The Hallyu Fever: A Culture Industry Like No Other

“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”.

Bong Joon Ho’s historic acceptance speech at the 2020 Oscars sums up the dialogue not simply on foreign films, but on inclusivity towards foreign culture and in its extension, the hallyu wave of the director’s very own homeland.

It is no longer far-fetched to opine that South Korean culture has surpassed its small nuggets of kpop stans streaming songs in privacy and viewers swooning over poorly dubbed pixelated Korean dramas to a mammoth global explosion. Hallyu in itself is a Chinese neologism ( etymologically translating to ‘Korean Wave’) and bears the markings of the multicultural quintessence that it would come to reflect in the contemporary hustle. With Seo Taiji and the Boys forming the first ever Kpop boy group and winning massive audience thrust, the prototype of the original format has undergone several key changes to the groups present today.

In the aftermath of the Korean War followed by a relatively halcyon period, the then president of South Korea Kim Young Sam seconded the cultural renaissance and recognised culture as an exportable commodity. Thus Shiri became the first Hollywood-esque Korean blockbuster thriller which thoroughly engaged the national audience. As further trade restrictions and cultural proscriptions with Japan ceased to exist, the culture industry vigorously engaged with audiences abroad. The annulment of laws prohibiting Korean citizens from foreign travel in the 1990s and the relaxation of trade with Japan threw open market opportunities and dramas like Winter Sonata and My Sassy Girl gained a strong foothold in Japanese viewership. With the collaboration of the ‘Big 3’ artist management agencies cum record label with YouTube in 2006, Kpop effectively penetrated West with the highest numbers of engagement with the medium beyond Asia.

One of the primary negotiations in this culture trade happened vis-a-vis Kpop , the aesthetically charged South Korean pop music industry with heavy inflections from multiple genres such as R&B, electronic, hip-hop , etc. In remarkable feats of transborder triumph, SM Entertainment’s (one of the many artist management agencies) kpop group H.O.T performed for a full house in Beijing and soloist BoA’s album sold a million physical copies in Japan.

Culture has often manifested through solidarity in dissent and speaking your truth- something Hallyu is not exempt from. Kpop stans played an unanticipated , critical role in disseminating online consolidated action during the Black Lives Matter movement- flooding Twitter with hashtags drowning out the derogatory #WhiteLivesMatter hits. BTS stans, fashioned ARMY, mobilized economic resources to render the Trump rally at Tuscany inconsequential. Buoyed by the artists stance, “We stand against racial discrimination. We condemn violence. You, I and we all have the right to be respected. We will stand together. #BlackLivesMatter” a fandom driven initiative labelled One in An ARMY matched the artists contribution of $1 million to the cause. Several other fandoms such as Ahgases ( the Got7 fandom) and Orbts (the LOONA fandom) have also found solidarity with regards to non heteronormative association within the fandom space.

It is high time to address the mammoth in the room – a group considered (albeit incorrectly) by many to be eponymous to kpop- BTS. Harking from an insolvent agency, Bangtan Sonyeondan or BTS took the domestic industry and the US audience by storm with their steady online presence, interaction and a ubiquitous thrust on mental health and self love. Spanning over three albums addressing self love and a ‘Love Myself’ campaign collaboration with the UN, BTS engaged popular discourse on mental health, speaking your truth and acknowledging self worth. Youngsters all over the globe conglomerated in a tiding of empathy and solidarity under the umbrella of Bangtan’s music, cementing the hallyu hurrah and an unrivalled pop culture phenomenon for a foreign language act.

Kpop has also been opening the forums for diversity and chips away at the notions of toxic masculinity. The lumbersexual, rugged and earthy image is how the West and its heterosexual norms mark the pinnacle of masculinity. Kpop introduces a contrary “kkonminam” ( translates to “a man as beautiful as a flower”) to the dialectic of the tall, dark and handsome – thus deconstructing masculine toxicity in the light of self care and male stereotypes. Kpop idols, irrespective of gender, rather freely and spontaneously, engage in on-stage and behind the scenes physical contact, acknowledging spaces between cisgender heterosexual men to emote without constraints and subsequent anxiety of an emasculated image.

