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New wave of pop culture redefines Korea

2010/07/05 Source

By Andrew Salmon
Contributing writer

In 1990, the American academic Joseph Nye coined the term "soft power". This referred to nations winning friends and influencing people through the attraction of their values, culture, institutions and policies, as opposed to "hard power", based on coercion and payment. At the heart of soft power is the assumption that other people "want what you want".

This theory rationalized much of what the United States already offered, disseminated and lived up to ― or, at least, attempted to live up to: values such as political freedom, liberal democracy and free market economics. While these values could be disseminated by policies and institutions, it is, arguably, the US entertainment industry that has done most to disseminate the "American dream" globally.

A Changing Korea

"Soft power" challenged Korea's traditional development paradigm. From the 1960s, authoritarian governments had placed absolute primacy on economic growth. Social and political development was de-prioritized as the entire nation was hitched to an economic locomotive that would convey Korea to the terminus of "advanced nations". It succeeded: Economically, Korea is arguably the greatest national success story of the 20th century:

On prosperity's heels came demands for political freedom. After a decade of struggle, people-power demonstrations overthrew the military government in 1987. Though it had slow and uncertain beginnings, democracy took root. As the 1990s unfolded, political democracy engendered a social liberalism that seeped into society.

What values encapsulated this changing Korea ― a nation with an ancient heritage and a powerful cultural grip on its people, but one that was new to prosperity, democracy and liberalism?

In the 1980s and 1990s, Singapore's Lee Kuan-yew and Malaysia's Mohamed Mahathir argued for "Asian Values", as an alternative to what they saw as the irresponsibility and excessive liberalism of the West. Critics saw "Asian Values" as a cover for authoritarianism and anti-Westernism, but few thinkers had the credibility to challenge them.

It would take freedom fighter and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kim Dae-jung to shoot down this paradigm in a brilliant 1994 essay in Foreign Affairs Magazine, "Is Culture Destiny? The Myth of Asian Values". Kim argued that his country's ultimate destiny was to improve Western concepts by reference to Asia's own ancient traditions of democracy, rule of law and respect for the individual, rather than ignore them

A New Wave Gathers

In the early 1990s Korea was liberalizing. Previously restricted from taking overseas trips, Koreans could now study abroad. A number traveled to the US and elsewhere to attend film schools and examine cultural content industries. By the mid-1990s, people like Lee Seung-man, who would form SM Entertainment, soon to be Korea's leading pop music powerhouse, were returning home with new ideas. In 1996, censorship laws were declared unconstitutional. What had once been taboo ― from scantily-clad singers oozing sex appeal while they lip-synched on live TV, to filmmakers portraying North Koreans sympathetically ― was increasingly acceptable on Main Street, Seoul.

In 1997-8, the economic crisis shook the old entertainment industry. New opportunities appeared for new entrants; financially disciplined firms such as CJ and Orion invested. The crisis had exposed deep faults in the old economic system, and smart graduates who would once have sought safe careers in chaebol were now considering ventures or the content industry.

Conglomerates such as Samsung and Hyundai were reluctantly divesting multiple lines to concentrate on core products: For the first time, chaebol were forced to focus. Specialization became the norm. Branding took off. Meanwhile, the foundation of a hi-tech infrastructure laid in the mid-1990s was enabling Koreans to leverage the Internet and mobile telecommunications more efficiently than anyone else.

The Wave Breaks

This combination of factors was, by the end of the 1990s, generating a creative wave of popular culture This new content combined slick production with professional marketing, underpinned by a key local ingredient - the raw emotion Koreans express so passionately. As Korean music, soap opera, film and computer games flooded the continent, from East Asia through to the Middle East, Chinese reporters coined the term, Hallyu ("Korean Wave") to describe what was happening: A sudden surge of funky new content streaming out of a nation that had previously exported industrial, but not cultural content.

"Winter Sonata" (2002) a typically syrupy soap opera, drove Japanese housewives wild over its star, Bae Yong-joon ­ better known by the honorific "Yonsama" in the island nation. Bae became Korea's first international sex symbol, and his profile reached such stratospheric heights that he was invited to appear on television alongside Japanese prime ministers. "Dae Jang Geum" (2003;"The Jewel in the Palace"), featuring the trials and tribulations of a chef in the Joseon Dynasty palaces, became the most widely watched TV program in Hong Kong's history. And violent noir thriller "Old Boy" (2003) raked in a bucketful of prestige for the local film industry when it captured the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film festival.

