Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Hallyu's Blindspot Part 1: Media Culture Clash

So it's been a while since I've blogged and all. Once again I've moved (back?) to South Korea and had to deal with all the things one has to deal with when they move to a radically different time zone that runs on a different currency. Jet lag, living-space limbo and temporary total poverty were all things I had to deal with while I was getting set up over here. Not to mention I had to get used to my new job, which is teaching Korean children English. This will likely continue to be my job until I can get my Korean language skills to a high enough level that I can either go to grad school or qualify for some other kind of job over here. Still, the job is fun, the kids are cute, if unfocused most of the time, and my apartment is small but cozy and in a good spot. Suffice it to say I'm settled . . . for the moment, that is.

So hey, why not do some blogging, right? I mean I actually like writing and I've been running this blog off and on for years now, so anytime I can get back to it, I generally do. Now I'm going to do something I love, which is talk about South Korea.

Here's the cover of a book I read for a class on Korean history. It's a good book and a fairly easy read if you're not sure where to start. 
It's no secret that the 20th century was not good to South Korea. In the space of a hundred years the country we now know as the Republic of Korea had survived colonization, annexation, a civil war, and three consecutive dictatorships, with a brief period of prosperity being smashed by national bankruptcy. I may have stated this before on this blog (I honestly can't remember), but I often tell my friends and peers, "The most impressive thing about the Republic of Korea is that it still exists." I don't mean this in a mean or sarcastic way either -- larger and more well-established nation-states have been obliterated by less -- it is genuinely impressive from where I'm standing that South Korea is still an autonomous nation.

I bought this book back in 2006, although by then it was already four years old. The "New Hong Kong" subtitle is a reference to Hong Kong's cinematic golden age, which was thought to be petering out by the early 2000s. South Korea's film industry was thought to be its replacement. 
That being said, if the majority of the 20th century was like a sand-blasted drought, the 21st century saw South Korea reaping a bountiful capitalistic harvest indeed. The late '90s and early 2000s saw a new age of prosperity as Hyundai, Samsung and LG once more began to take over the world, as they had begun to do in the mid '90s. There was money to go around and the increase in film and advertising budgets ushered in the "Korean New Wave" of films in the early 2000s, with such films as Old Boy and My Sassy Girl and Friend garnering international praise. Korean television and music, particularly serial dramas and pop music, started becoming famous throughout Asia, marking the beginning of the "Korean Wave," or Hallyu, as it is known. However, the wave didn't stop there. Somewhere between 2009 and 2010 Hallyu hit the shores of North America and Europe, which culminated in the unfathomable anomaly known as . . . Gungnam Style. Finally South Korea's dominance over the eastern and western hemispheres was realized. All hail Samsung! All hail Kia! What's your bias, oppah!?

Alright, so maybe it didn't quite happen like that, but South Korea is sitting prettier then it's ever been and Hallyu was/is totally a thing and a huge part of that success. Korean pop concerts have now become viable acts in the United States and Canada, with Korean rap group Epik High's last concert in Toronto (down the street from my former home, in fact) selling out. Undeniably, especially in the context of North America, Hallyu has had a noticeable effect. North American interest in South Korean stuff has certainly been on the rise in recent years. The popular cartoon Family Guy had a K-pop episode. Conan O'Brien shot a special in Korea and appeared in a local soap opera. Lee Byung Hun was in a string of high-profile Hollywood movies. South Korea's been on the up and up for a while now, and with the latest international success, the drama Descendants of the Sun, Hallyu is still looking like a force to be reckoned with.

A chart representing YouTube K-Ppp views in 2011 by country. I imagine the numbers have likely gone up significantly since then.
Hallyu, for the most part, has always been a media-driven initiative, one that I would go so far as to say likely happened by accident. Your TV drama (Winter Sonata) gets unexpectedly popular in a country outside yours (Japan) and suddenly you have a market you never knew existed. What do you do? Run with it, and before you know it half the world is giving you the attention you've always wanted. Hallyu has brought real visibility to South Korea and, perhaps more importantly, people willing to spend money, in the form of tourists, investors, and even international merch-buying K-pop fanatics who order online. It's difficult to argue that Hallyu as a "brand" has worked very well for South Korea, but could it be working better? That's a question I've had knocking around in my mind for a while now.

