From BTS to “Squid Game”: How South Korea Became a Cultural Juggernaut
PAJU, South Korea – In a new Korean drama set in a cavernous studio outside Seoul, a detective pursues a man sentenced to live 600 years. The pistol shots crackle. Silence ensues. Then, a woman breaks through the silence, shouting: “I told you not to shoot him in the heart!”
The scene was shot multiple times for over an hour as part of “Bulgasal: Immortal Souls,” a new show slated for release on Netflix in December. Director Jang Young-woo hopes this will be the latest South Korean phenomenon to captivate international audiences.
South Korea has long been irritated by its lack of revolutionary cultural exports. For decades, the country’s reputation was defined by its cars and cellphones from companies like Hyundai and LG, while its movies, TV shows, and music were mostly consumed by regional audiences. Now K-pop stars love Black Rose, the dystopian drama “Squid Game” and award-winning films such as “Parasite” seem as ubiquitous as any Samsung smartphone.
In the same way that South Korea has borrowed from Japan and the United States to develop its manufacturing prowess, the country’s directors and producers say they have been studying Hollywood and other entertainment centers for years, embracing and refining formulas by adding distinctly Korean touches. Once streaming services like Netflix broke down geographic barriers, say the creators, the country has grown from a consumer of Western culture to an entertainment juggernaut and a major cultural exporter in its own right.
In recent years alone, South Korea has shocked the world with “Parasite”, the first foreign language film to win the Best Picture at the Oscars. It has one of the biggest, if not the biggest band in the world with BTS. Netflix has introduced 80 Korean movies and TV shows in the past few years, more than it had imagined when it launched its service in South Korea in 2016, according to the company. Three of the 10 most popular TV shows on Netflix starting Monday were South Korean.
“When we did”Mr. Sun, ‘ ‘Crash Landing on You ‘ and ‘Sweet home, ‘ we didn’t have a global reaction in mind, ”said Jang, who has worked as a co-producer or co-director on Netflix’s three hit Korean shows. “We just tried to make them as interesting and meaningful as possible. This is the world that began to understand and identify with the emotional experiences we have created from the start.
The growing demand for Korean entertainment has inspired independent creators like Seo Jea-won, who wrote the screenplay for “Bulgasal” with his wife. Mr. Seo said his generation devoured American television hits like “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “Miami Vice,” learning “the basics” and experimenting with form by adding Korean colors. “When over-the-top streaming services like Netflix came along with a revolution in TV show distribution, we were ready to compete,” he said.
South Korea’s cultural output is still minimal compared to key exports like semiconductors, but it has given the country the kind of influence that can be difficult to measure. In September, the Oxford English Dictionary added 26 new words of Korean origin, including “hallyu”, or Korean wave. North Korea has called the K-pop invasion a “vicious cancer.” China has suspended dozens of K-pop fan social media accounts for their “unhealthy” behavior.
The country’s ability to surpass its weight as a cultural powerhouse contrasts with the ineffective campaigns led by the state of Beijing to gain the same kind of influence. South Korean officials who have tried to censor artists in the country have not had much success. Instead, politicians began to promote South Korean pop culture, enacting a law allowing some male pop artists to postpone conscription. This month, authorities allowed Netflix to install a giant “Squid Game” statue in Seoul Olympic Park.
The explosive success did not happen overnight. Long before “Squid Game” became the most watched TV show on Netflix or BTS performed at the United Nations, Korean TV shows like “Winter Sonata” and bands like Bigbang and Girls’ Generation had taken the markets in Asia. and beyond. But they failed to achieve the global reach associated with the current wave. Psych “Gangnam Style”Was a one-shot wonder.
“We love to tell stories and have great stories to tell,” said Kim Young-kyu, CEO of Studio Dragon, South Korea’s largest studio, which produces dozens of TV shows a year. “But our domestic market is too small, too crowded. We had to globalize.