Korea's brand added value at a rate that sent it soaring off all previous charts. "Winter Sonata" did more for Korea's image in Japan than any PR activity by the Korean Tourism Authority could ever hope to match, as Japanese matrons flocked to Korea to visit filming locations and go on "Yonsama" shopping tours. Moreover, "Dae Jang Geum" put Korean cuisine on the map region-wide. In Hong Kong, Korean restaurants serving hanjongsik (the table d'hote served in aristocratic and royal households) gained overnight popularity, with hungry viewers reportedly queuing outside their doors. (Life even imitated art: Gyeongbok Palace, Seoul's top tourist attraction, added a Daejanggeum-style kitchen display.) "Old Boy"(2004) would not necessarily attract tourists to its shoddy and violent Seoul backstreets, but it won plaudits from pulp wunderkind Quentin Tarantino and proved that Korea could do thrillers that were as violent, cool and edgy as anything coming out of Hollywood or Hong Kong.

While the wave did not self-consciously present "Korean values" it did represent "Korean value:" Korean films and soaps were cheaper than their US or Japanese counterparts.

And there were some inbuilt "Asian values:" Many of the themes of the wave products were recognizable to Asians who shared similar familial/social structures. For example, many of the contradictions built into these structures lay at the heart of a number of smash-hit Korean soap operas. Moreover, there was no inbuilt historical antipathy toward Korea ― a factor that Korean directors believed inhibited Japanese pop culture's outreach.

With soap opera and pop video depicting glamorous lifestyles, local manufacturers utilized product placement to reach audiences commercials could not, and leveraged Korean stars as product endorsers. For viewers in China and Southeast Asia, Korea's lifestyle became aspirational.

While soaps restricted themselves to social critique ­ albeit, viewed, often, through rose-tinted lenses ­ Korean film took on bolder themes. "JSA - Joint Security Area" (2000) was a groundbreaking take on national division; "Silmido" (2004) examined the murky massacre of a secret Korean bloodbath in the Park Chung-hee era; and "The King and the Clown" (2005) dealt with homosexuality in Olde Corea. It is difficult to see this kind of material being produced in some of the region's more repressive states. For Asian viewers, it became clear that 21st century South Korean society was more open and liberal.

Old Wave?

The wave peaked in 2005, when Korea sold $22 million worth of pop culture abroad. Today, the "Korean Wave" is an old hat. Korean content is no longer new; it has become part of the Asian and ― increasingly the global ― entertainment fabric. Now, with a greatly improved distribution infrastructure ― multiplex cinemas and a proliferation of cable ― it is no longer so necessary for Korean producers to sell abroad; the local market has matured.

Although Seoul mandarins have been oddly unsuccessful in promoting the nation's economic model to the developing world, the cultural industry has showcased its results. The wave disseminated an attractive new perception around the region; the national brand was elevated from a factory-scape inhabited by fierce workers, salary men and soldiers, to a prosperous, funky and open society: "Kool Korea".

Yet on the political/strategic front, the "soft power" embedded in the Korean Wave may yet impact the steepest geopolitical challenge facing the peninsula: Reunification. Through South Korean films and dramas smuggled into North Korea, decades of Pyongyang's state propaganda are being undermined: If South Korean society is aspirational for Southeast Asians, how much more alluring must it be to impoverished and downtrodden North Koreans? This aspect of soft power may eventually prove as important a factor in crumbling the walls of Kim Jong-il's benighted nation as any single aspect of hard power.

On the crest of the wave: 10 must-see Korean movies

While Korean TV dramas ― with their "lay it on thick" melodrama and formulaic plots ― and K-pop ― with its emphasis on soft-pop, dance choreography and image over musicality ― look unlikely to win the affection of Western audiences in the near future, the new wave of Korean movies stands up to anything in the international marketplace. Below are the writer's suggestions of 10 of the best from the Hollywood of the East ― and unlike K-pop and most of the soaps, these are available in English-dubbed DVDs.

