The K-wave
The very first subtitled film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The first ever video to get over one billion views on YouTube. What do they all have in common? They are all part of the hallyu, or cultural wave that started in South Korea and seems to be slowly conquering the world.
The K-wave
Squid game (Source: IMDB)
Nóra Terján 06/04/2023 08:00

The very first subtitled film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The first ever video to get over one billion views on YouTube. What do they all have in common? They are all part of the hallyu, or cultural wave that started in South Korea and seems to be slowly conquering the world.

Korea experienced complete commercial and diplomatic isolation until the end of the 19th century and then colonial rule from 1876 to 1945. After the separation from Japan came the division, followed by a three-year war from 1950 onwards that claimed some three million civilian lives. This is where the ‘tiger cub’ of the South raised itself from. It has rapidly rebuilt its economy and become one of the world's cultural powers. But how did it do this? What is the secret?

In South Korea, the politically active generation born in the 1960s, known as the 386 Generation, did much to dismantle the dictatorship. They were the ones who had the chance to study abroad and then return home to give the country new impetus. Another driving force behind the cultural explosion was dynamic economic growth: per capita GDP grew from USD 94 in 1961 to USD 31,363 in 2018, and the government consciously began to promote the international dissemination of South Korean culture. It’s no coincidence that the bid to host the Summer Olympic Games was launched in the 1970s and was successful as early as 1988.

Own aspirations instead of American dreams

Korean American journalist Euny Hong first used the term ‘hallyu’ in her book The Birth of Korean Cool to describe the cultural wave that was emerging in the country. The roaring success of South Korea's film industry – Hallyuwood – lies in the meeting of Hollywood and Asian film traditions, which in fact is also what underlies the country's success: South Korea realised that they don't have to chase the American dream when in fact they have their own Korean dream. The popular culture consumed by citizens does not necessarily have to come from the United States or Japan either, it is possible to watch Korean films and listen to Korean music. In the mid-1990s, President Kim Young-sam was allegedly persuaded of the need to boost the national culture and entertainment industry by comparing the revenues of Steven Spielberg's 1993 film Jurassic Park with those of the Hyundai auto manufacturer: the results showed that the film made more money than Hyundai after one and a half million vehicles sold. The President acted promptly.

Raining awards

The rise of Hallyuwood did not begin in recent years. The first really big international success was Park Chan-wook's film Oldboy, a visceral revenge story that quickly became a cult film in Europe and the United States. Domestic audiences have also become familiar with Kim Ki-duk's melancholy Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, but Lee Chang-dong also gained international fame when he was the first to be invited to the American Film Academy Gala for his 2018 film Burning, nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category. The New Korean Cinema was in fact established by Lee with Peppermint Candy, a film that summarised the history of South Korea by presenting the life of a person. Then in 2019, Bong Joon-ho won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and from then on there was no stopping him, winning four Oscars, including Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. In addition, Parasite was also the first non-English-language film to win the American Film Academy's top prize, the golden statue for Best Picture.
Parasite (Source: Imdb)

In 2021, at the low-key Oscars held in front of a small, masked audience, another South Korean film emerged from the international field: US-based Lee Isaac Chung's Chung Minari came virtually out of nowhere. Dedicated to his grandmother, the autobiographical film about a Korean family chasing the American dream premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and, after the Golden Globe, it also won one of its major categories among its six Oscar nominations: actress Youn Yuh-jung, who played his grandmother, took home the statue for Best Supporting Actress.

And there's no stopping there: perhaps the biggest Netflix sensation of last year was Squid Game, which topped the streaming giant's worldwide ratings for a long time. The actors of the series have become international superstars: the male lead, Lee Jung-jae, recently became the first Asian actor to win the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, and the female lead, HoYeon Jung, has become an icon. The biggest fashion houses are competing for her graces. While the South Korean survival drama became a veritable global cultural phenomenon, at this year's Cannes Film Festival the international jury awarded the Best Director prize to the creator of Oldboy, the aforementioned Park Chan-wook, for his noir-infused love story Decision to Leave.

