(by Annie Jia)
Are you aware of the Korean influences around you? Buses around London with ads asking “Imagine your Korea”, the London Korean Film Festival screening Korean movies across UK’s cinemas last November, “Squid Game” as the most popular show on Netflix globally for 29 days, Korean shops and restaurants near your block, K-pop songs from Lisa of Blackpink, BTS ranking high on various UK music charts… Encounters with Korean cultures in London were almost epitomized with Oxford English Dictionary’s introduction of twenty-six Korean words last October. Korean words ranging from food (“banchan”, “bulgogi”, “kimbap”) to entertainment (“K-drama”, “manhwa”, “mukbang”) are collected into this 150-year-old historical dictionary. Facets of Korean culture can be observed in its growing role and popularity in the music, film, television, and fashion industries around the globe.
K-pop started being a bigger phenomenon in the 90s with Seo Taiji and the Boys’ breakout track, “I Know”. Occupying the top of Korean music charts for 17 weeks, this song was widely regarded as the “start” of K-pop. With the effects of the Internet and online sharing platforms, familiar lyrics from many iconic Korean songs like “Nobody” and “Trouble Maker” later became well-known around the world. In addition to the lyrics, the choreographies accompanying these songs also became hits. In my primary school’s end-of-year celebration, girls from my class would perform the entire “Nobody” dance. With the Internet and World Wide Web, songs from Korean singers and artists eventually became popular around the globe.
The trends of Korean girl bands and boy bands have become more prevalent and phenomenal since the late twentieth century. The start of Korean bands seems to date back to the creation of H.O.T in 1996. SM Entertainment’s introduction of H.O.T signalled both the starting point of the first generation of Korean bands and that of industrial practices of cultivating and nurturing idols and bands with prominent Korean media companies. Since then, a commonly acknowledged genealogy of four generations of girls’ bands and boys’ bands unfolded during the span of 15 years. The more recent and internationally well-known bands like Big Bang, Exo, BTS, Twice, and Blackpink belong to the third generation, with the target of expanding global popularity. Their styles typically would encompass a more diverse set of elements, deploying English lyrics and global visual and cultural elements. For example, Blackpink’s music video “How You Like That” showed the image of a Hindu goddess. This inclusion of religious symbols, although controversial, manifested Korean bands’ ambition for a bigger audience and stage.
Such progress could be seen in Netflix’s original documentary of Blackpink, “Blackpink: Light Up the Sky”, which includes intimate portrayals of the four members’ lives both on stage and behind the curtain. In this 79-minute movie, members discuss their personal journeys from their audition all the way to their Coachella performance. Uncovering their emotional sides, such as the anxiety, homesickness and stress from competition, this documentary invites fans and viewers to the pop stars’ personal lives, from shopping at favourite vintage stores to taking a yoga class with a personal instructor. This movie provides a new understanding of those glamorous figures on-screen to a global audience. They are fragile and relatable, but also ambitious in the highly competitive and rapidly evolving Korean entertainment industry. Talks and videos like these not only render viewers a chance to know more about their favourite idols or songs but also relate to us on a personal level. In a neoliberal, globalized, and fast-changing world today, these Korean stars’ experiences echo with many regarding vulnerability, individuality, and the desire for acknowledgement.
In addition to the music industry, Korean dramas are almost household terms for many global netizens. What is your favourite K-drama? What is your most recent memory of watching Korean drama? It might not be surprising that many would name the television series, “Squid Game” (Huang Dong-Hyuk, 2021). The bleak portrayal of competition and merciless murder presented by the director Huang Dong-Hyuk has dominated Netflix and become the most popular television series on Netflix in 90 countries. This television series, according to Huang Dong-Hyuk, aimed to comment on the current global conditions as impacted by the pandemic, wealth inequality and political instability. As an analogy to modern capitalism, where digital surveillance, violence, emaciated trust, corruption, and many other forms of injustice are rampant, “Squid Game” captures and resonates with many. Similar to the Oscar-winning Korean movie, Parasite, which also depicts the tensions and power asymmetry between different classes, numerous Korean television series and movies are able to achieve global recognition among both the public and the professional industry. Over the years, Korean productions have been able to achieve popularity in the global market with thought-provoking and aesthetically distinct styles of audiovisual productions.
What’s the most impressive piece of Korean culture that you have encountered? What do you like about them? While we inquire about the reasons for the popularity of Korean culture, I think it is also of great importance to acknowledge and respect different perspectives and tensions underneath these popular productions. For example, the new television series streaming on Disney+, “Snowdrop”, starring Jisoo from Blackpink has been the subject of a controversial and heated debate regarding its portrayal of a sensitive period of Korean history. With over 300,000 people signing a petition to suspend it, the Korean public is showing resistance towards the power of global capital, as represented by the foreign investments in a show such as Disney’s. Although this show is fictional, global viewers should be mindful of the political and cultural tensions behind these representations. From Blackpink’s representation of the Hindu goddess in their music video to the controversial representations of history in “Snowdrop”, both producers and audiences are cautioned towards the appropriation of local cultural elements and events without full comprehension of the intricacies of that culture’s history and wills. As we experience and celebrate the increasing flow of global cultures nowadays, we should also be mindful of sincerely comprehending and respecting different cultures. After all, as dwellers of a cosmopolitan globe, we all share and bring various perspectives which are equally significant and worthy of understanding.