The ongoing popularity of Korean dramas and movies demonstrates the power of Hallyu.
In 2016 two Korean movies garnered attention at a worldwide stage. Celebrated director Park Chan-wook surprised the audience at the Cannes Film Festival with his erotic psychological thriller The Handmaiden and director Yeon Sang-ho had a summer hit in his hands with his first live-action movie, the zombie thriller Train to Busan. Since the late ’90s, the flux of Korean entertainment ensured continuing worldwide interest in the small peninsula. Hallyu (Korean word for “Korean wave”) entails k-drama, k-pop, fashion, food, beauty and movies. According to some, its popularity can even be seen as an example of cultural power “that threatens the dominance of American culture.” Let’s examine the history of Korean entertainment.
The Korean entertainment industry is relatively young, and the flux of its worldwide popularity is tied to the historic and economic turmoil of the country. Korea underwent significant changes in the 20th century. The nation has a fragile relationship with its neighboring country Japan. From 1910 to 1945, Korea lost its independence and was absorbed into the Empire of Japan. The Korean War (1950-1953) divided the peninsula into North and South. The region was scarred after the years of suffering under Japanese colonialism and the war. South Korea had to rebuild itself in almost every aspect and restore their economic and social infrastructure. That reconstruction took place in phases, with the initial isolation from other countries being shifted into a more open attitude. As a result of the war, the economy suffered and South Korea was more concerned with survival and ensuring their economic welfare than with leisure activities. Until the 1990s, the focus was unilaterally on economic growth. Only when economic conditions improved did more cultural awareness emerge.
Despite the fast economic growth and internationalization in the ’80s and early ’90s, South Korea underwent a huge economic setback in 1997. The financial crisis forced President Kim Dae-jun to ask the IMF for support. The IMF provided several conditions: Korea had to liberalize, deregulate and privatize. IT, technology and culture (film, music and video games) firms and conglomerates folded or reorganized — think Samsung, which moved into digital TV and mobile phones. The economic crisis showed South Korea how important it was to build capital and be less vulnerable. This resulted in, among other things, greater cash flows from conglomerates to the cultural sectors, with the aim of export promotion. Because of that, Korean culture spread across East Asia, and later to Europe and America.
In 1999 the term “Hallyu” first came into use. It was the Chinese perspective on Korean export — television, movies and music. The first Korean dramas entered the Chinese market in 1991. What Is Love became a smash hit and received much higher ratings than a normal Chinese broadcast. In the mid-2000s the import of Korean dramas in China compromised 16.5% of all imported TV dramas. The Korean pop culture influence reached so far that China made a trade agreement with Korea allowing it an unprecedented degree of access to Chinese consumers and companies. However, last year China restricted Korean entertainment as a reaction against the Korean government’s decision to deploy the U.S.-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missiles. It’s still uncertain when the ban will be lifted.
In Japan, Korean entertainment reached new heights in 2003 when the Japanese network aired the drama Winter Sonata. The show was an instant hit — especially among older women — and the male lead, Bae Yong-jun, became one of Japan’s most popular actors. The success of the drama led to a sharp rise in the number of Korean drama series broadcast in neighboring countries.
What ultimately ensured the success of Korean entertainment? The South Korean government actively nurtured Hallyu. They pushed to develop music, dramas and movies with tax incentives or funding for startups. Furthermore, Korean dramas are often safe and romantic without overt sexuality in scenes, especially compared with Western entertainment. The content is more palatable for East Asian and Arab countries. On the other hand, for some international viewers, it’s all about the portrayed Korean lifestyle and the fashion and beauty trends they wish to emulate.
Popular Korean drama even led to the rise of Korean beer export in China.
The Korean movie industry takes significant risks. When it comes to the worldwide popularity of Korean movies, the starting point is the cultural nostalgic drama Seopyeonje (1993), which quickly gained international popularity. It was followed by Shiri (1999), which captured more than 50% of the domestic market and had unprecedented success in neighboring Asian countries. Two years later, the success of the film was succeeded by My Sassy Girl (2001), which became the most exported movie in Korean film history.
The popularity of Korean entertainment wavered over the years, but the government funding for Hallyu continued. Currently there’s a surge of interest in Korean content. The streaming giant Netflix is focused on the Asian market. Earlier this year Netflix and the Korean cable network JTBC reached an exclusive licensing deal with the distribution of the original series ManxMan, and Netflix also agreed to buy 600 hours of written and unwritten original content. Their agreement is in line with the previous acquisition of two original Korean Netflix dramas airing in 2018. Netflix acted as the distributor of Bong Joon-ho’s action-adventure movie Okja (2017).
If you have never dipped your toe into the world of Korean cinema, here are five recommendations to get your interest piqued:
1. OldBoy (2003)
This mystery thriller is based on the Japanese manga of the same name by Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiya. The movie had an American remake under the direction of Spike Lee that bombed at the box office.
2. Secret Sunshine (2007)
Secret Sunshine is based on the short story “The Story of a Bug” by Lee Cheong-jun. The drama centers on a woman who’s continuously stricken by tragedy and wrestles with grief, madness and faith.
3. Punch (2011)
This coming-of-age story based on the best-selling book by Kim Ryeo-ryeong highlights the ever-changing Korean cultural landscape: immigration, migrant workers, intercultural marriage and the strict Korean educational system.
4. Sunny (2011)
This comedy-drama focuses on a wealthy housewife who tries to fulfill her friend’s dying wish to reunite their group of high school friends.
5. Silenced (2011)
Based on the novel of the same name by Ging Ji Young, Silenced reveals the actual events that took place at Gwangju Inhwa School for the hearing impaired where, for more than five years, young deaf students were the victims of repeated sexual assaults by the faculty members. The movie became a hit, and numerous protests erupted to demand change. As a result, the Dogani Law was adopted, abolishing the statute of limitations for sex crimes against minors and disabled people.