September 16, 2022

Lee Jung-jae is in many ways the epitome of South Korean soft power. He has won international fame — and an Emmy this week — with his starring role in the hit Netflix series Squid Game, the dystopian South Korean thriller binge-watched around the world last autumn. He’ll soon take that fame to new heights as a leading man in The Acolyte, the forthcoming Star Wars series from Disney+.

It’s no coincidence that Star Wars’ first prominent east Asian performer is Korean. Americans in particular have by now come to regard South Koreans as what I call “the Westerners of Easterners”, a people more culturally relatable than the Japanese and less geopolitically threatening than the Chinese. This distinction results in large part from the West’s years of exposure to Korean popular culture, thanks to the likes of the Billboard-chart dominating BTS, Bong Joon-ho’s Best Picture-winning Parasite, and of course Squid Game.

This pop-cultural “Korean wave” — or hallyu — began sweeping Asia around the turn of the millennium and reached Western shores in earnest a decade ago, with the surprise global phenomenon that was Psy’s Gangnam Style. A satire of the garish lifestyles led by Seoul’s nouveau riche, that song — and even more so its strenuously absurd music video — showed the Korean entertainment industry that, one way or the other, the West could be won over. Ten years on, it has nearly 4.5 billion views on YouTube and features in the Victoria and Albert museum’s “Hallyu! The Korean Wave” exhibition, which opens next week.

The popular culture exported by Korea today doesn’t much resemble its output in the early days of hallyu. The farther outward the Korean wave spreads, the more its content reflects the pressure to meet the common expectations of ever-wider and more diverse audiences. Squid Game, which tells the story of a life-or-death battle royale between hundreds of down-and-outs for an enormous cash prize, functions with great effectiveness as a delivery system for suspense, intrigue, and ultra-violence: a spectacle cast in the modern Western mould, down to Lee’s scruffily appealing working-class hero.

The show is a cultural hybrid in the manner of many Korean productions lately successful in the West, whose consumers have shown a taste for entertainment foreign on the surface but familiar beneath it. So is Parasite, despite its ostensible dearth of reference to anyone or anything outside Korean society. It does mount an incisive critique of that society, drawing its rich and poor families into a complicatedly duplicitous relationship of mutual dependence that culminates in a bloody denouement. But it also offers a safely displaced means for Westerners, and especially Americans, to consider the grievous socioeconomic troubles of their own societies.

Much the same also occurs, on a smaller scale, in Korean literature, translations of which have drawn more interest from major Western publishers since Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian, which in Deborah Smith’s English translation won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. The English writer and translator Tim Parks frames The Vegetarian as an example of “global fiction” suited to the current tastes of Western literary-prize committees. “Ideologically, it champions the individual (woman) against an oppressive society (about which we know nothing, except that it seems ‘worse’ than our own),” he writes. “Emotionally, it allows us to feel intense sympathy for a helpless victim, which is always encouraging for our self-esteem.”

More Korean novels have since been published in English with an apparent intent to hit this same mark. The most obvious example, Cho Nam-Joo’s bestseller Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 (whose translation came out in 2020), is as much a novel — an essentially alien literary form here in Korea, less established than the short story and much less established than poetry — as a tract about the difficulties that beset modern-day Korean women.

Even in the Nineties, Korean studios were attempting to engineer films with international appeal. The most expensive production to date in Korea, Kang Jae-gyu’s Shiri, essayed the Korean version of the Eighties-style Hollywood action blockbuster, complete with communist enemy agents (North Korean, of course) and red-digited time bombs. The movie executed all the tropes of its genre somewhat slavishly but with consummate professionalism, resulting in impressive box-office returns both domestically and elsewhere in Asia. But Shiri ultimately constituted a model less for the global success of Korean cinema than for the global success of Korean consumer products, exuding as they still do a kind of generically respectable placelessness.

The Korean automobile industry, for example, has built up world-beating marques such as Kia and Hyundai with comfortable and affordable cars that look and feel designed and built nowhere in particular. They sound that way too: Daewoo’s Maepsy, the last Korean car with a Korean name, went out of production in the Eighties. And alongside all those Elantras, Sonatas, Fortes, and Velosters stand Bigbang, EXO, Blackpink, Girls’ Generation, and the other reigning boy bands and girl groups of “K-pop” who have ascended, to one degree or another, into the floating world of international stardom. Not even the mighty BTS are impervious to the pressures of deracination, the letters that constitute their name having at some point been detached from the Korean words (bangtan sonyeondang, literally “bulletproof boy scouts”) for which they originally stood.

Apart from its lyrics, little about BTS’s music is identifiably Korean. The popularity of their Korean-language songs in the West towards the end of the past decade struck me as a welcome development. Alas, the expectation that BTS would always sing in Korean didn’t survive the release of their first English-language single, Dynamite. Composed by British songwriters David Stewart and Jessica Agombar, that song did its bit to enliven the otherwise unusually dreary summer of 2020. It was also a sign of things to come: BTS’s even catchier English-language follow-up Butter appeared the following spring, written by a team of no fewer than six Westerners with additional contributions by band member RM, formerly known as Rap Monster.

A rapper whose public image rests on such elements as his proficiency in English and sometimes bleach-blonde hair, RM would seem to invite consideration of the concept now fashionably labelled cultural appropriation. (Imagine how much tolerance would be granted to a white American with an image built around adopting the Korean language, musical styles, and physical traits.) But cultural appropriation has also been one of the animating forces of hallyu, whose time has seen Korean culture both popularised abroad and internationalised at home. This aligns with a developmental ideology that emphasises the imitation of other countries, often absurdly remote ones: not long ago, Korean tastemakers got it in their heads that the way to long-elusive happiness lay in hygge, the Danish concept of domestic coziness.

Securing the favour of more powerful foreign lands is hardly a novel concept in Korea. Traces of the Japanese cultural forms adopted during its decades as a colony of that country in the early 20th century remain visible today. (Even the Korean words for such everyday items as bags, shoes, motorcycles, and electrical outlets come by way of the Japanese language, itself often influenced by English.) For hundreds of years before that, the Korean elite took their cues straight from China, writing only in classical Chinese and adopting Confucian social practices more rigorous than those observed in the Middle Kingdom.

Upon its foundation after the Second World War, the Republic of Korea arguably wasn’t far removed from being an American colony. Later in the century it focused on making exports geared to the demands of richer countries — textiles, white goods, ships, semiconductors — and so became rich itself. That same mindset is reflected in the sphere of cultural production, where domestic tastes haven’t just begun losing ground to foreign ones, but more troublingly, also begun to resemble them.

To Westerners, South Korea now exudes more vitality — in music, film, television, and also fields like fashion and graphic design — than most countries. But much of its output also feels curiously un-foreign, as if imported forms had merely been outfitted with a Korean veneer. Whether the “authentically” Korean can be recovered, whatever form it takes, remains a question clouded by decades, even centuries, of unhealthy relations with the outside world. Lee Jung-jae’s Star Wars debut counts as a bold step for Korean popular culture. Next, perhaps, comes the even bolder one of being wholly Korean — whatever that may turn out to mean.

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