South Korea: A Pop Culture Supremacy | Sarah Stook

One country seems to be dominating the entertainment world at the moment. It’s not America. It’s not India. It’s South Korea. 

From top Netflix shows and films, to K-Pop superstars, the glittering nation has become a global pop culture force. Its exports dominate our screens and playlists. Their entertainment has shattered records and won numerous plaudits. It seemed to come out of nowhere- though I suppose so many of us were never exposed to it. 

My first proper interest in any South Korean entertainment came in the form of a film. I’m a big fan of zombie flicks- the gorier the better- so I decided to watch the acclaimed hit Train to Busan. I was very impressed with it- it’s got a great story, excellent performances and, most importantly, lots of zombies. 

Luckily for me- and everyone else- the South Korean entertainment industry hasn’t disappointed. 

2021’s Squid Game became a smash hit the world over, breaking records previously held by Regency drama Bridgerton. It tells the story of Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), a gambling addict with an ill mother and an ex-wife who wants to take their daughter abroad. He’s offered the chance to win a huge amount of money if he participates in a series of games. Gi-hun and the other players- all of whom are in financial and personal trouble- soon realise that it’s a little more deadly than they thought.

Though many were upset by the violence of the show, it became a cultural sensation. Its themes struck a chord with many viewers and was helped by the performances of its ensemble cast. 

Before recently, many shows and films from the East were adapted for Western audiences. South Korean medical drama The Good Doctor has been turned into an American show of the same name. More recently, the shows have stayed in South Korea and have soared. The Silent Sea, My Name, Hellbound and All of Us Are Dead have been prominent on Netflix. 

It’s not only TV that has become a success. 2019’s Parasite dominated the big screen, becoming a commercial and critical darling. It managed an impressive number of awards, bagging 4 Oscars and becoming the first non-English language film to win Best Picture. The 2021 Oscars saw 73 year-old Youn Yuh-jung become the first Korean to win an acting Academy Award for Minari.

We cannot, of course, disregard K-Pop. Korean musicians have been well-known for a while, but it seems that the genre has exploded in popularity. Groups like BLACKPINK, BIGBAND and Red Velvet are tearing up the airwaves and streaming services. They’re getting awards in traditionally English-speaking categories. 

The biggest K-Pop band is, without a doubt, BTS. The seven-strong group has shattered every record going and is constantly appearing in the charts. They’ve spoken in front of the United Nations, been the first Korean artists to get several accolades and the youngest people to get South Korea’s Order of Cultural Merit. Their fans, known as the ‘ARMY,’ are dedicated to the band and don’t hesitate to bring them up at every opportunity. 

They also transcended cultural boundaries when they became the first foreign act to play a solo concert in Saudi Arabia. It’s a big deal, considering how conservative and closed-off Saudi Arabia has been- and still is. One would expect it would be someone like Beyoncé or Taylor Swift to have been the first, but BTS pipped them to the post. 

Why has South Korean entertainment become so huge? The answer is fairly simple: quality. 

The aforementioned TV shows and films are genuinely good. They’re liked by both critics and audiences. Their stories grip up and leave us wanting more. We see excellent performers previously unknown to those outside of South Korea. Of course, not everything that comes out of there will be outstanding or even good, but the popular ones have been popular for a reason. 

There are great storylines and interesting plots. They can be political in nature without being in your face and sanctimonious. Their themes of the wealth divide are relatively universal. I believe there is definitely more of an interest in quality than in some of the things we in the West churn out. 

Netflix has also been smart enough to dub some of the shows instead of using subtitles. A lot of people will turn off media that has subtitles, which is a shame as they are missing out on some great stuff. By dubbing, Netflix is opening up to people who will happily follow what’s going on when their language is being spoken.

I admit that my knowledge of BTS and K-Pop is rather non-existent so I did have to look up why they’re so popular. Google tells me that BTS have catchy songs, sing about themes not usually heard about in South Korea and are excellent dancers. From what I’ve seen, they seem like genuinely nice men. Stars from that neck of the woods are usually more of a slave to PR and may feel a pressure to be more wholesome, but it’s clearly worked in their favour.

Honestly, it’s nice to have some exposure to a different culture and way of entertaining. Whilst the stories are generally universal, there is still a unique South Korean stamp. I’m currently addicted to All Of Us Are Dead and I’m sure there will be more for me to watch when I finish that.

South Korea looks likely to be a bigger chunk in the entertainment industry as time goes. I for one think that is a marvellous thing. 

Photo Credit.

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