The Safe Negro Guide to Lovecraft Country: 'Meet Me in Daegu'

Jonathan Majors (Tic) and Jamie Chung (Ji-Ah) in Episode 6 of HBO’s Lovecraft Country.
Jonathan Majors (Tic) and Jamie Chung (Ji-Ah) in Episode 6 of HBO’s Lovecraft Country.
Screenshot: HBO (YouTube

Welcome back to Lovecraft Country—we are past the halfway point of the season’s journey! I can totally see Misha Green in her writers’ room, saying, “Give me K-Horror, but make it BLACK!” What I am really enjoying is how the show’s creators are throwing all of these different, well-developed worlds and storylines at us, confident we can keep up. They refuse to underestimate the intelligence of their audience, and it is a pleasure to see our attention spans fully appreciated with the rigor and minutiae packed into this episode—much of which includes details only their horror-savvy and Korean audience would detect.

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For example, the title of the show and episode appear followed by the untranslated Korean phrase “구미호” (“kumiho”), which immediately announces the kind of creature Ji-Ah is, but only to those who can read Korean. Now, even I can admit this episode threw me by immersing us in the dynamics of the Korean War—which is ironic since the war is important to my own family’s lore. In fact, the nuns at Xavier University lied to the U.S. government to prevent my grandfather from being conscripted as a soldier. So, I literally exist because Black NOLA nuns DGAF, and because clearly everyone knew my grandfather was smart as a whip—but couldn’t fight worth a damn. It wasn’t his blessing.

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But back to our journey...

I enjoyed this episode (though multiple Korean-descended people I spoke with found it problematic AF); I especially appreciated the time we got to spend with Ji-Ah getting to know her quirks, her family life, and inability to land a date contrasted with her ease in finding a quick hook-up...it showed that little changes no matter your time period or your culture. It was so relatable, you may not have noticed that we didn’t hear English (apart from the Judy Garland films and quotations) until 27 minutes into the episode. Likewise, I want to take the time to tease out both the cultural similarities and differences this episode exposes as I work with my overarching theory that all cultures have different systems of what the series calls “natural philosophy,” cosmologies, and mythologies that can empower them against colonizers...especially when the colonizers haven’t managed to steal the information.

Blood remains a powerful signifier across all of the magic systems we have encountered so far. Tic is a necessary blood sacrifice in Episode 2: “Whitey’s On the Moon” because he is a direct descendent of Titus Braithwaite. We also saw this in Episode 3: “Holy Ghost,” and subsequently at the beginning of Episode 4: A History of Violence when Christina was barred from entering the Winthrop House because the Mambo had “fed the door” with the blood of a goat. Blood sacrifice at the entry of a home is one of the most powerful protective ebos one can do for their household.

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In Episode 4, Yahima is trapped as Titus’ relic because he binds her with blood sacrifice through the massacre of her ethnic group, the Arawak people (and Montrose does so again, when he kills her). And finally, in Episode 6, Ji-Ah is forced to pay her mother Soon Hee’s spiritual debt—earned by calling forth a kumiho to kill her husband for sexually assaulting her daughter—through the blood sacrifice (hell, blood explosion) of 100 men, along with their souls.

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The kumiho is not only a nine-tailed fox that manifests in the form of a highly sexualized, beautiful woman; in Korean mythology, she is considered evil as she punishes errant male behavior. I interviewed Dr. Youngtae Shin, a professor of Political Science, who explained that “in Korea [saying] she is like a fox [as in foxy] is not a compliment,” placing the word “fox” closer to “bitch”. Dr. Shin explained all of this beautifully—in Korean characters, no less—but since my knowledge of Korean is nil and I don’t know how to embed screenshots, y’all are getting these translations.

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In this episode, the mythology of the kumiho becomes heavily intertwined with that of the “Comfort Woman” to expose a particularly insidious stereotype about Korean female sexuality as unbridled and for sale—ultimately deeming swaths of Korean women as disposable to the Japanese Imperial Army, the U.S. Military, and, later, a complicit Korean government.

This episode is grounded in the question of what bodies are considered disposable. There are the men upon which Ji-Ah preys; they are simply numbers to her and her umma (mother). The Korean citizens in her graduating class of nurses prove as disposable to the U.S. soldiers as the aforementioned men—shots to the head are doled out like candy as they search for the Communist spy in their midst. And yet, the Black American soldiers are equally disposable to the American Imperialism project of protecting its global assets (in this case, South Korea) as we encounter Tic in a hospital bed, scared and frustrated because his body is as broken as his glasses.