It wasn’t until last year, when “Parasite,” a film highlighting the yawning gap between rich and poor, won the Oscar that international audiences really started to pay attention, even though South Korea was producing films. similar work for years.
“The world just didn’t know them until streaming platforms like Netflix and YouTube helped them find out about them at a time when people are watching more entertainment online,” said Kang Yu-jung, professor. at Kangnam University, Seoul.
Before Netflix, a number of domestic broadcasters controlled the South Korean television industry. These broadcasters have since been eclipsed by streaming platforms and independent studios like Dragon Studio, which provide the funding and artistic freedom to target international markets.
South Korean censors screen the media for content deemed violent or sexually explicit, but Netflix shows are subject to less stringent restrictions than those shown on local television networks. The creators also say that national censorship laws forced them to dig deeper into their imaginations, creating characters and storylines that are much more compelling than most.
What you need to know about the ‘Squid Game’
Have you ever heard of this dystopian South Korean drama? It was released on Netflix on September 17 and quickly gained a worldwide audience. Here’s a look at this unique hit:
- An interview with the star of the show: Lee Jung-jae discusses the show’s message, the possibilities of a Season 2, and why he thinks critics should revisit it.
- Behind the global call: “Squid Game” exploits South Korea’s concerns about expensive housing and scarce jobs, concerns familiar to its US and international viewers.
- To read on the show: Wondering if you should dive? We’ve rounded up what’s worth reading from the Ink Oceans on the series.
- What is Dalgona Candy? : Interest in the South Korean treat has increased since the show started. Here’s why.
- What to watch next: Are you done with “Squid Game” and loved it? Add these six TV shows and movies to your streaming queue.
The scenes are often overflowing with emotionally rich interactions, or “sinpa”. Heroes are usually deeply flawed ordinary people, trapped in impossible situations, clinging to shared values such as love, family, and care for others. Directors and producers say they deliberately want all of their characters to “smell like humans.”
As South Korea emerged from the vortex of war, dictatorship, democratization, and rapid economic growth, its creators developed a keen sense of what people wanted to see and hear, and it often had to see with social change. The most national blockbuster movie have stories based on issues that speak to ordinary people, such as income inequality and the desperation and class conflict it has engendered.
“Squid Game” director Hwang Dong-hyuk first rose to prominence with “Dogani,” a 2011 film based on an actual sexual abuse scandal at a school for the hearing impaired. Widespread anger over the film forced the government to hunt down teachers who had a history of sexual abuse in schools for disabled minors.
Although K-pop artists rarely talk about politics, their music has held a prominent place in South Korea’s lively protest culture. When students from Ewha Womans University in Seoul held campus rallies that led to a nationwide uprising against the government in 2016, they sang Girls’ Generation’s “In the New World. “ The boy band god “A candle” became an unofficial anthem for the “Candlelight revolution” who overthrew President Park Geun-hye.
“One of the dominant characteristics of Korean content is its fighting spirit,” said Lim Myeong-mook, author of a book about Korean youth culture. “It channels the frustrated desire of people of social advancement, their anger and their motivation for mass activism. And with many people now trapped at home trying to deal with the enormous angst caused by the pandemic, the global public may be more receptive than ever to these themes.
“Korean creators are adept at quickly copying what’s interesting from abroad and making it their own, making it more interesting and better,” said Lee Hark-joon, professor at Kyungil University who co-wrote “K-pop idols.”
On the set of “Bulgasal” dozens of staff rushed to get all the details of the scene – the smog filling the air, the drops of water falling on the damp ground and the “sad and pitiful gaze. “from the shot-man down. The show’s supernatural plot is reminiscent of American television favorites like “The X-Files” and “Stranger Things,” but Mr. Jang created a unique Korean tragedy centered on “eopbo,” a belief among Koreans that good and bad deeds affect a person in the afterlife.
Based on the recent success of Korean shows abroad, Jang said he hopes viewers will flock to the new series. “The bottom line is: what sells in South Korea sells worldwide. “