration departs from the scene of production famously epitomized in Chaplin's Modern Times. In Chaplin, as Michael North glosses, "the comedian needs to become part of the machine in order to extract its comic possibilities, meeting its movements with acrobatic skill, matching its split-second timing with his own" in the context of industrial production.38 In the circulatory chase, comedic skills instead become deployed to meet the needs of distribution in an aesthetics that mimics the global supply chain. A more chaotic version of the heist narrative, slapstick in this scene reflects the way in which logistics operations always occur at their limit point, always threatening to succumb to unruly entropy, producing, to borrow Jennifer Fay's description of weather in Buster Keaton, "a simulated environment that is most virtuosic in its unworking."39 Detective Seo gets wedged in between two containers, but nevertheless continues to fight a Russian criminal. The hilariously violent Miss Bong (Jang Yoon-shin), the only woman on the squad, mistimes a dive at a fleeing perp and knocks herself unconscious. Team leader Oh (Oh Dal-su) pulls up alongside another running criminal and casually convinces him that it would just be easier for him to stop running and get in the van. It's a funny scene.But it is also a fleeting scene in a film that ultimately seems unwilling to embrace its full slapstick potential. In this respect, it clings to the pragmatism of Bataille more than the antinomic utopianism of Benjamin. That is to say, the film ultimately wishes to preserve the system it makes the object of its humor. This is not a critical slapstick that questions the heart of the global free trade enterprise but rather a call for measured restraint. So, while the film's final showdown between Detective Seo and Cho exhibits slapstick populism, in which working-class virtue triumphs over elitist pathology, the effort is less to incite more general class conflict and more to advocate for better stewardship over corporate endeavors. The fight after all takes place in Myeong-dong, a popular tourist shopping neighborhood in the center of Seoul where the retail arms of many of the nation's largest chaebols are abundantly represented and duty-free shopping is common. Similarly, while the circulatory chase scene broaches the question of sustainability, it ultimately is more concerned about rule of law than the fate of the global system. Veteran thus renders identical the problem of free trade and the problem of national sovereignty in a globalized economic frame, retreating finally into a cautionary, semi-protectionist mode that questions the terms of the deal but not the validity of the enterprise, and leaves unresolved the more troubling questions it opens in the Busan shipyards.

Fried Chicken Behind the Barricade

Released in the U.S. as a "Netflix Original," Redpeter's Psychokinesis tells the story of a Seok-heon (Ryu Seung-ryong) who has left behind his wife and his daughter Roo-mi (Shim Eun-kyung), after falling into horrible debt. Years later, he is reunited with Roo-mi, now the proprietor of a once thriving fried-chicken restaurant, just at the moment when she and a group of local merchants fight for fair compensation against Tae-san, a large conglomerate that wants to evict them to make room for a duty-free shopping mall geared toward the booming market for Chinese tourism. In casting these figures as victims of a more robust economic engagement between Korea and China, the film charts the costs of such a turn, echoing the kind of semi-protectionist caution that animates Veteran. But, Psychokinesis is more self-conscious about orchestration about how the system works as a whole, the broader social reorganization that results from committing to free trade logics, and who controls the enterprise. To this end, the plot turns on Seok-heon's discovery of his psychokinetic powers, acquired in a fluke, with which he is able to challenge the chaebol's determining power, transforming what promised to be a rout into a more even struggle. It is not a coincidence, then, that when Seok-heon wields his supernatural ability, he takes on the stance of a manic orchestra conductor, directing the objects that float about in the air around him as if bidding musicians to follow his whims (Fig. 3). Crucially, the struggle for control over the economic destiny of the neighborhood manifests as a struggle for everyday social reproduction.

Fig. 3. Seok-heon wielding his supernatural ability in Psychokinesis (2018).

A pair of transitional scenes in Psychokinesis, seemingly extraneous in an otherwise tightly executed comedic film, index a commitment to rehearsals of everyday temporality that define the terrain of this struggle. The first occurs about halfway through the film, after the first confrontation between the thugs representing the Tae-san corporation, when Seok-hyeon and Roo-mi decide to go to a nearby restaurant to have a quick lunch. Roo-mi leads the way through narrow alleyways while Seok-hyeon follows a few paces back. When they pass a group of men modestly eating cup ramen, Roo-mi greets them. Just then we see a young schoolgirl begging her mother for a new cell phone, promising to ace her exam while her mother remains skeptical. Taking a full minute and paced by melancholy arpeggios on a piano, the scene metonymically expresses the father's regret over his decision to leave his family by staging a contemplative walk through the milieu of everyday working-class life. The scene isn't didactic per se; it simply registers the temporality of ordinary people having ordinary meals (in contrast to the extravagant lunch that the thugs later have with their Tae-san boss) and voicing ordinary concerns.This interest in everyday life registers even more plainly a few scenes later after Tae-san has used its influence to air a bogus report on the national television news suggesting that Seok-hyeon's powers derive from North Korean military technology. The local merchant group worries that this media assault augurs a violent escalation in the tactics of their adversary. The second scene of interest, then, occurs the morning of the final showdown between the merchants and the army of police and thugs that Tae-san has assembled. It begins with a long panning zoom shot of the barricade that Seok-hyeon has built with his supernatural powers, beginning in a relative darkness that soon becomes illuminated by emerging sunlight moving at the pace of the time-lapse setting with which it was shot. The scene then cuts to a shot of an abandoned balcony and then to an alley where we see a mark spray-painted on a wall indicating that the empty house has been set to be demolished. These latter two shots are also zoom-panning and time-lapsed. These are strangely stylized moments in a commercial film with no other pretentions toward cinematic art.

The scene appropriates the aforementioned registering of everyday temporality for the barricade, which amounts to a final defense of ordinary social life against the aggressive infringements of global trade. On such a stage, we come to understand the barricade to be a blockade in the sense that Clover has described it: a strategy in circulations struggles for meeting capital "where [it] has increasingly shifted its resources."40 It doesn't just serve to protect the people behind it but also functions to interrupt transnational commerce. As both barricade and blockade, the wall of junk in the film represents the zero-sum game between the social life lived behind it and the global flows of transnational trade, for which this social life is an impediment. The barricade is thus an expression of the real costs of feeding the insatiable appetite of transnational capital .41 Both of these scenes are transitional, functioning to establish frames for subsequent action, but the protraction of time in both cases by simple duration in the first case and by time-lapse in the second calls attention to the challenges that transnational supply chains logistics seek to obviate.