Kpop girl groups, while still mired in fixed gender roles, have broken considerable ground in musicality and artistry while subtly defying normative cultures. Exid’s bizarre trip hop song ‘Up and Down’ juxtaposes fetishizing of the female body to incongruent objects presenting a seemingly bubblegum yet uncomfortable experience. Red Velvet’s unique artistry and discography paints them in a whole new genre of their own beyond the typical ‘girl crush’ or sugary sweet image. Blackpink has been heralded by magazines like the Times and Forbes as the biggest girl group in the world at the present and have broken the popular notion of boy group popularity in the West. International and domestic favorite Girls Generation is still a force to be reckoned with post 10 years of debut- especially in an industry with notoriously short artist shelf lives.

South Korea has sourced through its cultural export a great deal of soft power in the neighbouring south eastern region and eventually the States and Europe and farther into the West. Groups like Girls Generation, Wonder Girls, Shinee and Big Bang led the vanguard to overseas shores with album sales and fan-meets. In a radical, groundbreaking move, Kpop girl group Red Velvet performed to 1500 spectators- including North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, marking a tentative yet significant attempt at thawing the not so surreptitious rumination of the Korean Armistice Pact.

Dae Jang Geum or Jewel in the Palace was the first boom in K-Dramas reverberating across 87 countries with rock solid viewership and set the stage for Asian drama and media trickling beyond South Korea. The West, while boasting first rate histrionics and well documented narratives, is nevertheless formula oriented, clogged with gratuitous violence, expletive and sexual scenarios that weigh down on the audiences’ sensibility instead of rejuvenating or offering multiplicity in perspectives. With plots ranging from eccentric love stories between a down on her luck actress and a 400 year old alien to epic narrations of cross border romances and zombie thrillers in the Joseon period (one of the Korean Imperialist periods) – K-drama offers it all and more. In an interview with NBC News ,Ji-Yeon Yuh, a professor of Asian-American studies at Northwestern, noted that “Korean drama and pop music, but drama especially, offer a version of a society that holds onto traditions and traditional values while moving forward as an economically advanced and developed society.” As the West’s search for solace and quietude continues in Eastern ideologies, the core values K- dramas including community feeling and family consciousness, is a refreshing change concordant to finding serenity. The male protagonists especially are not the stigmatized dominant virile heroes but well wrought personalities vulnerable to show of emotions and well wrought character development.

While India as a whole has also yielded to the soft power of Korean culture, the state of Manipur provides the most fascinating account trenched in dissent and alienation. With insurgency rife in Manipur and alienation from mainstream culture being an almost natural consequence- Korean culture is something the citizens adopted and celebrated. The mongoloid ethnic similarity coupled with clan based social organisation and modest attire and linguism attracted the masses, especially the youth. In a hilly terrain where mainstream Bollywood multiplexes were few in number and far in between, K-drama VCRs became the convenient alternative and the youth were highly influenced by speech patterns and hairstyles, fashion, musicality and other Korean trends.

Before Bong Joon Ho etched class divisions and human idiosyncrasies in Parasite (bagging a whooping figure of 4 Oscar awards including the Best film) , director Park Chan Wook, of the Vengeance series fame, mapped gruesome humanity in mock grey silhouettes. Uncomfortable subject matters of incest and the brinks of the ubiquitious common man’s single minded insanity are deftly dealt with. Burning by Lee Chang Dok, a deliciously enigmatic psycho-social thriller embarking on futile anger, won the grand Bell Award for best film and scored a Palme D’Or nomination. While it can be concluded the visceral Korean cinema is gaining new grounds with international recognition, the glass ceiling has only just been cracked and hallyu will overcome the tidings of inner skirmishes, political agendas and more to ultimately revel in the statement of multiculturalism it embodies.

– Bipasha Bhowmick

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