Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Robert Cagle on Korean Hallyu

Robert Cagle is the Library Cinema Studies Specialist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and an Assistant Professor in the Unit for Cinema Studies. He has an essay in the recent book, Seoul Searching: Culture and Identity in Contemporary Korean Cinema. He was kind enough to provide some insight on the Hallyu (Korean Wave), and current issues impacting the Korean film industry.

What is it about contemporary Korean film, TV, and music that is so
appealing to other consumers in other Asian nations?

It's difficult to say what is so appealing about Korean film, TV, and music, because although it's possible to identify any number of factors that could contribute to the sudden, widespread acceptance of Korean pop culture, it's impossible to quantify, in any way, just how great an influence any one of these might be.

Of course, the most obvious reason might be simply that the performers — the actors, actresses, and singers—are, almost without exception, incredibly good-looking: Bae Yong-joon, Choi Ji-woo, Kwon Sang-woo, Song Hye-kyo, Jeong Woo-seong, Son Hye-jin, Jang Dong-gun, and Yeom Jeong-ah, to name only a few of the most famous actors and actresses, personify widely held standards of beauty both for Eastern and Western audiences. In addition, some performers— Ahn Jae-wook and Cha Tae-hyeon, for example—combine good looks and talent, and enjoy dual careers as popular actors and singers. All of these individuals are, in an old-fashioned Hollywood sense, stars.

In addition, the lush soundtracks that underscore Korean TV dramas play no small part in establishing these programs in viewers' hearts, too, and often go on to score successes of their own as CD releases. Not long ago while having dinner at a Chinese restaurant I was surprised to realize that the music playing was a selection of highlights from Korean drama soundtracks played on traditional Chinese instruments.

The picturesque settings and gorgeous photography, too, give these television programs a kind of cinematic feel that appeals to the viewers' shared sense of nostalgia—so much so, that the Korean tourism industry developed a series of TV Drama tour packages that allow viewers to visit the settings of key sequences from their favorite shows.

Korean television dramas generally contain none of the sex and violence characteristic of American television programming (and of some South Korean films as well), but instead, focus on storylines about lost love rediscovered too late—the kind of tragic, romantic storyline typical of classical Hollywood films of the studio era. The youthful performers (most Korean wave stars are in their twenties or, at oldest, thirties); the temporal settings (stories routinely take place at high schools or universities); and the old-fashioned themes and values(programs seem to conform to moral standards of a past era), then, all work together to create a longing for a past that never really existed, for South Korea or anywhere else for that matter, and that can only be realized in the space of the television drama.

What challenges lie ahead for the Korean film industry?

The past two years have been very difficult ones for the Korean film industry. Under pressure from the US government in its "free trade" negotiations, the Korean government was convinced to reduce by half the screen quota that had for decades guaranteed a home audience for South Korean productions. This move was met by loud and persistent protests from the entertainment industry, but has, as yet, not been overturned. Compounding this problem even more is the fact that exports of Korean films and television dramas dropped to a devastating low over the past year, as the Japanese market for Korean entertainment seemed to dry up overnight.

Koreans began to worry, too, that because of the high number of films and television dramas based on Japanese source material (200 lb. Beauty and White Tower, for example) that Korea's own culture was being co-opted by Japan's. Finally, the unionization, as of this July, of the industry, created all sorts of unforeseen problems, as some production companies chose to slow or even halt projects to see how things would work out.

Perhaps the biggest problem, though, that South Korean film faces in other markets—most notably in the American market—is its mischaracterization by critics as a national cinema defined by excessive violence—something that became painfully evident in news coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings in which journalists and "experts" scrambled to manufacture connections between the actions of Seung Cho, referred to by his Korean name "Cho Seung-hui" in reports of the incident, and images of violence from Park Chan-wook's Old Boy(2003), a film that the troubled young man may have never even seen.

Tomorrow: Some recommended films.

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