"Shiri" (1999)

The one that started it all. South Korean counter-espionage agents in Seoul pursue a ruthless team of crack North Korean killers from one pile of corpses to the next in a race to prevent mass mayhem. The humanizing of the agents from the heretofore demonized North raises Swiri above the level of everyday action cinema.

A swiri is a codeword in the film; it is also a species of freshwater fish native to the Korean peninsula. When the film outdid 'Titanic' at the local box office, media dubbed it "The fish that sank 'Titanic'"

"JSA - Joint Security Area" (2000)

Taut thriller set in the Joint Security Area between the two Koreas. Two South Korean soldiers stationed at a tense demilitarized zone guard post secretly befriend two North Korean soldiers with similar duties ― but the tentative friendships will have unforeseen and tragic consequences. The plot is as plausible as a CNN news spot and the symbolism is as clear as it is poignant.

Chingu ("Friend") (2001)

Coming-of-age buddy drama, evocatively set in the 1970s and '80s in Busan, the southern Korean port city closest to Japan. A bunch of teenagers, high-school tearaways, find themselves unable to escape the fast track to nowhere as they progress from playground bad boys to grown-up gangsters. Loyalty and friendship are tested to the breaking point, and yes, it all ends in tears.

"My Sassy Girl" (2001)

OK, this is one film where you almost have to be a fan of Korean TV dramas, but it did explosive business in Hong Kong, and propelled female lead Jun Ji-hyun to Asian superstardom. Based on a famous Korean Internet novel, wimpy male student bumps into apparently sociopathic young woman ― the "sassy girl" of the title ― and sparks fly. Starts silly, gets melodramatic, but is well carried off. Dreamworks bought the U.S. remake rights.

"A Tale of Two Sisters" (2002)

Two girls return to their country home after a mysterious illness, only to be terrorized by their wicked stepmother and the apparently supernatural forces that inhabit the house. The plot is a jigsaw puzzle, and the tension mounts effectively ― leading critics to hail this as the equal of the best of the Japanese horror films. Despite being strongly psychological, almost Freudian, in its approach, it is lushly photographed. Dreamworks brought the remake rights.

"Silmido" (2002)

1968. After a North Korean assassination squad raids the Blue House, Seoul responds by tasking a special unit to take out Kim Il-sung: Composed of convicted criminals, it is trained by Special Forces on Silmi Island off Incheon. When inter-Korean détente sets in, the unit no longer has a mission. The men break out, arm themselves, hijack a bus and head for Seoul, but regular troops are lying in ambush…… Incredibly this was a true story; the film was the most open treatment of the incident ever to come to light, and became a talking point when released.

"Memories of Murder" (2003)

A deadbeat local cop, in a dead-end rural town, finds himself saddled with a big-city investigator as he attempts to track down a serial killer. Despite the grimness of the theme ― loosely based on a true story ― the film is liberally spiced with black humor and even the shabbiest surroundings are lovingly shot. One enthusiastic reviewer went so far as to call it "the best detective story ever made".

"Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... And Spring" (2004)

Instant art-house classic, underpinned with Buddhist philosophy, from wunderkind director Kim Ki-duk. A young monk at an idyllic floating temple matures under the guidance of his spiritual master. But the outside world harshly intrudes, and the monk, briefly losing his grip, is confronted with love, death and consequences thereof. Beautifully filmed ― a dream captured on celluloid?

"Old Boy" (2003)

The premise of this stylish noir thriller would have had Alfred Hitchcock applauding in the aisles. A man ― character actor Choi Min-sik, who deserves an Oscar solely on the strength of his desolated facial features ― spends 15 years locked up in solitary confinement in a threadbare motel suite. By whom? For what? His captors remain invisible. Then, one day, he is released……The mystery transforms into an ultra-violent action romp that netted the Grand Prix award at Cannes 2004 ― the year a certain Mr. Quentin Tarantino headed the jury. Nicolas Cage reportedly wants to star in a remake.

"The King and the Clown" (2005)

Groundbreaking for its depiction of homosexuality in Joseon Dynasty Korea, the film featured the lust of aristocrats ― and the king himself ― for transvestite traveling actors. Lush production values recreated the inner life of the ancient palaces, and the look of the film's star helped to usher in the "pretty boy" look that today dominates South Korea's male fashion scene.

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