Set in this transitional and transnational milieu, slapstick inheres in Seok-hyeon's psychokinetic powers, and we may think of these powers as a kind of supernatural instantiation of slapstick logistics, with affected performances of human relationships to circulating objects retooled with supernatural conceits. Furthermore, if Chaplin's route through the machine's cogs made light of Fordist alienation, then Seok-hyeon's psychokinesis playfully literalizes the circuits of global commerce as commodities that fly around at his psychic behest. He first learns of his ability to move objects with his mind in a scene early in the film when, after coming home drunk to his messy one-room apartment, he reaches for a lighter across the room to light a cigarette and is surprised when it flies to his outreached hand. At this moment, his estranged daughter Roo-mi calls him to tell him that her mother (his ex-wife) has passed away. After the funeral, he returns to his apartment to try his powers again, this time more soberly. He successfully repeats the lighter trick and then suddenly, the objects strewn across the room empty soju bottles, fast food wrappers, pots and pans, etc. float in the air and begin to spin counterclockwise around him as he turns in the opposite direction trying to apprehend what is going on (Fig. 4). Adding another element to the dizzying choreography, the camera spins around Seok-hyeon, who remains centered in the shot, in the same direction as the vortex of flying objects, but at a slightly slower pace, while a polka sets the comedic mood to a minor key. Slapstick here inheres in what Lisa Trahair, describing Buster Keaton's One Week (1920), calls "the movement of matter ... and the unstoppable momentum of that movement, its pace, temp, and rhythm, and its role in subsequent displacements, conversions and expulsions."42 Marx's dancing table becomes a spinning room; commodities fly around as if on their own in a parodic circulation that playfully mimics the kind of transnational itineracy of commerce that free trade agreements underwrite, supply chain logistics orchestrate, and the blockade impedes.

Fig. 4. Seok-heon using his powers to spin objects around him in Psychokinesis (2018).

As in the chase scene from Veteran, this staging of Seok-hyeon's psychokinetic powers presents the spectacle of frenzied circulation to comedic effect, but this implication turns out to be ironic. Although Seok-hyeon initially attempts to monetize his new superpower by getting hired as a magician, he soon turns his attention to aiding in his daughter's effort to resist the eviction. Deployed primarily in fights with thugs that try to forcibly remove the group from their neighborhood, slapstick becomes an extension of the blockade, expressing protectionist rather than entrepreneurial logics. In a series of comic fights, Seok-hyeon wards off the attackers with aplomb, including in the film's climax when a SWAT team is lifted onto the rooftop within the group's compound, for some reason, in a modified shipping container that has apparently been refashioned for this purpose (Fig. 5). When Roo-mi is pulled aboard it, and it threatens to snap away from its girding on the crane used to suspend it in the air, Seok-hyeon uses his powers to prevent it from falling and harming his daughter.

Fig. 5. Police shipping container in Psychokinesis (2018).

Although Psychokinesis is more clear-eyed than Veteran about the global context that the local merchant's resistance engages, the point is ultimately less anti-hegemonic opposition to global free trade, and more an expression of anxiety about Korea's dependence on Chinese capital and the increasingly cozy intimacy between large domestic corporations and Chinese interests. As in Veteran, the orientation is toward nationalism, the principles of which large Korean corporations seem to violate with their increasingly transnational interests. At the end of the film, Roo-mi's fiancé, who was also the lawyer that had been aiding the merchant group, picks up Seok-hyeon when he is released from prison. Before taking him to Roo-mi's new business, a thriving food truck aptly named Superhero Chicken, he first shows Seok-hyeon the now empty lot where the barricaded group had made their last stand. He tells Seok-hyeon that the duty-free mall never got built because inflated estimates and corruption proved that the project was never practical from its inception. For the moment, transnational commerce remains in abeyance as Seok-hyeon turns his powers to the task of entertaining Roo-mi's customers by floating cups of beer above their heads as they eat.

We should note here that Roo-mi's fried-chicken business itself also indexes Korean economic history. After the IMF (International Monetary Fund) Crisis in 1997-98, the number of fried chicken restaurants exploded in South Korea as unemployed workers sought other means to support their families, many of whom used their homes as collateral for loans. Growth has continued dramatically on the supply side: 10,000 restaurants in 2003; 30,000 in 2013; and 50,000 in 2017.43 But while demand has increased gradually, profits have dwindled because of increased competition. Such conditions, particularly the dangerous levels of debt among business proprietors, caused the Wall Street Journal to describe the phenomenon as Korea's "fried chicken bubble."44 Though celebrated at the end of the film as a success, Roo-mi's food truck represents the specter of declining market share for individual proprietors in that same business. In this context, the surprising and ultimately nonsensical introduction of the shipping container in the film's finale (to my knowledge, this is not an actual police tactic in Korea or elsewhere) serves as a reminder of the limits of the domestic market that Roo-mi's customers represent. Like Veteran, then, Psychokinesis is ultimately limited in its vision of Korean political economy, notwithstanding its insights about the social costs of aggressive free trade. The film's representations of systematic economic problems ultimately dead-end with the nomination of antagonists, namely greedy chaebol and Chinese capital. As in Veteran, the system's villain obscures the villainy of the system.

Why Did the Condor Cross the Road?

The 2016 film, El Condor Pasa, is framed by a pair of shots which depict similar scenes with mirrored blocking, offering an example of one kind of transnational flow in the figure of a group of Andean musicians crossing an otherwise static scene. In the film's opening shot, the characters cross from right to left across the screen (Fig. 6), and they reverse direction at film's end. Both are stationary, long-lens shots, a fact which we can gather from the parallel geometry formed by road, lane lines, barrier, wires, and sea's horizon. Let us call these crossing shots. In film history, such shots often appear in slapstick comedies, with origins in Keystone Cops bits and Buster Keaton gags that have been riffed on recursively in the century since their debut, in everything from Wes Anderson to Benny Hill to Scooby Doo, albeit with a more frenzied aesthetic than we see in El Condor Pasa. For early practitioners and their successors, the crossing shot would usually be an element in a longer chase, in which the bodies of the running actors provided continuity through a series of different stagings.

