Bangkok-based writer and critic Kong RITHDEE looks at the influence of Korean moving images in Thailand and gauges the depth of the Korean Wave.
In late January, So Ji-sub and Han Hyo-joo walked down the red carpet at HuaHin International Film Festival, the inaugural edition of the cinefest held in Thailand's popular resort town. Reporters gathered with high expectations, and the photos of the two Koreans were splashed across most newspapers the next day. "'Dong Yi' Star In Thailand!" screamed some of the headlines, referring to Han's famous TV series. So's and Han's new film"Always" opened in Bangkok the following weekend.
Ten years ago, it was unthinkable to see pictures of Korean movie stars on the pages of Thai national dailies. Of course things have changed, and Korea has implanted itself in the pop-consciousness of Thai audiences in a way that's culturally spectacular and plainly phenomenal.
This is not new news, and the phenomenon isn't restricted to Thailand, but across Southeast Asia. Still, the influence of Korean cinema (and TV series) has had such a profound effect on Thailand's own aspiration to step up its presence in the international popular-culture playground.
To policy-makers, the rise of Korean content products has inspired both envy and curiosity and prompted a series of soul-searching and ridiculous imitations. The question that has been thrown around Thai government officials and industry veterans is: how does Korea do it? Or bluntly: can we just copy them, somehow? Ten years ago, Thai officials had heard nothing about Korean cinema. Now it's become their model.
I have personally heard at least three government ministers – both cultural and economic – wondering aloud that since Thailand is world-famous for its spicy soup, tom yum goong, and other kitchen delights, how come we let Korea score big-time on TV with their food, considered as inferior by most Thais, in that series "Dae Jang Geum" (also known as "Jewel in the Palace")? Oh yes, "Dae Jang Geum" started it all: the series was very popular here, converting a large number of the uninitiated to the addictive Korean melodrama, and sparked a flurry of discussions on how we should maximize the ability of our cultural exports.
Recently, the Ministry of Culture, in a very belated move, decided to help finance a film about Thai food, which is an obvious imitation of "Dae Jang Geum". (The last I heard, they're still filming it.) At a forum of ministers a few years ago, the then-Commerce Minister outlined in his Powerpoint presentation how he planned to bring Thai food and fruits to the screen, evoking "Dae Jang Geum" no less than a dozen times. (He's out of the picture now, that minister.)
And last July at the biggest political rally just before the general election, a charismatic yet culturally clueless MP candidate spoke to a packed stadium about his party's policy to upgrade Thai movies to "compete with Korea". Or rather, to try to do the same as Korea has successfully done. The speaker is now serving as Deputy Agricultural Minister. He never spoke of Korean movies again.
That politicians believe they can draw votes by citing Korean movies as a model is startling. It shows how much influence Korean moving images have to our mentality of what's fashionable and progressive. The enthusiasm at the government level reflects the vibe on the street and the way Thai people have integrated the "Korean identity", through our own superficial construct, into our everyday perception.
For instance, 30 years ago, a Thai boy or girl whose physical features were East Asian – fair-skinned, small eyes, slim built – were always described as having "the Chinese look". Years later, the description became "the Japanese look". And now, people who have those features are automatically described as having "the Korean look". I have a friend who's gone through this process: as a girl, people said she looked Chinese; as a teenager, Japanese; as a young woman, Korean. This may sound odd, or even off, to East Asian people, but it clearly shows the kind of shift in the collective consciousness among Thais.
That look has also shaped the way Thai actresses look on screen, too. The significance of Korean films such as "The Classic" and "My Sassy Girl", or the TV series such as "Full House", "Dae Jang Geum" and "Dong Yi" have played a part in shaping the face of Thai cinema of late.
The recent popularity of Thai romantic comedy films owes a lot to their Korean counterparts. One of the biggest local hits in recent years, "Bangkok Traffic Love Story" is a tale of a goofy young woman who literally finds love on public transport; the actress who plays her may not look exactly Korean, but her mannerisms, appearance and characterization clearly remind the viewer of a number of Korean female roles that rely on cute eccentricity.
Meanwhile, the definite proof of how the Korean craze has seeped in and even contributed to the success of Thai movies is "Hello Stranger", a Thai romantic comedy about a Thai couple on a trip to Korea. The original title of the film is "Guan Muen Ho", a play on Thai syllables to make them sound Korean, and even though the film appears to mock the Korean fad that's sweeping through young Thais, it ends up borrowing elements from Korean romantic comedy, largely the setting and the quirks of the characters.
Still, it's worth noting that what Thai policy-makers and directors look up to in Korean cinema is constrained within a limited mindset – and that's the main reason why the Thai film roadmap will take years to catch up with Korea's.
What we aspire to be like Korea is the shallowest aspect of it, namely the economic benefit and the faddish, photogenic surface of the entire Korean Wave. What we hardly care about is solid, long-term sustainability of cultural promotion and the film industry. (The most ludicrous talk was when we announced, years ago, the intention to make Bangkok International Film Festival a rival of Busan).
While we dig Korean TV series and mass-marketed films, we hardly have a chance to sample the variety of what Korea has to offer – no Lee Chang-dong movies, for example, while Korean political and thriller films, two sizable genres, are non-existent on the cinema screen here. Thai fans may warmly greet So Ji-sub and Han Hyo-joo, but too bad they don't know that they still miss a lot of Korea.
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