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[THE HIGH TIDE OF THE KOREAN WAVE(25)] Hallyu: the Koreanization of world culture

2008/03/21 Source

In the last few years, Korean films, TV dramas and pop music have become immensely popular abroad, a phenomenon known as the Korean Wave. This is the 25th in a series of essays by a select group of scholars and journalists looking at the spread of Korean pop culture in Southeast Asian countries and beyond. - Ed.

"Hallyu", or the Korean Wave, marks the long overdue re-emergence of Korean culture into the global arena. Korean culture's newfound international vogue situates South Korean cinema, TV melodramas, K-pop, and computer games as active participants in the transformation of world culture.

These "domestic" electronic audio-visual cultural creations are no longer limited to just the Korean peninsula and the global Korean diaspora despite that they are produced in the Korean language - a language that is not one of the globalized imperial languages such as English, French, Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese.

Despite this linguistic barrier, hallyu is now a recognized agent of global cultural invigoration, committed to its core population of ethnic Koreans while simultaneously becoming attractive to a growing legion of adherents who choose to become cultural Koreans through their engagement with hallyu.

Hallyu cool, compelling, sophisticated

In short, hallyu has inaugurated the Koreanization of world culture because it is aesthetically cool, economically profitable, culturally compelling, technologically sophisticated, and ideologically introspective.

All of these factors reveal the former Hermit Kingdom transformed into a dynamic and sparkling country. A country that has found the means to secure its share of the global cultural limelight, despite historical forces that have stymied the country's rise to global significance.

Chinese hegemony, Japanese colonialism, the Korean War, political division of the peninsula, and the IMF crisis are just some of the more pronounced events that could have, but ultimately did not, conspire to keep Korea as a minor and forgettable national entity.

The birth of Korean cinema

To illustrate my position, I will focus on the cinematic component of hallyu.

Since its origins, Korean cinema struggled to exert its aesthetic, economic, and ideological independence. In 1895, at the dawn of the cinema, Korea's geographic obscurity and technological backwardness positioned Korea as an exhibitor of foreign films rather than a producer and distributor of films.

The Lumiere brothers first unveiled their "cinematographe" in Paris. It would take three years before the cinema arrived in Seoul in 1898, at the tail end of the Chosun dynasty.

Korea came across this new medium well after the metropolitan capitals of Europe and North America. Even across Asia, the people of Bombay, Shanghai and Osaka encountered the cinema well before those in Seoul.

The need for massive capital to contemplate, let alone establish, the foundations for film production is still a daunting endeavor. It should come as no surprise that it took twenty-one years before Park Sung-pil produced and Kim To-san directed "Righteous Revenge" in 1919.

This is the first Korean kino-drama, a mixture of live theater interspersed with the screening of 1000 feet of film, constructed around 8 acts and 28 scenes.

The real surprise here is that it did not take longer before Korean cinema officially began independent production. Korea's first bona fide feature film arrived four years later.

In 1923, Yun Baek-nam produced and directed "The Plighted Love Under the Moon".

While their cinematic landmarks represent Korean entrepreneurial successes, both were completed during the Japanese occupation of Korea.

Hence, up until the liberation of 1945, the Korean films produced during this oppressive period faced strict Japanese censorship and almost all of these films were compromised in some way. Moreover, these films were designed for local consumption, since even domestic distribution was a challenge.

The end of Japanese rule did not automatically improve conditions for the Korean film industry.

In less than a decade, the partition of the peninsula into Russian and American zones of administration was followed by the Korean War before the peninsula was officially divided politically into a democratic South Korea and a communist North Korea.

These events greatly disrupted film production, damaged the industry's infrastructure, and obliterated much of its cinematic heritage. Even under duress, Korean cinema in the south still managed to produce classics such as Choi In-gyu's "Hurrah! For Freedom" (1946), Lee Kyu-hwan's "Chunhyang Story" (1955), Han Hyeong-mo's "Madame Freedom" (1956), Lee Kang-cheon's "Piagol" (1955), and Shin Sang-ok's "The Flower in Hell" (1958).

Korea's cinematic Golden Age

1955-1972 marks South Korea's cinematic Golden Age. In part, the relative stability of life after the Korean War coupled with the favorable tax incentives for the film industry that President Syngman Rhee instituted made this possible. A relatively liberal censorship policy also allowed for a degree of unsuppressed expression that was formerly impossible on the peninsula. Thus, for the first time in Korea's cinematic history, all of the pieces were finally in place to grant the film industry a degree of stability and freedom to excel.