Fig. 6. Opening shot of El Condor Pasa (2016).

Buster Keaton's Seven Chances (1925), for example, ends with an impressive sequence in which a swarm of bridal aspirants chases around the suddenly eligible bachelor, Jimmy Shannon (Buster Keaton), who has to get married by 7pm on his birthday in order to inherit $7 million. The numerous crossing shots in this larger sequence include hilarious depictions of a football game, a Turkish bath that Keaton unwittingly enters on Ladies day, a steel yard, and a bee farm; all of these serving as orderly sites of either leisure or production that become disrupted by the chaotic mob dashing after Keaton. Unlike the interspersed tracking shots that follow the racing Keaton and the women chasing him, the stationary camera of the crossing shots orients the viewer's eyes first to the features of the space before introducing the running figures as part of the broader chase. It's essentially the same scene repeated in different locations. We see bodies crossing and disrupting spaces clearly demarcated by the industries and activities that define them. The chase levels difference between otherwise disparate scenes, making a mess of particularity with its entropic tendency to ruin everything in its path.

Although the framing scenes from El Condor Pasa are certainly less frenetic than Keaton's, they do share the simultaneous compression of space and duration. Keaton's sequencing suggests that the chase covers a good deal of space, accruing humorous absurdity as it proceeds from an urban location with a flat topography to somewhere far out in nature amidst mountains and rolling deserts and leaving what remains in between the rapidly-cut scenes to our imaginations. The framing shots in El Condor Pasa, in contrast, produce this sense of spatial compression by implying the movement of these itinerant musicians over longer distances, most significantly the distance between South America and East Asia. But though different in their stagings, both examples turn on the discontinuity between the depicted spaces and the figures that occupy them. If in Keaton we are asked to reconcile the discontinuities between the different conventions of each new site that the chase enters and makes a mess of in each successive scene, then in El Condor Pasa we are forced to reckon the disparity between the group of Ecuadorian musicians, and the decidedly Korean context through which they pass.

El Condor Pasa (El kkondorŭ ppasa, 2016) was one of two films released in the last decade by Korean filmmakers with similar titles, after the iconic Peruvian song, the other being Jeon Soo-il's 2012 film (K'ondurŭn naraganda,), which was released outside of Korea with the same Spanish title (though the title is slightly different in Korean). In both versions of El Condor Pasa, the selection of an iconic Andean song for the title signals the film's interest in Korea-Latin America relations. The backdrop here is the rise of bilateral FTAs between South Korea and various Latin American nations, first in anticipation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement as it was being negotiated under U.S. guidance since 2008 and later as compensation for the breakdown of the deal when the U.S. formally withdrew in 2017. South Korea had come to an agreement with Peru in 2011, with Columbia in 2016, and with a bloc of Central American nations (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama) in 2018. In addition, South Korea began pursuing a deepening of an existing agreement (in place since 2004) with Chile in 2016 and initiated negotiations with both Mexico and Mercosur (a South American trading bloc including Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay) in 2018.South Korea's interstate trade strategies with respect to Latin America, where K-pop music and culture have gained a significant foothold, reflects semi-imperial behavior by a powerful but not dominant economy seeking reliable capital streams beyond the short term after the breakdown of the TPP and the anxiety provoked by a reliance on Chinese trade.45 In this vacuum, South Korea attempted to recoup on a smaller scale the kinds of benefits that it would have enjoyed with less effort and to greater degree in a more robust and more centrally orchestrated global system by negotiating bilateral agreements that mimic arrangements that the US once held with peripheral partners (i.e. access to natural resources and low-cost agricultural products, while securing new markets for technology and investment opportunities for financial and rent-seeking ventures). But such activity is both compensatory and nostalgic as the semiperipheral nation lacks the capacity and reach to fully reproduce the growth possible in a more robust system.

The musicians in El Condor Pasa's opening shot are an actual Ecuadorian band called Kawsay that was active in Korea for a decade until a few years after both films were released. Kawsay was part of a global wave of Andean music groups that began to pop up as street musicians in public squares and university campuses in North America and Europe during the 1990s, though Kawsay was singular in its focus on South Korea. We might think of Kawsay as standing at the intersection of two stories. One story is that of Korea's adoption of globalization as an explicit state strategy in the 1990s under the Kim Young-sam administration's segyewha initiative (segyewha literally means globalization), as an attempt to deal with slowing growth under the threat of deindustrialization. The other story is the similar situation that Latin American economies faced during the same period, seeking global solutions for troubled times. Within this broader context, as Kristie Dorr has suggested, Andean music grew into an informal global industry, prompted by the international popularity of Paul Simon's 1969 rendition of Daniel Alomía Robles's iconic Peruvian song, "El Condor Pasa," to which the two Korean films refer (though Koreans of a certain generation generally know the song through the Simon and Garfunkel version).46 Dorr argues that a local oligarchy brokered neocolonial arrangements privileging foreign investment over the interests of the domestic proletariat,47 prompting the migration of musicians from Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador and gradually the forging of an informal industry consisting of "provisional transnational performance and migration networks (that shared information about, e.g., where to play without police or merchant interference, and in some cases, how to get there while evading the risk of deportation) that connected urban centers in the Andean region to cities throughout Central America, Mexico, and, later, the United States."48 Dorr's account suggests the extent to which the musicians were at once victims of globalization and transnational entrepreneurs making the best of the same forces that caused their precarity. We might regard Andean music here on the somewhat remote eastern coast of the Korean peninsula as the mirror reverse phenomenon as K-pop in Latin America: both rooted in a crisis that is subsequently subsumed within spectacular forms.49 Kawsay's itineracy, as figured in the framing shots of El Condor Pasa, indexes the set of economic transformations that initially spurred their own long-distance chase.Kawsay's crossing into the world of the film is thus a crossing into transnational commerce that connects one index of precarity to another. The flip side of Kawsay's transnational story of migration is the domestic story of debt, which has become a dominant feature of contemporary South Korean film and television narratives since the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis when the nations household debt levels ballooned to among the highest in the world. The film tells the story of Soo-ah (Gang Ye-won), a woman who was forced to leave her formerly prosperous urban life to run a highway rest stop that she has inherited. A failing business, the rest stop comes to signify the dire state of Soo-ah's life in general. There are no customers; the food is bad; the employees are feckless; and to make matters worse, Soo-ah is asked by her down-on-her-luck brother to care for his daughter, who has not spoken aloud since her mother left the family; the brother eventually dies making the decidedly un-nurturing Soo-ah the girl's permanent caretaker. If these were not problems enough, we learn that the brother has taken out a large loan on the rest stop, which Soo-ah is now responsible for and cannot repay. The arrival of Kawsay to this plot, in the larger context of the Andean music industry as described by Dorr, functions both as mirror and ameliorative.