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Still, the most intimate act of disposal is conducted by Soon Hee herself, as her own daughter’s soul becomes collateral damage in enacting her revenge, allowing the kumiho to wear Ji-Ah’s skin as her umma plies her with rich foods and misplaced affection out of the guilt associated with her daughter’s sacrifice.

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And it is here that we see how deeply Ji-Ah’s relationship with Soon Hee mirrors that of Tic’s relationship with Montrose. Both relationships center on a misplaced impetus for parental protection. So far, each of Montrose’s protective actions towards Tic has ended in blood. We have already discussed Yahima’s fate at his hands, but even his thwarted yet catalytic attempt to send a letter to Tic as a warning to stay away endangers his son and results in his brother dying in his arms from a gunshot wound.

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In both Soon Hee and Montrose, we see the frustration of a parent wanting to protect their child but unable to do so within the structural hierarchies of the dominant culture. They are unable to protect their respective children because they are crippled by their own traumas; unable to remove the plank in their eye that so deeply skews their vision of what is just. Ji-Ah’s umma cannot separate the guilt she feels in twice sacrificing her daughter: not simply to the kumiho, but first to the husband who would rescue her from the shame of single motherhood. But I would also like to push this further, as we must hold Soon Hee’s desperate choice to marry an unknown man in order to bring legitimacy to her household in balance with the reality that men provide economic security—a reality reflected in the food insecurity that defines almost every interaction between the now-widowed Soon Hee and Ji-Ah.

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As Ji-Ah arrives at the base for her first date with Atticus, she asks his friend, “Does Atticus think I am a comfort woman?” He makes it clear that there is no other reason for any Korean to be allowed on base. I discussed this with Dr. Khary Polk, an associate professor of Black Studies & Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Studies at Amherst College. Polk defines comfort women as women who were forced into forms of institutionalized sexual slavery before, during, and after World War II. A Zoom conversation with Film Studies professor Dr. Frances Gateward revealed more detail from her book, Seoul Searching: Culture and Identity in Contemporary Korean Cinema (2007), in which she wrote:

From 1932 to 1945, an estimated 200,000 women and girls, some as young as twelve, were forced into institutionalized sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army. Women...were shipped like military supplies to camps throughout Asia to serve the Japanese army as jungan ianfu, a euphemism that translates as “comfort women.” These mostly poor and uneducated women—kidnapped, drafted, and recruited by false promises of factory employment—were sent to camps where they were subjected daily to multiple rapes by Japanese soldiers.

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Two points must be gleaned from the socioeconomic and military importance of the comfort woman: First, this practice was state-sanctioned and institutionalized by the Japanese colonizers, who had completely obliterated the previous Korean governmental system between 1910 and 1945. Second, the term “comfort woman” became problematically conflated with Korean women who were commercial sex workers—or just any Korean woman who dated, married, or even associated with American soldiers post-WWII. Issues of the sexual availability of Korean women arose with the explosion of kijichon, or camp towns, that surrounded American military bases and provided services—laundry, food, bars, brothels, etc.—for the GIs.

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Unsurprisingly, the most popular destinations were the brothels, which were sanctioned by the U.S. military (though they had plausible deniability) to the extent that they were mandatorily segregated. Dr. Polk explains that the robust sexual economy created by the U.S. military modernized the exploitation structures created by the Japanese Imperial Army. And though many in the Korean government and society scorned the women who operated in this sexual economy—sex workers, service workers, and girlfriends alike—the Korean government nevertheless needed the American money they received from American GIs to support and revive the national economy.

It is this cultural noise associated with Korean womanhood that defines Ji-Ah’s inability to connect with the men she encounters. It is not because she is a kumiho that she fails to win a date, as we see her easily seduce her first victim; it is her inability to fulfill all the impossible expectations placed upon Korean women to be eligible for an appropriate marriage prospect. It’s not that Ji-Ah is inhuman, it is that she isn’t allowed to be fully human—the awkward Judy Garland fan she truly is—within such narrow limitations of Korean womanhood. She is admonished by one prospective beau for enjoying Hollywood and pitied by another who shares an equal love of Garland even as he recognizes he could never bring Ji-Ah home to his mother. She is a social outcast for her very humanity, her affable yet palpable difference is seen as suspicious.

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This is reinforced in her conversations with her close friend Young-Ja, who plays the game of the appropriate Korean young woman by lying and pretending. Though she is revealed to be a spy, I also read her as a queer woman, another outsider. Young-Ja’s admiration of Ji-Ah’s earnestness, her admonishment of Ji-Ah’s umma—paired with her acceptance of her own difference and her fierce refusal to be vilified for it shows Ji-Ah has the capacity for human connection well before she encounters Tic. Ji-Ah refers to Young-Ja as her best friend; Young-Ja clearly returns the affection as seen in her sacrifice of herself for Ji-Ah’s life likewise, Ji-Ah is determined to avenge the murder of her friend, demonstrating the mutuality of their love for each other.