This new nurturing environment produced neorealist and experimental masterpieces such as Kim Ki-young's "The Housemaid - 1960" (1960), Shin Sang-ok's "Mother and A Guest" (1961), and Yu Hyun-mok's "The Aimless Bullet" (1961).

Facing the realities of a divided people and the need for rapid modernization just to attain a level of basic survival conditions, let alone prosperity, these films interrogated the depth of the Korean predicament.

The easy answers that are favored by entertainment cinema's escapist mode of filmmaking were eschewed. Instead, these films raised and revealed, in the neorealist mode of art cinema, the very Korean values and traditions that led to Korea's recent series of national tragedies.

The filmmakers held that a better national future was not possible unless Korean society addressed these issues in an overt exercise of willful self-critique.

For example, "The Aimless Bullet" questions traditional Confucian values and patriarchy as an insufficient moral foundation to address the economic plight facing the Korean people.

In this film, moral purity does not provide an easy answer to economic devastation if the "perfect world" that this morality was supposed to guarantee is turned upside down.

After a series of family misfortunes, the protagonist voices his conundrum. All of his sincere efforts to live the proper life of the eldest son steeped in Confucian virtue is not a source of guaranteed empowerment in post-Korean War Seoul.

He bemoans, "I've tried so hard to be a good son, a good husband, a good father, a good brother, a good clerk".

The protagonist's younger brother expresses the true issue of the questionable Confucian ideal, one that makes one "reasonable, honest, and poor as hell".

But at the end of the day, the only thing that can rectify his family's plight is the stark economic confession, "I know I could have been a little richer".

This type of honest self-critique of sacred Korean values voiced the repressed questions that existed in every Koreans' mind but due to social etiquette remained largely unvoiced.

This film was released in 1960 at a key juncture in South Korea's history after President Rhee's resignation from office and before General Park Chung-Hee's May 16th coup d'etat in 1961. Park pulled the film from the theatres soon after taking office.

The film's interrogation of Confucian patriarchy and its value system still rings relevant today since Confucian ideology continues to define and justify Korea's moral social framework.

1961 marked another tide of paradigmatic change with the start of militarized democracy as former generals became the next three successive presidents.

Begun by Park Chung-hee and continued by Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, ideological inflexibility defined by staunch anti-Communism was the standing order of the day.

During this same time, North Korea responded with an equal anti-South Korean policy.

Economic growth feeds censorship

Rapid economic expansion via accelerated industrialization and an export-oriented economic policy catapulted South Korea to its current enviable status as a nation amongst nations.

Questioning or critiquing this dual-focused national agenda - of anti-communism and industrialized development - was suppressed and the creative dynamism of the previous decade was compromised.

The cinema was not immune. Stricter censorship laws and film policies that favored over production of domestic films in hopes of securing a lucrative foreign film import certificate created a cinematic dark age.

Korean filmmakers struggled to create films that were critically engaging during a time when such critical perspectives were frowned upon.

Even a film such as Park Kwang-soo's 1988 film "Chilsu and Mansu" had to create an oblique critique by having its two protagonists engage in pro-democracy demonstrations.

Yet even this dark cloud could not stop the creation of local box office sensations such as Kim Cheong-gi's "Robot Taekwon V" (1976), South Korea's first animated feature film, and a number of landmark films by Im Kwon-taek such as "Gilsotteum" (1986) and "The Surrogate Woman" (1987).

"Shiri" turns the tide

On the cinematic front, the hallyu breakthrough moment occurs in 1999. In the previous year, each and every national film market had succumbed to the Hollywood onslaught represented by James Cameron's "Titanic" (1997) when the film was released to the global film market.

South Korea's national film industry was repeating the global norm under which its domestic market was inevitably dominated by Hollywood films.

Nevertheless, Kang Je-gyu's "Shiri", produced as a Korean styled Hollywood blockbuster film complete with some of the latest special effects wizardry, bested "Titanic" at the local box office: 2,448,399 tickets vs. 1,971,780 tickets in Seoul.