Though it deploys slapstick conventions, as we will see, El Condor Pasa is what we might call a business redemption film, which might be defined as a depiction of a failing business repaired with the help of an external consultant figure. Films in this subgenre appropriate generic elements from humanistic redemption films like The Shawshank Redemption (1994) or Gran Torino (2008)  in which a character reconciles a troubled past and manages to proceed with life focused on more modest satisfactions  and from the classic western plot of the stranger helping a troubled town fix its problems (The Magnificent Seven, 1960, 2016). More narrowly, the business redemption film foregrounds commercial problems, usually the lack of customers, though financial concerns frequently serve as synecdoche for broader hardships. These are most commonly either restaurant narratives, like Juzo Itami's Tampopo (1985) and Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci's Big Night (1996), or else stories about industrial or technological obsolescence, like Sidney Lumet's Network (1976), Ron Howard's Gung Ho (1986), or Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind (2008), in which the redemption of the business is part of a last-ditch attempt to save a dying industry or medium.50

El Condor Pasa encompasses many of these generic permutations: the highway rest stop is obsolete because a newly built highway bypasses its location, and even locals avoid the place because of the poor food. This causes the already depressed protagonist to regard the business as the object form of her deteriorating life. In the manner of management consultants-cum-exotic shamans, Kawsay solve all of these problems. By providing entertainment and good cheer, they eventually draw customers to the location, and they also teach the staff how to cook delicious Ecuadorian dishes like churrasco that become an immediate hit. At the culmination of the movie, a couple that we initially seeing breaking up at the rest stop earlier in the film, and later see reuniting at the same location just in time to sample the new menu, end up getting married at the business in a big wedding that the musicians plan, officiate, and cater. And in repairing the business, they also help Soo-ah and the young girl begin new lives with a degree of optimism.

Itself a kind of redemptive business, Kawsay is so helpful in the face of crisis perhaps because they themselves are also products of it. Accordingly, their intervention instantiates the salutary benefits of free trade in the face of stagnation; their relationship with Soo-ah and her business is mutually beneficial. Such an allegory would wear a thin veil, given that South Korea, with growing worries about its economic future (and its increasing dependence on exports to China), entered negotiations with Ecuador in the second half of 2015, precisely as El Condor Pasa was being made, as part of the aforementioned series of FTAs it was negotiating with Latin American nations and trading blocs during the period.But though the allegorical implications of such remediation seem clear, it remains unclear why all this film, like Veteran and Psychokinesis, employs slapstick comedy to point toward these implications. We have already broached an initial answer, which is simply that slapstick translates. Keaton himself famously hated dialogue and title cards, which he would insert with the utmost economy, far preferring to express bodily what might be otherwise put into words. In El Condor Pasa, the challenge presented by a film made for a Korean audience featuring quite a bit of spoken Spanish is solved by Kawsay's leader who speaks both Korean and Spanish fluently. The presence of a translator between the Korean speaking management in the film and the Spanish-speaking workers in turn suggests the kinds of negotiations and accords occurring during that same period over interstate trade.

A slapstick scene that occurs through the midpoint of the movie provides a fuller answer. Kawsay decide to have a night-time barbeque party in front of their makeshift home, which appropriately for this free-trade comedy is actually a shipping container. Toward the end of the meal, one of the rest-stop employees learns that the meat that he has been eating with such relish comes from his beloved pet goat, which the band members had prepared without realizing that it was his pet. A slapstick chase subsequently erupts, depicted in two discrete shots, the first in which the group chases around the shipping container and then the second a crossing shot in which the chase proceeds back and forth through and out of a stationary frame centered around the rest-stop's front doors (Figs. 7 and 8). As in Veteran, this is a circulatory chase. Here the scene comically re-enacts what the rest stop as a business so dearly lacks: traffic. This traffic in turn compensates for the lack of customer flow with a spectacle of zany movement.51 In so doing, the scene resituates this otherwise forgotten rest stop on a forgotten road as a site of not just local but global circulation, a milieu in which it becomes quite natural to see Andean musicians who sleep in a converted shipping container chased by an angry country yokel seeking vengeance for his pet goat. Comedy engages here in what Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai, citing the deformation of the living into the mechanical and vice-versa in both Bergson and Zumpancic, describe as the comic ability to offer a "pleasure-spectacle of form's self-violation." Human figures toggle here between literal and figurative registers, becoming increments of supply-chain logistics in the manner that Chaplin famously became a cog in the machine. As in the two films discussed above, free-trade slapstick here parodically reconstitutes global circulation at human scale, but El Condor Pasa's slapstick concerns are more fundamental. The film is keenly aware that comedy is finally an anxious form of expression, and one that frequently maps on to the broader anxieties of the age. This film is far less confident in adjudicating the villains of global commerce, but rather seems to intuit that the problem is much more deep-seated and fundamental. In this respect, the logics animating El Condor Pasa are more like those of U.S.-depression era slapstick than those of Veteran and Psychokinesis. But if in Chaplin and Keaton the anxiety is about the place of humans in a world of machines and industrial capitalism, then the anxiety of the free trade comedy here is something like: how long can we keep up this chase?

Fig. 7. Chase scene in front of Kawsay's shipping container home in El Condor Pasa (2016).


