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No Wave, just a Korean breeze in Poland

2008/04/28 | 1148 views | Permalink | Source

The Korean Wave has been spreading Korean pop culture across Asia and beyond for more than a decade, although it has barely reached Poland, in the centre of Europe. It is sad to admit, but Korean culture (traditional as well as the "new wave") does not exist in Polish minds as a distinctive identity. It is often mixed in with Chinese and Japanese cultures, which are more defined in Poland yet still often confused with each other.

Still, it is trendy nowadays in Poland to go to an East Asian restaurant, buy Chinese souvenirs, own Japanese-style furniture, follow feng-shui rules, watch an Asian movie or send kids to taekwondo or karate classes.

Although Polish knowledge of Korean culture is minimal, the present article aims to show that there is a gentle Korean wind that is blowing into Poland faster than the mainstream Wave.

There is, however, still no trace of: (1) the Korean entertainment industry invading the Polish media market; (2) any Polish fans adopting the lifestyles of Korean pop stars; (3) package tours to Korea; or (4) Polish families gathering around TV sets to watch their favorite Korean drama.

The Polish media feed us alternately with images of the Demilitarized Zone and new threats from the North Korean regime, or with data on the influx of Korean investment and technology products, leaving no space for cultural news.

The traffic of Korean culture to Poland exhibits a different pattern compared to the Asian model of Hallyu. It is not fascination with Korean pop culture that drives enrollment in Korean language courses - rather, universities, as centers of high culture, are the best "advocates" of Korean-ness and initiators of cross-cultural interactions. At present, there are three main channels of Korean culture in Poland: (1) high culture disseminated by universities; (2) commercial distributors launching Korean films; and recently (3) Korean pop culture penetrating the youth environment through the internet.

The Korean elite and mass culture

Poland appears to be the only country in East and Central Europe that offers Korean courses at bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. levels at its three main universities - Warsaw University, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan and Jagiellonian University in Krakow. All of them have academic exchange agreements with Hankuk University of Foreign Studies and cooperate with other Korean universities through academic programs offered mainly by the Korea Foundation and the Academy of Korean Studies.

In cooperation with HUFS and the Korean Embassy in Warsaw, the universities actively promote Korean high culture in our country. For example, they organize annual Korean Culture Days to educate local people about Korean traditions and arts, e.g. through taekwondo shows, jangu and samulnori concerts, traditional dances and theater performances. The Department of Korean Studies in Poznan holds annual conferences with scholars from other Polish and Korean universities.

In 2007, professor J. Banczerowski, the founder of the Korean Studies department in Poznan, was given a presidential medal in recognition of his efforts in developing the study of the Korean language and culture in Poland. Last year also brought the foundation of the European Association for Korean Language Education. Professor R. Huszcza, the initiator of Korean linguistics at Warsaw University, was appointed president of the organization.

Also in 2007, an exceptional monument marking the distance from Korea to Poland, inscribed "Polska 7736 km", was erected at HUFS to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Polish Department by Professor Cheong Byung-Kwon.

Polish scholars are also trying to introduce Korean literature to readers. To date, academic translators have released about 20 books, including works by Kim Man-jung, Han Mahl-sook, Yi Ho-chul, Lee Kang-baek, Choi In-ho, Pak Wan-so, O Tae-sok, Kim So-wal, Yun Dong-ju, Suh Jung-ju and Kim Young-ha.

However, the circulation of these books is usually limited to 1,000 copies each, making them difficult to find in bookstores. The other issue of concern is the fact that contemporary Korean writers, with the exception of Kim Young-ha, are still completely unknown to Polish readers.

Wandering around Polish galleries and museums yields worse results. While there are plenty of exhibitions of contemporary Chinese paintings, Japanese calligraphy, and pottery, it is impossible to find a trace of Korean art. Although Kim Soo-ja's 2003 exhibition in the National Gallery of Art in Warsaw received very positive reviews from critics and audiences, it did not initiate an influx of Korean contemporary art to Poland. Indeed, the last five years can be described as dead silence.

The comforting news is that Korean theater groups are more often taking part in various theater festivals in Poland. For example, the Yohangza Theater Group performed in Gdansk, the Sadari Movement Company in Wroclaw, Dulsori in Szczecin and the Korea National Ballet will perform at Bydgoszcz Opera's Festival in May.

For many years, there was also almost no access to South Korean films in Poland. The average Polish viewer at the end of the 20th century associated Asian cinema with Bruce Lee in kung fu films, Godzilla and Kurosawa's samurai. The situation changed a few years ago when Korean films started to be promoted at European film festivals and then introduced in Polish cinemas.