Squid game statue (Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je)

Challengers of Hollywood

According to Motion Pictures' annual summary, South Korea's film revenue in 2018 was USD 1.6 billion, the fourth largest in markets outside the United States. In terms of the number of films produced, Hollywood lost the lead a long time ago: it was overtaken by India in 2006, and even by the Nigerian film industry in 2009. In 2017, even China produced more films than the United States, but the dream factory was also surpassed by Japan.

Of course, quantity does not equate to quality. Korean films are much easier to understand and digest internationally than, say, the output of Bollywood (the Indian film industry), and in terms of quality, they are levels above Nollywood (the Nigerian film industry), the current market leader in terms of quantity, while still being able to represent their own values. “Aesthetically appealing, economically profitable, culturally compelling, technologically sophisticated and ideologically introspective” – is how Euny Hong, the journalist who coined the term hallyu, described Korean filmmaking. For example, the 1999 blockbuster Shiri, which depicted the conflict between North and South Korea, grossed more than Titanic domestically.

K-pop, the soft power

Korea's international successes also followed in other walks of cultural life: the 2002 football World Cup, the 2018 Winter Olympics, and the explosion of South Korean pop music, or K-pop, which has reached astonishing heights, led by the hit Gangnam Style. According to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, K-pop is like a cancerous tumour. His dislike is understandable, as K-pop is currently South Korea's most important soft power.
Gangnam style statue (Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace)
Comedian-turned-businessman Lee Soo Man saw the potential in South Korean music as the next big export in the 1990s. The boy band he founded, H.O.T., made its debut in 1996 – in full ski-gear. Much time has passed since then and K-pop has somehow made its way into the ears of the Western world, which is used to English-language songs. Artists such as BoA, who sold millions of records, and Rain, the first K-pop bad-boy, emerged. Then came the age of boy and girl bands. Super Junior, Big Bang, SHINee, Wonder Girls, Girls’ Generation, 2NE1. In most cases, the bands were made up of at least five members and, as was the case with American or British girl and boy bands of the nineties, each member had a role to play in the group.

Cultural exports

The other part of the Korean pop industry since the early 2000s has been the agencies that also act as record labels. The rate of growth has been staggering: while South Korea was only ranked 29th in the world music rankings in 2005, by 2022 it had risen to the top. Labels have learnt from the scandals of the Backstreet Boys and their counterparts: agencies sign infinitely strict contracts with performers who have to meet a host of requirements. The positive part is, of course, that would-be stars have to be polite at all times and under all circumstances, but young artists are also often told, for example, not to take a stand on politics, not to drink alcohol or even not to date.

The impact of the Korean wave is reflected in the increasing number of American artists collaborating or touring with Korean bands. The most prestigious music chart, Billboard, launched its own K-pop chart in August 2011, but YouTube now treats Korean pop as a genre in its own right.

K-pop is so successful because Koreans have a very different understanding of marketing than Western European or American stars. In fact, Koreans consider it part of their job to provide fan services to their audience. All of this means a close, ‘family’ bond between the star and their fans. Bands are highly active on their social media pages, organising meet-and-greets, launching challenges, releasing limited edition albums and always adding something extra to the product to make it worth buying – not just downloading from the internet.

The most successful band in the world today is seven-member boy band Bangtan Sonyeondan (Bulletproof Boy Scouts) from Seoul. They are the ones who have taken fan services to a truly artistic level; their fans simply call themselves the Army. The band's videos invariably have over one hundred million views, and it's no coincidence that they're on the cover of Rolling Stone.

The hallyu can rightly be criticised for being no more than a clever ploy, a commercial product, a commodity of capitalism, which is about nothing more than the economic expansion of South Korea. No doubt it will help Korean companies conquer new markets on the basis that anyone who likes, say, one of the boy bands will be susceptible to Korean beauty care and, as a related commodity, perhaps also be open to buying some electronic gadgetry or fashion items. The ‘genius’ of the hallyu model is that it exports its own culture while selling the Korean dream to the world.

Pop culture of the Renegade Country

While South Korean pop stars with billions of views are adored by the world's youth, the North Korean ‘popular genre’ can be divided into two regime-compliant types: revolutionary music and state-controlled popular music.