Fig. 8. Chase scene in front of highway rest stop in El Condor Pasa (2016).

It turns out not for long. Although El Condor Pasa resolves its redemption narrative with the business's success, the emotional healing of Soo-ah, and the final speech of the heretofore silent young girl, it also fails to deliver the ego ideal of the business redemption film, the business model. That is, the film conspicuously avoids the question of sustaining the rest stop's recent success with the departure of its primary generator of revenue when Kawsay continue their musical itineracy down the road. This avoidance calls attention to the fact that it was not the new practices that led to the business' success, but the accord that underlay them. Slapstick in the film thus references transnational accord while simultaneously indexing the limits of such ephemeral solutions: the imagined community is merely a patch. Crucially, then, although the motley crew at the highway rest stop come together to form a short-lived community, we see that this is a community not facilitated by the determination of a sacrificial victim as a means to limit harm (as Bataille might have it), but rather one that is entirely composed of sacrificial victims whose loose and transient sense of affiliation is formed not out their survival of violence but rather in relation their continual vulnerability to it. In the most comic register, the goat's victimhood becomes that of his owner at the moment he realizes his delicious dinner was once his beloved pet. But at a further remove, we see that everyone that participates in the circulatory chase has been made to suffer the consequences of actions not their own. As we have seen, Kawsay's travels are less the romantic itineracy of artist rogues and more the forced migration set in motion by oligarchs choosing their own priorities at the expense of others. The girl cannot speak not because of a medical condition but because of the traumas that she has already endured at this young age. And perhaps most pertinently, Soo-ah's debt burden is no less heavy, even though it was passed on to her by her brother who, under difficult conditions, reached for the elixir of easy credit.The post-IMF period in South Korea witnessed a debt-shift, namely the shift of state and corporate debt to the general public. Jamie Doucette and Bongman Seo have argued that the supposed return to healthy growth of the South Korean economy following the IMF bailout in 1998 and specifically the "historic growth in stock market capitalization and the financial profit rate" was based on the simultaneous "historic rise in consumer debt."52 The death blow to state-orchestrated industrial policy meted out by the IMF bailout terms led to a "more haphazard financial system," in which capital accumulation depended on improvisation in different ventures. This new financial system culminated in the so-called "credit card crisis" of 2003, when outstanding credit-card debt had increased by five times in the space of less than five years. South Korea had gone from having one of the highest rates of savings in the world to among the highest rates of consumer debt.53 The explosion of consumer debt in the immediate post-IMF period has turned out to be a turning point and not an aberration. South Korea's household debt (which includes consumer debt and mortgages) hit a record $1.3 trillion in 2017 and has continued to increase since then, growing at the among the fastest rates in the world.54 The social cost of such changes was immediate, most starkly visible in debt-related suicides, reports of which became fixtures in television news and depictions of which became widely prevalent in Korean film and television.

The point here, however, is not to pin the transnational social relations articulated in El Condor Pasa on this specific material frame but rather to highlight more generally the way in which even utopian visions of communal formation in the film are undergirded by transnational systems of interconnected relations that create opportunities for capital at the expense of more capacious networks of vulnerability. This is a business redemption narrative in which the solution reproduces the crisis that required the initial fix. The kind of post-IMF Korean debt-shift that Doucette and Seo trace is symptomatic of a broader global framework in which it becomes easier for powerful interests to game the system in the name of freedom and global harmony.

This is ultimately the toggle of free trade slapstick. Doubling down on the liberal rhetoric of postwar internationalism in which the rising tide of free trade would lift all boats, free trade efforts at the end of the Washington Consensus era served to "empower a different set of rent-seeking interests and politically well-connected firms" than those that had dominated an earlier era. Benefitting "international banks, pharmaceutical companies, and multinational firms," such free trade policies, as Dani Rodrik has noted, aimed for "purely redistributive outcomes under the guise of 'freer trade.'"55 Logistics operations, in this context, are always trying to perfect something other than free trade, lip-service notwithstanding. In slapstick's pairing of communal humor and violence, we see how the spectacle of cooperation and affiliation falls immediately apart in the face of the kind of sub-imperial exploitation that Korea-Latin American FTAs formalize. These imbalances are felt not necessarily between nations per se but rather are more forcefully staged between capital and labor, and between large and small producers in industry and agriculture. Class difference becomes increasingly transnational. It is not surprising then that the case against FTAs has typically been made in terms of human rights.56 At the end of the Washington Consensus, trade deals and transnational trading bloc are more about the tenuous balance of competing interests and the effort to manage uneven leverage than they are about leveling global playing fields.57 Community becomes a mode of transnational exploitation rather than its remedy.In El Condor Pasa (2016) then, we sense at last the full measure of slapstick toggling between the desire for redemption (be it economic or personal) on the one hand and the exposure to harm that redemptive efforts risk on the other. And because the very possibilities of social cohesion that might redress the systemic inequities that made redemption necessary require reproducing free trade logics rather than abandoning them, this toggling becomes all the more frantic. Its happy ending notwithstanding, El Condor Pasa, much more than Veteran or Psychokinesis, evokes the impasse that determines this historical moment, which requires us to keep up the chase even when we see that we are running in circles.

So Funny I Forgot to Laugh

Totally bereft of slapstick, El Condor Pasa, the 2012 art film by indie-auteur Jeon Soo-il, seems to share only a title with its 2016 namesake. Depicting the reaction of a priest to the brutal rape and murder of a young girl from his parish whom he had favored, the film moves painfully slowly through his feelings of guilt and quest for redemption, which ends, somewhat inexplicably, with a trip to Peru.58 As is the case in many of Jeon's films, which often involve travel overseas, it is not immediately clear why the priest has to go to that distant location, though El Condor Pasa does offer the audience the opportunity to hear finally the song after which the film is named.