K-pop, TV dramas, and to a lesser extent variety shows and movies have been the driving forces of Hallyu since it began. Non-Korean nationals who are interested in these things tend to be loud and devoted, drawing a lot of attention to themselves. Ergo, as I mentioned earlier, you cannot deny that K-pop and K-dramas have found audiences abroad. Still, though, to what extent?

Some might have us believe that the ridiculous popularity of PSY's hit single "Gangnam Style" in North America and, indeed, the world over a few years back spelled some sort of unanimous global acceptance of K-pop into the international mainstream. I mean the video broke the YouTube counter! PSY hosted the Much Music Video Awards (it's Canadian) in Toronto back in 2012. It's official! The world loves K-pop now! It's here to stay! Oh, but if only that were true.

 
At the time of their debut, BTS was touted as being a sort of hip hop/K-pop group hybrid (I suppose they still are). While they've made some catchy tunes, and I can't say they're any better or worse (I don't follow pop music very closely), it's pretty hard to imagine them replacing Drake or Kanye "Yeezus" West in the hearts of North Americans in the foreseeable future.   
While international K-pop and K-drama fandom has certainly seen unprecedented popularity in the Americas, I'd argue that the truly ardent fans of these mediums represent but niche communities in their countries proper. Especially in North America. In other words, while Hallyu has certainly found its audience, the much larger North American majority remains untouched by the wave or, at the very least, has little desire to ride it. Why is that, pray tell?

The problem, as I see it, is this: I'm convinced that for most North Americans K-dramas and K-pop represent a sort of uncanny valley that for many is hard to come to terms with. As much as I like a good K-drama, to the average North American who has only passing knowledge of South Korea at best (and obvious cultural differences aside), K-dramas, especially those made recently, kind of look like American dramas, except they're way more melodramatic, overly romantic and/or schmaltzy (which is, incidentally, why so many foreign fans like them). In other words, they generally seem corny to American sensibilities.

A Korean poster for the latest South Korean prime-time smash, Descendants of the Sun.
They are a far cry from the sex, violence and straight-faced cynicism and/or dark humor presented in the latest HBO vehicle or whatever the new Breaking Bad is now. I just can't imagine the majority of my Canadian friends opting to switch out Mr. Robot or Better Call Saul or Game of Thrones for Descendants of the Sun (let's call it DOTS), The Flower in Prison or Vampire Detective. DOTS is a great show in the realm of K-drama, to be sure, but the average North American would find the amateurish foreign actors laughable, the often non-fatal gunplay nonsensical, and the love triangles and comedy angles in the middle of a battle zone ridiculous.

Likewise, with K-pop we are faced with a similar problem. K-pop kind of looks like American pop, especially with "sexy groups" on the rise -- these are groups in which the members try to portray a sexually charged identity by exposing more skin and writhing around on the floor more than they would otherwise (not exactly uncommon with North American female pop acts). While K-pop can be catchy and fun, for many of the uninitiated it can seem like a corny, childish or contrived emulation of American pop, or worse, straight-up cultural appropriation. I've had many a Canadian friend over the years say things like "What's the deal with K-pop? Why do they keep perpetuating that '90s idol formula? It's super weird!" or "I can't get into K-pop. It's like they're trying too hard to be American or something." (The cultural ownership debate is really interesting, but that's for another time.)

I feel that the sheer unabashed implausibility of many K-drama plots alone presents a pretty tall hurdle for your average North American TV watcher. 
The examples I've set up here are not merely straw-man arguments. These observations come from real conversations I've had countless times with family, friends and acquaintances. It's also the reason why I'm baffled whenever a Korean talent company like YG or JYP sends its talent abroad to debut in the U.S. expecting them to achieve mainstream success, which ultimately never comes. (Remember BOA? Remember Wonder Girls? Ciel from 2ne1 is trying to do this now.) Now let me just say that in making this argument I'm not attacking Korean media for being less legitimate or less "real" than American media. However, there is a culture clash that needs addressing.

So if Korean media are just too "light" or "fluffy" for the average jaded North American, how do you get around this? Well, for some perspective, I'd like to take a look at South Korea's neighbor, Japan.

Join me next week as I talk about how South Korea could harness the awesome power of mass cultural marketing, like Japan's been doing for the past four or five decades, to take Hallyu even further!