What makes South Korean entertainment click?
The plot of the South Korean television series “My Love From the Star” is farfetched, dealing with an alien who falls in love with a pop star.
But the drama dominated a morning of debate for a Chinese Communist Party committee last month when delegates lamented the inability of homegrown offerings to match the show’s runaway success in China.
“The Korean drama craze … is resulting in a lack of confidence in our own culture,” warned Xu Qinsong, a party official from Guangdong.
The alarm is not limited to China. In recent years Taiwanese regulators have intervened to reduce the screening of South Korean soap operas, while thousands marched in Tokyo against the extensive screening of the shows on Japanese television.
The booming industry behind this regional angst is the subject of “The Korean Wave: Korean Popular Culture in Global Context.” It is a new collection of academic essays, of varying quality, on the South Korean entertainment sector’s rise to prominence in East and Southeast Asia. It was edited by Yasue Kuwahara, a professor at Northern Kentucky University, and published by Palgrave MacMillan.
From Manila to Mongolia, Seoul’s television and music companies have found enthusiastic audiences. Their success reflects the cultural allure of one of the region’s most advanced economies and has opened doors for other South Korean industries, including tourism and cosmetics.
In the collection, there is the obligatory chapter on “Gangnam Style,” the tongue-in-cheek hit by rapper Psy that became the most viewed music video in Internet history.
The authors do well to focus on the new role of music consumers in helping to promote songs by sharing them online — although there is needless hyperbole in their closing statement that “Gangnam Style” “may have been a turning point in global entertainment.”
Likewise, the book gets off to a shaky start by opening with an essay, by the British professor John Walsh, that portrays the phenomenon as a “government construct.”
Walsh lists various government initiatives to support the entertainment industry. But he entirely fails to demonstrate that any of these has been instrumental in the success achieved by the country’s fiercely competitive television and music production sectors.
Where the latter have shown a keen sensitivity to the international marketplace, government interventions have often seemed clumsy. The South Korean government of Lee Myung-bak, for example, spent more than $70 million on “globalizing Korean food” — with results so questionable that the national assembly ordered a special audit.
As contributor Hyejung Ju suggests later in the book, if any government action should be cited, it was the liberalization in 2000 of the television and music sectors, which made it easier for new, small, independent companies to enter the industries and unleashed dynamic market forces.
Yet even that does not explain the enthusiasm felt for South Korean shows and songs by many Asian consumers, often to the exclusion of rival products from their own countries or from the West.
Many critics argue that the secret lies with a winning blend of seductive glamour normally associated with U.S. entertainers, expertly packaged with an underlying strain of traditional Asian family values.
Chuyun Oh puts an interesting spin on this theory with an analysis of Girls’ Generation, the most successful South Korean pop group of recent years. “They have moved beyond any specific race or ethnicity,” she says, attributing to them a “mutant multicultural Koreanness.”
This book ends with a suggestion by its editor Kuwahara that “a majority of the Japanese are not genuinely interested in Korean culture” and watch South Korean shows because they are like “a fun house mirror that shows them what the Japanese and their society are like.”
This does not bode well for hopes that Korean cultural exports could serve as a bridge between the nations at a time of deteriorating diplomatic relations. It may, however, provide reassurance for the likes of Xu Qinsong, the Chinese Communist Party official from Guangdong.
Simon Mundy is the Seoul correspondent for the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.
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