"Shiri" set a new standard, which successive South Korean filmmakers have continued to surpass. Based on box office data compiled by the Korean Film Council, local films have continuously retained the number one spot since 1999: Park Chan-wook's "JSA - Joint Security Area" (2000), Kwak Gyeong-taek's "Friend" (2001), Lee Jeong-hyang's "The Way Home" (2002), Bong Joon-ho's "Memories of Murder" (2003), Kang Je-gyu's "Taegukgi" (2004), Bae Jong's "Welcome to Dongmakgol" (2005), and Bong Joon-ho's "The Host" (2006).

The dominant position of the domestic box office hit vis-a-vis the Hollywood challenger and the disparity in favor of domestic films by the domestic audience can be seen in 2006 when "The Host" sold 13,571,254 tickets nationally versus J. J. Abrams' "Mission: Impossible III" (2006) which sold just 5,740,789 tickets.

On top of retaining the number one box office spot for eight successive years, South Korea's domestic film industry also retained the majority share of its box office.

According to KOFIC, domestic films regained majority share in 2001 and retained this through 2006 except for 2002: 50.1 percent in 2001; 48.3 percent in 2002; 53.5 percent in 2003; 59.3 percent in 2004; 58.7 percent in 2005; and 63.8 percent in 2006.

This is a dramatic improvement from the nadir of 15.9 percent in 1993. More importantly, the average attendance per capita for domestic films increased from a low of 0.2 in 1995 to a record high of 2.0 in 2006.

For foreign films, the average rose slightly from 0.8 to 1.1 for the same period, respectively. This clearly demonstrates the domestic film industry's ability to establish and maintain its economic viability and popular appeal on its home turf.

The home audience and market has been and must remain the primary market for South Korean cinema for it to revel in its dynamic success.

The new Hollywood counter model

Unfortunately, data for 2007 reveal a resurgence of American domination with Michael Bay's "Transformers" (2007) taking the top box office slot and Korea losing its majority share of the market with 46.8 percent.

Had "Shiri" been the only local film to attain this unimaginable milestone, this event would only stand as a minor footnote in world cinema.

The fact that "Shiri" heralded a renaissance for South Korea's film industry in tune with its other hallyu media compatriots (TV melodramas such as "Winter Sonata" (2002) and "Dae Jang Geum" (2003), K-Pop artists such as BoA and Rain, and computer games such as NC Soft's Lineage) situates South Korea's cinema as the new counter model to Hollywood.

Prior to 1999, local cinematic power over Hollywood imports occurred in India (Bollywood's "masala" films), China (due to a strict import quota on foreign films), and Hong Kong (prior to the countdown to 1997 and there afterward due to the success of its action cinema and Canton language based comedies).

In effect, South Korea's film industry is now the new cinematic business model by which a small nation can revitalize itself and reclaim its domestic market even against the full weight of Hollywood.

To reflect this new paradigm, Anthony Leong would title his analysis of the rise of New Korean Cinema as "Korean Cinema: The New Hong Kong" (2006).

What began as a Korean specific cultural phenomenon did not remain isolated just to the southern half of the Korean peninsula. One of the earliest foreign adherents to the rise of hallyu was none other than Korea's historical nemesis - Japan.

According to export figures released by KOFIC, Japan remains the biggest single overseas market for Korean feature films: 74 percent in 2002; 44.8 percent in 2003; 69.3 percent in 2004; 79.4 percent in 2005; and 42.4 percent in 2006.

Next in line is the United States: 10 percent in 2002; 14.5 percent in 2003; 4 percent in 2004; 2.7 percent in 2005; and 8 percent in 2006. However, in 2006, Thailand would take over the number two spot accounting for 13.6 percent.

On a regional basis, Asia has always been the favored area followed by Europe and then North America. This held true from 2002-2006. Asia's share would peak in 2005 at 87 percent. For Europe, it reached a high of 20 percent in 2006. For North America, the high reached 14.5 percent in 2003.

So while Japan's national share may wane, Asia's regional share still increased as new markets opened up in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand.

Hollywood keeps firm grip on U.S. cinema

The status of hallyu films in the United States is somewhat enigmatic. America's domestic screens remain largely closed to foreign films.

There is a ready-made small venue through art cinemas but mass crossover appeal is not possible since American studios and distributors favor direct release to DVD or the creation of Hollywood remakes of foreign originals.

Roy Lee, co-founder and CEO of Vertigo Entertainment, is the "remake king" in large part because he is at the forefront of introducing Asian box office hit films to Hollywood for the remake treatment.

