Korean film and television culture, a rich and enriching journey


Netflix recently announced the numbers for its greatest hits of all time. Korean series squid game reached 1.65 billion viewers in its first month alone, two and a half times the total of the number two series, Regency sex-foth Bridgerton. Even the worldwide success of the Oscar-winning Korean film in 2019 Parasite pales in comparison. Television is powerful, Netflix is ​​powerful, and the Korean film and television industry is sophisticated and rich in talent. It’s no surprise that the Korean wave – or Hallyua term coined in China in the late 1990s, is circling the world.

South Korean film, television and popular music exploded in the 1990s after the dregs of its military regimes were washed away. Repressive censorship laws have been lifted, and new legislation – along with heavy investment from Korean conglomerates – has boosted the domestic film industry. The number of cable television channels and multiplex cinemas has increased. Despite the blows dealt to the local film industry by the invasion of hordes of Hollywood films and the free trade agreements pushed by major American studios, the vast majority of films with more than 10 million ticket sales in South Korea Sud are always local productions.

Korean popular culture has established itself in new markets for more than 20 years. Early predictions that his popularity would be transitory were wrong. Pop megastars BTS appeared on the cover of Time magazine twice since 2018, topped the Billboard charts, garnered Grammy nominations, and — received “special envoy” status from President Moon Jae In — addressed the United Nations General Assembly . Their value to the South Korean economy is estimated at at least US$5 billion per year.

With film and television, however, English speakers are usually late to the party. In a pre-Oscars interview with New York magazine, Parasite Director Bong Joon Ho was asked why he thinks no Korean film has ever been nominated, despite two decades of international accolades. The Oscars, he wryly observed, were “very local.” Parasite cost around US$11 million to make – less than the film version of Downton Abbey – and grossed over US$250 million at the worldwide box office.

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I’m entering the second year of my obsession with Korean drama, and the recognition of the name of squid game means no one is so perplexed by my viewing habits anymore. The most popular feature on my site, KoreaSeen, is the “Beyond Parasite and squid gameas people search for recommendations for new things to watch. Both, I note, introduce viewers to “the strong stories, political subtexts, and rich characterizations of contemporary Korean drama.” There’s so much more to see, whichever track you choose to follow.

So far, I have watched nearly 100 Korean movies and TV series. The earliest is The maid from 1960, an elegant classic of Korean cinema and hugely influential on directors like Bong Joon Ho, who came of age in the 80s. The maid was remade in 2010 by director Im Sang Soo – like Bong, a graduate of the Korea Academy of Cinematic Arts. This remake stars actor Lee Jung Jae, one of Korea’s most versatile movie stars, as the arrogant and unfaithful rich husband.

If you saw The maidyou might not recognize Lee as the loser in squid game: he even looks physically diminished, short in stature and with a weak chin. I watched half of squid game before realizing that Lee also played the tattooed gangster warrior “Ray the Butcher” in last year’s gory action flick deliver us from evil.

Another one squid game The lead role, Park Hae Soo, plays a conniving and ruthless investment banker who stole millions from his clients and secretly mortgaged his own mother’s house. It’s hard to believe the same actor is the dumb, good-natured baseball player from the TV series prison booklet (2017), a feel-good drama about the family bond a group of cellmates develop in captivity.

Parasite was a groundbreaking, Oscar-winning Korean film.


Parasite was a groundbreaking, Oscar-winning Korean film.

Many people tell me squid game was too violent for their liking, so they are hesitant to try more K-drama. It reminds me of people who don’t read New Zealand fiction because they were scared by reading a Frank Sargeson story in high school. Korean television is the broadest church, and even the distilled offerings on Netflix suggest its many cults: teen soap operas, romantic comedies, historical epics, family dramas, police procedurals, series set in hospitals or doctor’s offices. lawyers or TV stations or universities or the corridors of political power, supernatural tales, time travel, reality TV and variety shows.

The boundaries between different genres are fluid, so the brilliant, cinematic Kingdom, which is set hundreds of years ago and focuses on a royal succession battle, employs zombies to dramatize the plague that is taking over the nation. (The fear of invasion and political or corporate malfeasance runs deep in the Korean psyche, as seen in the 2017 hit film Train to Busan.) Dark drama and broad comedy can coexist in the same series or movie, with tonal shifts that some Western viewers find disconcerting. The soundtrack of a historical series like Mr Sunabout the armed resistance to Japanese colonization of Korea in the early 20th century, features contemporary pop songs.

There is a Korean series that seems to unite the world. Some of my friends overseas have watched it many times. Over six million viewers in Korea watched its latest episode. Its production budget was almost double that of Parasite. In New Zealand, people ask me, in a desperate tone, if I can recommend something else like that, because they want to relive that particular experience with another show.

Last June, while having dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Dunedin, where I hardly knew anyone at my table, we discovered that the majority of us had seen – and loved – this spectacle. At Invercargill, I spoke to a young man who had only watched one Korean series, with his many roommates, and that was it. (They loved it.) Auckland writer Amy McDaid tells me she rarely watches TV, but was obsessed with the show.

RM of South Korean K-pop group BTS speaks during the meeting on the Sustainable Development Goals during the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly last year.

John Angelillo/AP

RM of South Korean K-pop group BTS speaks during the meeting on the Sustainable Development Goals during the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly last year.

The series is Crash landing on you (2019) and features the world’s most photogenic couple. The luminous Son Ye Jin stars as a glamorous businesswoman from Seoul who goes paragliding to test out her new sportswear line. A freak storm sweeps her into North Korea, where she’s hidden away in a border village by an army captain, played by Hyun Bin, and his hapless band of young soldiers. She’s in danger, they’re in danger: there are arrests, car chases, shootings, hitmen, angry fiancées, difficult families, secret missions, investigations, Switzerland, revenge , atonement, comedy and romance. All that, and a case even more compelling than any political speech – not to mention the 2017 thriller steel rain – for the reunification of the Korean peninsula.

My highlights from last year include go to paradiseabout a young man with ASD and his ex-uncle who work as “trauma cleansers”; PD, in the team chasing deserters from military service; Kingdom: Northern Ashin, an atmospheric and bloody prequel to the historical saga before the arrival of the third season; and the stupidly named Romance is a bonus bookwhich combines social commentary on working women with ridiculous fashion and that K-drama favorite, the love triangle.


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