But if the film's diegesis fails to explain the need to travel, the film's more comic namesake offers a comparative frame for the problem of redemption that inheres in Jeon's invocation of travel, in both business and personal registers. Despite their differences, both films share a set of anxieties about how radical interconnectedness yields radical vulnerability. While the comic El Condor Pasa is committed to an explicit thematization of global traffic flows in a comedic mode, its somber cousin offers a sublimated version of the trade deal in which emotional inputs are sought abroad when they are lacking at home. And though slapstick is absent from Jeon's version, the critical toggling associated with it persists in the structure of the priest's guilt. In this respect, this emotional redemption film has more in common with the business redemption model discussed above than might be initially apparent. Crucially, as with Soo-ah and her highway rest stop, it is not clear that the priest is culpable in any direct way. Guilt functions in the film not only as something like an unpayable debt, an all-consuming force that demands much more than timely remittances, but also as in the other El Condor Pasa, as a debt that is actually incurred by someone else who is more directly responsible (the brother in one film, the murderer in the other). The priest had always kept an eye out for the young girl, and the violent attack that ended her life was difficult to anticipate, even though it came at the hands of someone the priest knew. Nevertheless, he feels a growing burden for not being able to spare the young girl who was deeply devoted to his church.

The need for redemption thus expresses a need to alleviate a form of guilt that is more profound than that of the original perpetrator, who is too consumed with his own problems to look outward at the damage he has inflicted. Bound not to the logic of personal responsibility but to the vagaries of broader social relations, guilt arises not as a result of one's own actions but over the unintended consequences of actions that are adjacent to one's own, adjacencies which are in turn spatialized in the film through the spectacle of international travel. Typically for Jeon Soo-il, transnational travel opens up an allegorical space of both utter confusion and potential redress. Because the resolutions are always ambiguous, Jeon's vision of transnational travel always resolves into something that is more like an echo chamber than a pilgrimage. By placing this guilt in the context of global trade, however, we might finally make sense of what seems otherwise nonsensical travel. The pressures of such burdensome debt, we might say, require a spatial fix.

Fig. 9. Perspectival shot before murder of young girl in El Condor Pasa (2012).


Fig. 10. Perspectival shot before priest is robbed in El Condor Pasa (2012).

In contrast to the light-hearted crossing shots in the film's namesake, Jeon's El Condor Pasa offers a pair of perspectival shots from handheld cameras of narrow alleyways, one in Korea (in Busan) and the other in a rural town in Peru (Figs. 9 and 10). The first represents the perspective of the young girl before she is killed; and the second is that of the priest just before he is robbed and stabbed. We might think of such shots as exact opposites of the slapstick crossing shots in the other film. Here the framing is subjective and austere instead of impersonal and cheeky. Whereas the slapstick crossings are made reassuringly predictable by repetition, the perspective here is afraid of the violence that stands outside of the field of vision and unable to anticipate it. Befitting their subject matter, we might say that these shots are structurally not funny as well. Immersive attempts to capture the anxiety of the moment, instead of cool recordings of action from a distance, they eschew comedy's historically social character.59 Indeed, humor's inclination toward communal propagation indexes a social orientation that forms the conditions of possibility in old jokes: a man walks into a bar, a chicken (forsaking its familiar habitat) crosses the road. Unlike the comedic crossing scenes in the other El Condor Pasa, these handheld perspectival shots are bound by their own vision and tortured consciousness, disavowing any humor in tragedy.

However, insofar as they are linked to the idea of travel, in the sense of wandering through unfamiliar corridors, these shots do return us obliquely to the scene of trade, if only to offer a cautionary note against the comedic embrace that we witnessed in this film's namesake. If global trade proposes to connect the world within an expansive network of routes and flows that we tend to experience only in the most abstract and macroscopic registers, then these scenes dramatize in much more microscopic terms the chilling feeling of what it means to navigate a specific unfamiliar passageway far from the safety of home. There are always thieves and murderers, we learn, lurking in the alleyways of global commerce. Travel down such corridors must be weighed against significant risks. The redemption we seek may not be worth the costs. It is certainly not a laughing matter.

In the post-Washington Consensus moment, particularly for export dependent nations like South Korea, post-developmental states have out of necessity engaged in the kind of delicate toggling back and forth between circulatory enthusiasm and protectionist caution that we have seen expressed in free trade slapstick. When trade deals have been negotiated by South Korea in the past decade, the state's interest has been to protect the interests of Samsung and LG over those of farmers and workers while being fully cognizant of the consequences of such a trade.60 The state in this post-developmental, export-dependent context, we see, is not exactly a self-determining sovereign actor but rather one that must respond to the various incentives and foreclosures that define its political economy in a frantic balancing act that, like slapstick, must court and mitigate harm. The point here is more agnostic than to garner sympathy for such semi-peripheral states subject to the whims of larger powers. In the frantic scramble to secure markets for products expressed in free trade slapstick, we gain a sense of the new world order in Asia and the Pacific Rim in slower and more decisive movements. As in slapstick, the state's performance of logistical co-ordination courts the very disasters its performance is designed to mitigate. These performances always also mark the limit point between comedy and tragedy, between just in time humor and the violence it manages to hold away, if only at arm's length.Joseph Jonghyun Jeon is Professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of Vicious Circuits: Korea's IMF Cinema and the End of the American Century (Stanford University Press, 2019) and Racial Things, Racial Forms: Objecthood in Avant-Garde Asian American Poetry (University of Iowa Press, 2012).

This work was supported by the Core University Program for Korean Studies through the Ministry of Education of the Republic of the Korea and Korean Studies Promotion Service of the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS-2016-OLU-2250005).