Not surprisingly, the revolutionary music is performed by various choirs of the Korean People's Army. Their songs are usually about the struggle against imperialism, about victory and patriotism. The song titles speak for themselves: “March of the immortal army” or “Death to American imperialism!”.

The unique genre of North Korean light music is represented by groups such as the Moranbong Band, a favourite of the ‘Dear Leader’, the Unhasu Orchestra, the Wangjaesan Light Music Band, the Chongbong Band, the Yun I-sang Orchestra, and the Mansudae Art Troupe, which also performs operas. Their sound is almost pop music, their performers also use electric instruments (synthesisers, solo and bass guitars), but they mostly sing about the incessant fight, industry and the life of the people.

The Moranbong Band is North Korea's first state girl group, established in 2012 at the request of Kim Jong-un himself as the successor to the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble, with the aim of “developing in a balanced manner the traditional and popular music to suit the emotions and aesthetic sense of the Korean people, the demands of the times and the wishes of the people”. The Moranbong Band is a departure from North Korean tradition in terms of both visuals and music: they also play ‘Western’ songs, including a cover of the Rocky theme song and Frank Sinatra's My Way. The members of the girl band wear sparkly minidresses and jewellery, which is also in contrast with the previous North Korean dress code. The BBC has described their appearance as “conservatively sexy”, they wear uniformly short hairstyles, and are reportedly also kept on a diet aimed at keeping their figure similar.

In spite of their appearance, the lyrics of their songs are aligned with North Korean ideology. They also celebrate the party, the military and, of course, the ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong-un, and their music is often compared by critics to the somewhat dated musical clichés of the Eurovision Song Contest. Yet in their own country, the ladies are so popular that many people imitate their hairstyles, and when state television broadcasts a concert, the streets are empty.

It is, however, not just in music that the closed, communist country is light years behind its Southern (now considered a foster) sibling. North Korea's independent cinematic universe began with the division of Korea and has been maintained by the ruling Kim dynasty ever since. Following Japan's defeat in World War II, filmmakers from both the North and the South sought to make the first post-liberation Korean film in their own half of the peninsula. Although the South Koreans won the race with 1946’s Viva Freedom!, North Korea was not far behind with My Home Village. During the Korean War, almost all the studios and film archives were destroyed, and after 1953 everything had to be rebuilt.

Kim Il-Sung and his successor, Kim Jong-il, considered themselves veritable ‘cinephiles’ and advocated the production of propaganda films based on Juche ideology. Kim Il-Sung believed with religious conviction in Lenin's words that cinema was the most important of all the arts, and thus capable of spreading the government's ideology. In his 1973 treatise On the Art of the Cinema, Kim Jong-il went even further, stating that cinema had the task of educating people to become true communists and to completely eradicate capitalist elements. This is somewhat contradicted by the fact that production costs were generally very low, which is reflected in the final result. Nevertheless, North Korea has also made some films that have been released to the wider world.

Photo: AFP/Kim Won Jin
Film production in the country is, of course, controlled by the state party. The ideology-driven system of seventies cinema was manifested in films such as The People Sing of the Fatherly Leader or The Rays of Juche Spread All Over the World.

Martyrdom, sacrifice for the nation, is a frequent theme in North Korean cinema: the ‘masterpiece’ Fate of a Self-defence Corps Member is based on the novel by the leader himself, Kim Il-Sung, and is about the fight against Japanese occupation. 1969's Sea of Blood tells the story of a peasant woman who becomes a national hero by fighting the Japanese. Another common theme is the happiness of contemporary society, represented in feature films such as A Family of Workers, A Flowering Village, When Apples Are Picked or Girls at a Port. All the films listed have been awarded the People's Prize.

The isolation makes it very difficult to determine the number of films made: exactly thirty years ago, Asiaweek reported that North Korea was producing around 80 films a year, while the BBC's 2001 report put the figure at 60. The most well-known North Korean film internationally is the 1985 giant-monster epic, Pulgasari, ironically directed by an abducted South Korean director, Shin Sang-ok. North Korea is not usually represented at film festivals, but in 1987 it did establish the Pyongyang International Film Festival, which showcases carefully selected films to a carefully selected audience.

This article was originally published in our Hungarian-language magazine Eurázsia in 2022.

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