116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

Whose Tears?: Negotiating the Private and the Anthropocene in Tears of Antarctica

Yun Ha Kim, Yonsei University

This paper investigates the narrative structure of Tears of Antarctica (2011), a South Korean wildlife documentary, to articulate the most pressing challenges that wildlife films face in the increasing awareness of today’s ecological crisis. Paying close attention to the documentary’s dramatization of its own production process, I argue that in Tears of Antarctica we witness a complex negotiation of pressures between anti-colonialism, globalism, and the Anthropocene.


Tears of Antarctica (2011), one of MBC’s four special documentaries to be aired in celebration of the broadcasting company’s 50th anniversary, represents the explosion of high-quality, big-budget documentary films that South Korea has been producing and exporting since the early 2000s. One of the trademarks of MBC’s “Tears Series” is the “prologue-episode-epilogue” narrative structure that was quickly replicated by subsequent South Korean documentary films. The series’ prologues were especially held in high esteem for revealing the hidden struggles of the production crew throughout the filming process, the operose faces of labor that remain invisible throughout the rest of the documentary.

            In past studies in Korea, this mini-drama of the documentary’s social actors has been celebrated as injecting a “private space” into an otherwise highly depersonalized narrative vantage point that characterizes the genre. Shifting the focus, I argue that this insertion of private is revealing of more urgent tensions faced by contemporary wildlife films in general, which MBC’s “Tears Series,” especially Tears of Antarctica, is in a unique position to articulate.

            As a relative latecomer to the multimillion-dollar industry that has been dominated by major cultural storehouses of the West, Tears of Antarctica expresses at once the anxiety to prove that it is technologically and financially capable of looking like glossy BBC documentaries, as well as its awareness of more recent criticisms of the genre’s fetishized spectacles of nature. The question is how to negotiate the documentary’s place in a highly competitive, expensive, and hitherto largely “occidental” genre with the historical consciousness that the genre’s spectacular images of an eternally self-replenishing nature might have perpetuated a vision that is deeply lethargic—by presenting nature as a consistent and cyclical background to human action, rather than as a system that can be catastrophically affected by it.      

            With Tears of Antarctica’s dramatization of its own production process, one witnesses a complex negotiation of pressures between anti-colonialism, globalism, and the Anthropocene. Investigating these pressures will bring into relief emergent challenges faced by a genre that has historically played an important role in mediatizing encounters between urban dwellers and the “wild,” and further allow us to tap into our normative assumptions about nature.