  1. Louise Peacock, "Conflict and Slapstick in Comedia dell'Arte: The Double Act of Pantalone and Arlecchino," Comedy Studies 4.1 (2013): 61.[]
  2. See Simon Critchley, On Humor (London: Routledge, 2002), 79-91. Critchley argues that humor in general is a form of sensus communis.[]
  3. Georges Bataille, "Sacrifice," trans. Annette Michelson, October 36 (1986): 68-74. For a discussion of this essay see, William Solomon, Slapstick Modernism: Chaplin to Kerouac to Iggy Pop (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016), 34-38. See also Kathleen Moran and Michael Rogin, "What's the Matter with Capra?: Sullivan's Travels and the Popular Front," Representations 71 (2000): 106-134. Moran and Rogin offer a contrasting vision of laughter: "Far from merry enjoyment, the maniacal laughter in the closing montage [of Sullivan's Travels] ... looks and sounds like hysteria ... It is laughter at the death of laughter, the laughter that comes after and with the chain gang, which it cannot wipe away. Although it apparently has the opposite ending, Sullivan's Travels is the lineal descendant of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, the ur-American example of comedy turning into horror before our eyes" (127).[]
  4. Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility (2nd Version; 1936)," Selected Writings, Volume 3, 1935-1938, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 118. Solomon has suggested that the social function of this mode of comedy for Benjamin "was its capacity to serve as a means for large groups of disenfranchised people to adjust in an empowering fashion to the pressures of everyday existence in the city as well as to the burdens of mechanized labor" (12).[]
  5. Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy (New York: Zone Books, 1988), 58.[]
  6. Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, 59. Keynesian in sensibility, Bataille considered the ritual sacrifices of warfare and its figurative iterations in slapstick pragmatic attempts to protect the larger community from the difficulties that arise within a trajectory otherwise moving in a more sanguine direction. As Vincent Pecora writes of Bataille's strategy, however, "The new community may be elective, but it is constructed precisely to obviate all decisions beyond those that guarantee its own existence." While this steam-valve capacity affords a loose analog for managed growth in a crisis-avoidance strategy during periods of industrial expansion, Bataille's vision of sacrifice has limited pertinence to the real economy, particularly as growth begins to stagnate; Vincent P. Pecora, Households of the Soul (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 49.[]
  7. As Michael North puts it, for Bergson, "the comic response is supposed to correct the mechanical behavior of others," but in so doing "it also excites in the laughter an equally unconscious mechanism," which leads to a finally the kind of "tangled relationship between freedom and domination" that Benjamin sought to resolve. Michael North, Machine Age Comedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 16.[]
  8. Miriam Hansen, Cinema and Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 80.[]
  9. Ibid., 164.[]
  10. Ibid., 165.[]
  11. Ibid., 80.[]
  12. Ibid., 132.[]
  13. Walter Benjamin, "Fate and Character," in Selected Writings, Volume I, 1913-1936, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 205.[]
  14. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, Edmund Jephcott, ed. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 1.[]
  15. Theodore Martin, Contemporary Drift: Genre Historicism, and the Problem of the Present (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 6-7.[]
  16. Hansen, Cinema and Experience, 87.[]
  17. See Julie Orlemanski, "Genre," in A Handbook of Middle English Studies, ed. Marion Turner (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 218. []
  18. See Owen Hatherley, The Chaplin Machine: Slapstick, Fordism, and the Communist Avant-Garde (London: Pluto Press, 2016), 5. "But what if scientific management and slapstick comedy were not actually antipodes at all, but instead were closely linked and complementary phenomena?"[]
  19. Lucy Hunter and R. Lyon, "Freight and Message: View on Distribution and Standardization from a Shipping Container in Brooklyn," Media Fields Journal 10 (2015): 4.[]
  20. We might think of Benjamin's short-term historicism in relation to Fredric Jameson's critique of the short horizons of finance capitalof quarterly profits and futures trading. See Fredric Jameson, "The End of Temporality," Critical Inquiry 29.4 (2003): 703-4. Here Jameson writes: "to be sure, the recent past is always the most distant in the mind's eye of the historical observer" (emphasis mine).[]
  21. Immanuel Wallerstein, World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 29-30.[]
  22. David Josef Volodzko, "China wins its war against South Korea's US THAAD missile shield without firing a shot," South China Morning Post, 18 November 2017 and Shuli Ren, "China's Sanctions Over THAAD Can Sink Korea's Economy," Barron's, 5 March 2017.[]
  23. Dani Rodrik, "What Do Trade Agreements Really Do?" Journal of Economic Perspectives 32.2 (2018): 76-85. See David Ricardo, On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (London: John Murray, Albermarle-Street, 1817).[]
  24. Joel R. Paul, "The Cost of Free Trade," Brown Journal of World Affairs 22 (2015): 7.[]
  25. See Rodrik, "What Do Trade Agreements Really Do?"[]
  26. Anwar Shaik, "Globalization and the Myth of Free Trade," in Globalization and the Myths of Free Trade, ed. Anwar Shaik (London: Routledge, 2007), 63.[]
  27. For an account of South Korean slapstick cinema in the 1950s, see Chung-Kang Kim, "South Korean Golden-Age Comedy Film: Industry, Genre, and Popular Culture (1953-1970)," PhD diss., (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2010), 108-25 and Darcy Paquet, "Genrebending in Contemporary Korean Cinema," 6 July 2000. Since genre is as much about technique as it is about thematic coherence, slapstick in these cases indexes of a larger historical impulse in the modern marketing strategies to retool genre into something like trope, an impulse that is particularly accelerated by the algorithmic methods in popular online streaming services in which machinic sorting methods torque historical genre categories with consumer behavioral data. Such marketing strategies (which predated internet optimization by at least a few generations) end up producing a lexicon of generic features that become available for recombinant strategies in their attempt to isolate box-office driving characteristics. So, what has been termed genre bending, a much-heralded feature of contemporary Korean cinema since the IMF crisis, turns out to be business as usual for modern filmmaking that is at least as old as the ­this-meets-that elevator pitch.[]
  28. For an account of this style in relation to Chan's broader screen persona, see Steve Fore, "Life Imitates Entertainment: Home and Dislocation in the Films of Jackie Chan," in At Full Speed: Hong Kong Cinema in a Borderless World, ed. Esther C.M. Yau (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 128-29.[]
  29. Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 30.[]
  30. By populism, I mean to invoke the most general usage of the term, as opposed to the more xenophobic and racist implications of the term, though certainly Korean populism is not immune from such critiques.[]