The danger of this strategy is that the Hollywood studio that purchases the remake rights also demands legal ownership of the intellectual property to the original concept behind the film.

So while the remake deal may provide the Korean production company with income and some limited exposure to the U.S. market, it also raises the strange case where it loses ownership of its original cinematic creativity.

This means that if the original Korean creative team desires to make a sequel, they will first have to purchase the rights from Hollywood. Otherwise they will be in violation of intellectual copyright laws.

The inclusion of English subtitles to Korean DVDs of feature films and TV melodramas makes possible the dissemination of hallyu from the blocked-out big screens of the cinema to the more numerous and accessible little screens in individual living rooms across the Anglophone world.

Internet vendors such as and have seen sales rise dramatically as both ethnic and non-ethnic Koreans return as repeat customers.

In major U.S. cities with large ethnic populations, the local ethnic Asian media outlets also serve as distribution nodes. So while hallyu films may not register on U.S. box office charts, they do circulate with a growing fan base.

For the big screen, independent cultural entities are at the forefront of holding local film festivals that exclusively or inclusively feature hallyu films.

Through the efforts of Kim Jin-young and Cho Yuni, The Korea Society regularly organizes the Korean Film Festival in New York City. Individual universities will also schedule annual or intermittent film festivals for these films.

In 2006, the Korea Foundation sponsored a Korean Cultural Festival at 30 universities in the U.S. with hallyu films serving as one of the key components.

In San Francisco, the Korean Image Makers Association, a diverse group of students led by Professor Heo Chul of Korea University and San Francisco State University, have spearheaded a near-annual Korean film festival in the Bay Area.

On the other side of the continent, Subway Cinema's New York Asian Film Festival plays a significant role in introducing Korean films to a wider American audience, with regular inclusion of popular Korean blockbusters in its program.

The Village Voice even recognized the festival as being "pivotal in recently putting Korean cinema on the urban-American map". Thanks to the efforts and personal passion of the festival's co-director Goran Topalovic, NYAFF also brings attention to smaller, overlooked genre films, such as Song Il-gon's "Feathers in the Wind" (2004) and Nam Ki-woong's "Never Belongs To Me" (2006).

While the limited direct U.S. distribution to theatres of "The Host" and Shim Hyung-rae's "D-War" (2007), released as "Dragon Wars: D-War" in the U.S., mark a welcomed change to an otherwise closed domestic film market in the U.S., hallyu films will continue to circulate largely by way of DVDs and film festivals in North America.

Hallyu films become bolder

The strength behind hallyu films is their willingness to readdress aspects of Korea's past that was formerly taboo and their reengagement with cinema as an aesthetic endeavor.

For example, the pain of the divided Koreas and the desire for unification rather than perpetual separation are narrative tropes repeated in "Shiri" and "JSA - Joint Security Area".

In "Shiri", the South Korean agents ultimately prevail over the North Korean infiltration team but the terms of victory become bittersweet since the protagonist must shoot dead his fiance and their unborn child.

In "JSA - Joint Security Area", fifty years of political division - diligently maintained along the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas - quickly melts away as two sets of guards from both sides strike up a natural camaraderie.

Rather than remaining as the demonized other, North Koreans have become objects of romantic love and friendship, respectively.

Other examples include Lee Chang-dong who utilizes reverse chronological narratives built around a series of regressing flashbacks in "Peppermint Candy" (1999) to question the inevitability of the Gwangju Incident.

A director like Lee Myung-se continues to push the cinematic aesthetic envelop in films such as "Nowhere To Hide" (1999), "Duelist" (2005), and "M" (2007).

Even a blockbuster hit like "The Host" upstages the traditional horror genre by revealing in full detail under optimal lighting conditions the monster early in the narrative rather than traditionally delaying this scene until the final confrontation.

Conclusion: A Korean film renaissance

In short, hallyu films reveal a renaissance within the Korean film industry. One that can entice its domestic audience because of its willingness to address local concerns, desires, and sensibilities with the full global cinematic array of genre, aesthetic, and ideological perspectives. Hallyu cinema advances a new vision of a present and future Korea that is no longer isolated from the global limelight but rather engaged with it. It is this renewed creative cultural openness that positions hallyu cinema as an invited dynamic force in the continuing transformation of world cinematic culture - one that can remain nationally engaged and thereby internationally compelling.

By Aaron Han-Joon Magnan-Park

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