Polish audiences have access to films by such directors as Kim Ki-duk, Kang Woo-seok, Ryoo Seung-wan, Kwak Gyeong-taek, Kim Yeong-joon, Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon, Hong Sang-soo and Kim Seong-ho. However, a mini-survey carried out for the purpose of this article among students of the Department of Filmology at Adam Mickiewicz University shows that the only Korean film director they can name is Kim Ki-duk.

Poland is one of the European countries where Kim's movies are highly rated and often regarded as masterpieces. He is acclaimed on Polish internet forums as "one of the few magicians of world cinema". Perhaps it is the fact that he "seems to inhabit a world of his own" that makes his movies weird or incomprehensible in native Korean eyes, but artistic and fresh for Poles weary of predictable Western productions.

The students could recall Polish or English translations of Korean film titles but were unable to name their directors and actors. Polish cinema-goers are still unable to identify Korean celebrities, perhaps because of a lack of promotion. Companies such as Samsung or LG use images of Korean celebrities to advertise various products in East Asian countries, but still have not tried this strategy in Poland.

At two to three new titles per year, the number of Korean movies in Poland is similar to Chinese and Japanese ones. The only Polish ranking available online of East Asian film productions places Korean films, with "Old Boy", "My Sassy Girl", "3 Iron" and "Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" at the very top of the lists, before mainland Chinese, Japanese, Hong Kong and Taiwanese ones. However, we are still awaiting events such as periodic Korean film festivals.

Although distribution channels for Korean cinema are developing, the situation with TV media is totally opposite. Till now, no Polish broadcasting station has been interested in purchasing any Korean dramas - the only "Korean guest" in some Polish households is Arirang TV.

Korean telenovelas like "Winter Sonata" opened the way for Hallyu in China, Japan, Southeast Asia, India and even Muslim countries such as Turkey or Egypt. Can the same happen in Central Europe? Polish viewers, in large part, cannot identify with the problems of Korean society due to differences in attitudes towards society, family life and work. However, there still may be some cultural homogeneity along gender, social class and generational lines, in spite of the geographical distance.

On the other hand, contemporary consumers continually desire things that are new and different. The Korean telenovela might attract a Polish audience bored with Western offerings. Poland went through a similar "novelty fever" with Brazilian dramas in the 1980s. Although telenovelas have nothing in common with the propagation of high culture, their role in the promotion of identity is significant. They are able to construct and influence public opinion, informing society of "the other culture".

At first glance, there are no signs of Korean music in our media market. However, there are Polish fan communities online which run their own websites and internet forums, providing up-to-date information on the songs and activities of artists such as BoA, Shinhwa, Dong Bang Shin Ki, Rain, Lee Min-woo, Lee Hyori, Lena Park, FT Island, Seo Tae-ji, Se7en, Super Junior, The TRAX, SS501 and Big Bang. These "underground" Polish consumers of Korean music are mostly students who catch the bug from their friends and spread it further. The initiators are often Korean exchange students at Polish universities or their Polish peers coming back home after studying in Korea.

The reasons behind this phenomenon are similar to those of the emergence of Asian cinema fan culture - young Poles search for something new and different from European or American content. In such cases, even if they do not understand Korean songs, fans are still fascinated by other aspects of their Far East idols, e.g. exotic outward appearances and new rhythms. However, it is difficult to estimate the scale of this phenomenon without doing deeper research.

The gentle Korean breeze, blowing in Poland in occasionally stronger gusts, is still insufficient in terms of constructing a distinctive image of Korean culture in Polish minds. Powerful media such as TV, radio and newspapers are almost empty of Korean cultural content, beyond images of Korea as "the nation divided by a Demilitarized Zone with the constant threat of a nuclear conflict" or "one of the Asian economic tigers conquering European markets".

It is a problem for both South Koreans and Poles that our intensified economic, educational and political cooperation do not go hand-in-hand with flourishing reciprocal cultural exchanges, and that, as nations, we know so little about each other's culture.

Despite the existence of dynamic institutions like the Korea Culture and Content Agency promoting Korea abroad, Hallyu still has not reach Poland.

In Krakow, a city regarded as the country's cultural center, Japan in 1994 helped to establish the Center of Japanese Art and Technology Manggha, and China opened a Confucius Institute in 2006. Both of these institutions actively promote positive images of the two countries, and Korea would do well to consider a similar move.

Universities are currently the strongest force spreading knowledge about Korea in Poland. Their efforts raise the hope that such an institution can be established to promote Korea in Poland and that there will come a day when Poles are familiar with the essence of Korean aesthetics, emotions, traditions and culture.

By Emilia Szalkowska

The writer would like to thank professor Choi Sung-eun (HUFS) and professor Tomasz Lisowski (AMU) for sharing their observations on the topic. - Ed.

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