  31. The labor situation explored in the film has less to do with an irresponsible employer and more with a system in which contracted, discrete entities allow for lower corporate costs as well as more plausible deniability. When the truck driver goes up the chain to seek remuneration of unpaid wages, he must make his case on ethical instead of contractual grounds, as his agreement was not with the parent corporation, but with a contracted intermediary.[]
  32. South Korea's measured interest in the TPP was complicated by its economic dependency on China and its inclusion in discussions for the Chinese led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). See Min-hyung Kim, "Avoiding Being a Crushed Prawn and Becoming a Dolphin Swimming between the Two Fighting Whales?: South Korea's Strategic Choice in the Face of Intensifying Sino-US Competition," Journal of Asian and African Studies 53.4 (2018): 619.[]
  33. Joshua Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot.: The New Era of Uprisings (London: Verso, 2016), 30-31.[]
  34. Ibid., 143.[]
  35. Such films themselves followed on the heels of the prolonged warehouse/trucking era of domestic distribution (Smokey and the Bandit, 1977; Beverly Hills Cop, 1984).[]
  36. Sohee Kim and Kyunghee Park, "Hanjin's ghost ships seek havens with food and water starting to dwindle," Bloomberg, 6 September 2016.[]
  37. See Steven Jacobs and Hilde D'Haeyere, "Frankfurter Slapstick: Benjamin, Kracauer, and Adorno on American Screen Comedy," October 160 (2017): 42-43.[]
  38. Michael North, Machine Age Comedy, 11.[]
  39. Jennifer Fay, Inhospitable World: Cinema in the Time of the Anthropocene (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 25-26.[]
  40. Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot, 30-31.[]
  41. Significantly, the merchants are not asking to keep their businesses outright, but rather for fair compensation. As Clover derives from E.P. Thompson's writing about 18th-century England, the blockade is one of a number of strategies that takes price-setting as its unifying goal. See Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot., 43 and E.P. Thompson, "The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century," Past and Present 50 (1971): 107-8.[]
  42. Lisa Trahair, The Comedy of Philosophy: Sense and Nonsense in Early Cinematic Slapstick (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007), 56.[]
  43. "Why fried chicken is battering South Korea's economy" (video), Wall Street Journal, 14 September 2013; Jason Strother, "South Korea's obsession with fried chicken, explained," PRI.org, 1 March 2017; Park Hye-min and Kim Min-sang, "Chicken and beer: a deep fried history," Korea JoongAng Daily, 1 August 2014.[]
  44. "Why fried chicken is battering South Korea's economy" (video), Wall Street Journal, 14 September 2013.[]
  45. For commentary on South Korea's semi-imperial behavior see, Jin-kyung Lee, Service Economies: Militarism, Sex Work, and Migrant Labor in South Korea (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2010), 37-77. See also Youngmi Choi, "A middle power's trade policy under U.S.-China FTA competition: South Korea's double hedging FTA diplomacy," Contemporary Politics 24.2 (2018): 245-56. Choi tracks the double hedging strategy of South Korea mediating between opposing U.S.-Chinese interests, a strategy that has produced certain benefits, but retains a good deal of risk.[]
  46. See Kirstie A. Dorr, On Site, in Sound: Performance Geographies in America Latina (Durham: Duke UP, 2018), 25-45. Dorr describes the multiple layers of appropriation in the song's history, which she describes as Peru's "second national anthem." The original composer of the song, Daniel Alomía Robles, borrowed from indigenous traditions, meeting the demands of populist nationalism with a folkloric authenticity. In 1965, Paul Simon heard The Inkas's version of the song. The members were Argentinian and Venezuelan and had learned to play Andean music in Paris. Simon paid The Inkas a fee to produce and record an arrangement of the song, which was released in 1969 with Simon's lyrics. Alomía Robles not credited, his son successfully sued Simon.[]
  47. Ibid., 32.[]
  48. Ibid. 72-73.[]
  49. See Benjamin Han, "K-Pop in Latin America: Transcultural Fandom and Digital Mediation," International Journal of Communication 11(2017): 2250-69.[]
  50. The previously discussed Keaton film Seven Chances might indeed fit under this rubric: claiming the inheritance is so pressing in the film because Jimmy's brokerage firm is about to go under.[]
  51. While the zaniness of these scene is certainly linked to the broader political economy that Sianne Ngai's account foregrounds, the spectacle here is less about the kind of labor required to thrive in a post-fordist milieu and more about systemic operations on a larger scale. See Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 174-232.[]
  52. Jamie Doucette and Bongman Seo, "Limits to Financialization?: Locating Financialization within East Asian Export Economies," working paper, Hirotsubashi University Repository, September 2011, 8-9.[]
  53. Hae Won Choi and Gordon Fairclough, "After credit binge in South Korea, big bill comes due," Wall Street Journal, 20 January 2004.[]
  54. Jiyeun Lee, "S. Korea's Household Debt Hits Record $1.3 Trillion in 2017," Bloomberg, 21 February 2018.[]
  55. Rodrik, "What Do Trade Agreements Really Do?", 88-89.[]
  56. Thomas Fritz, The Second Conquest: The EU Free Trade Agreement with Colombia and Peru (Berlin: Center for Research and Documentation Chile-Latin America, 2010), 22.[]
  57. See Jeronim Capaldo and Alex Izurieta, "Macroeconomic Effects of 21st Century Trade and Investment Agreements: The Case of the Trans-Pacific Partnership," Development and Change 49.4 (2018). The TPP, for example, promised increased growth and productivity for all participating nations with no net job loss; but as critics have pointed out, this optimism rested on the specious assumption that these economies operate always in full employment. Projections with more realistic parameters showed that net job lost would be more on the order of 770,000.[]
  58. The destination is not completely random in that it reverses the direction of Peruvian migration to South Korea beginning the 1990s. See Erica Vogel, Migrant Conversions: Transforming Connections Between Peru and South Korea (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020) and Erica Vogel, "Predestined Migrations: Undocumented Peruvians in South Korean Churches," City and Society 26.3 (2014): 331-51. The article above offers context for the priest's connection to Peru on the basis of religion in Jeon's El Condor Pasa.[]
  59. For a historical account of how this came to be, see Jan Walsh Hokenson, The Idea of Comedy: History, Theory, Critique (Madison: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2006), 23-63. []
  60. To be sure, this is story is as old as capitalism itself. What is perhaps more novel is the extreme degree to which the modern FTA and trade policy in general have become primary modes of circumventing oversight and democratic processes, granting significant power to the actors who lay claim to these mechanisms, whether it is Donald Trump willy-nilly slapping tariffs on scotch or Samsung stepping into the Korea-Japan trade conflict.[]