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This fulfills one of the classic themes in Korean horror, according to Gateward—a story that centers a female protagonist that pivots on friendship and sisterhood. It is not Ji-Ah’s relationship with Tic that reveals her humanity; she was already on that journey, having forged a human connection with Young-Ja, her friend. Tic and Ji-Ah connect as outsiders in wars both physical and spiritual, hinged on their participation in blood sacrifice as both victim and perpetrator.

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In the end, the pairing of Tic and Ji-Ah makes sense because as a kumiho she is a mythical comfort woman; denigrated and made a pariah, yet vital to the culture that creates her. As a Black GI, Tic is similarly needed by an American empire that loathes his very existence. There is kinship in their experiences of expendability and the respective countries that sanction both the violence they enact and the violence visited upon them.

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Glossary: a list of terms and descriptions to help you along your journey into Lovecraft Country.

Adjusted Service Ratings Score - A points-based rotation system that allowed soldiers to earn their way out of conscripted service. Dr. Selika Ducksworth-Lawton, a Black military historian, explains that if a soldier was injured in a certain way, they could earn enough points to go home; some soldiers would volunteer for dangerous missions or other high-value activities to earn a chance to leave early. This is what Tic meant when he told Ji-Ah he had enough points to return home and invited her to return with him.

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Korean War & Black Soldiers - Lots of Black men who served in WWII either stayed in the armed services, serving in Japan, or were eager to be called back as the Korean War began because the pay was dependable and relatively high. Dr. Ducksworth-Lawton explains that many eldest sons of those lost in WWII, as young as 15 or 16 enlisted in the war to support their families. The young privates would often be placed under an older, more experienced 1st Sergeant who would take charge of the teenagers and teach them life skills beyond simply how to survive in the army.

Black Soldiers & The Civil Rights Movement - Dr. Polk connects the veterans of the Korean War period (post-WWII) directly with the modern civil rights movement as Black folks gained the critical consciousness to understand racism at home and the determination to fight it. Some famous 1950s veterans who became involved were Rep. Charles Rangel, Amiri Baraka, and Sarah Keys Evans. Dr. Ducksworth-Lawton furthers this assertion, placing Korean War vets at the vanguard of a certain politic of protection in the Black community (Negroes with Guns; 1962), Deacons for Defense and Justice) as they were the only Black folks allowed to be armed. They would often organize armed systems of defense against white racial terror. Unfortunately, this also made them a highly visible target of retaliation (see the life and works of Robert F. Williams).

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K-Horror - a popular subgenre of horror featuring films from South Korea. Dr. Gateward believes Lovecraft Country writers have “drawn from some of the more well-known Korean horror movies as they often center female protagonists and issues of friendship and/or sisterhood.”

Mudang - A priestess or shaman of Korea’s traditional Indigenous religion, Muism. The mudang is possessed by a spirit or god that embues her with spiritual powers. She is often employed to offer a soul safe passage to heaven. Dr. Shin also highlights that mundang often dance to expel evil spirits.

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Recommendations: If your interest is piqued and you would like to take a deeper dive, here are some media suggestions that will help you better understand the Lovecraftian universe and other themes in this episode.

Film:

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Vicente Minnelli

Summer Stock (1950), Charles Walters

The Woman Outside: Korean Women and the U.S. Military (1995), Hye Jung Park & J.T. Takagi

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Whispering Corridors: Film Series (1998-2020), various directors

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), Jee-Woon Kim

Mudang: Reconciliation Between The Living and The Dead (2003), Park Ki-bok

Television:

Kingdom (2019-)

Reference:

A Life in The Struggle: Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition (1995), George Lipsitz

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Sex Among Allies: Military Prostitution in U.S.-Korea Relations (1997), Katherine H.S. Moon

Kinitra Brooks is a New Orleans native who writes about conjure women, monsters...and Beyoncé.

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DISCUSSION

richierichwithnodog
Richie Rich

I mean this in the utmost deferential, non-homophobic way possible... Where y’all get gay from? It seems like a reach.

If I remember right her friend said something to the effect of being someone else. She’s a spy. That’s the definition of a spy. Where did she mention an affinity for the same gender?

With that said, I’ll gladly recant if someone can tell me the scene in which she said she was queer.