A Chinese journalist coined Korean Wave after observing the influence of the pop group HOT on the youth of his country. This locution now applies to the influence of all Korean mass entertainment throughout China and Southeast Asia, especially soap operas. “Winter Sonata” and “Dae Jang Geum” are stellar examples.
The Korean Wave phenomenon has imbued Koreans with a new sense of pride in their culture and with confidence in themselves. Koreans arriving at Singapore’s Changi International Airport, for instance, walk through a corridor decorated with posters of Korean celebrities, who themselves are treated royally when visiting Southeast Asian countries, particularly Vietnam.
After a century of catching everything Japanese and American cultures threw at them, it’s now Koreans’ turn to disseminate their culture. And every new soap opera hopes to ride the Korean Wave to success and riches.
What is it that leads to success for certain Korean productions, but not others? If it were simply formula, everyone would be riding the Wave.
Part of the phenomenon has to do with the Korean look, albeit surgically enhanced, seemingly the current standard of beauty in certain countries; so much so that Korean cosmetics brands in Vietnam benefit by choosing Korean visages over domestic ones to represent their products. Yet the gorgeous creatures who possess this look do not act in a vacuum; that is, there must be a compelling plot and appealing lifestyle that keep a foreign audience’s interest in a particular soap opera week after week.
As it turned out, the astonishing success of “Winter Sonata” had to do with its appeal to lovelorn Japanese women. But it wasn’t planned that way. It just happened to catch on in Japan, to everyone’s amazement. While “Dae Jang Geum” is popular with the Chinese of Taiwan and Vietnamese because it conforms to their ancient Confucian values, as practiced by the drama’s Lee dynasty court, and because food, something the Chinese live for, is central to its episodes. But were the producers thinking about the Chinese palate when planning a soap opera originally for Korean consumption?
My point is that success is fickle and unpredictable. For example, I doubt if the producers of “Friends,” a sitcom that initially produced 12 episodes and hoped to last a full TV season, ever dreamed they were producing an American cultural icon that would catch on around the world and be in-flight entertainment on trans-Pacific flights.
For Korean productions to appeal to a wider Asian audience, these must strike a chord with them. “JSA: Joint Security Area” struck a chord with the Japanese by giving them insight into the North-South security arrangement on the D.M.Z., which could have dire consequences for Japan should push come to shove on the Korean peninsula. Conversely, the same Taiwanese who are enamored of “Dae Jang Geum” showed little interest in “JSA.” They have their own security concerns across the Taiwan Strait to worry about without dwelling on the Korean problem.
“Dae Jang Geum” is successful because it’s a good story. By making the royal cook, played by Lee Young-Ae, the central character and her kitchen central to palace life and intrigue, the series strikes a chord with women who have their own kitchens and households to manage. This is the stuff of which the Korean Wave is made.
The Korean Wave will continue to flourish as long as it offers what is genuinely Korean. Once it becomes formula, the Korean Wave is dead.
Even celebrity stardom in Korea is no guarantee of success beyond its borders. Take the hugely successful Chun Ji-hyun, whose angular physique is plastered on the sides of buses and on subway columns and whose face adorns every beauty parlor’s window. Nor can one avoid seeing her steamy Laneige and Olympus TV commercials, taking her from cute, noodle-slurping ing?nue to sultry seductress in a red dress.
There is something about Ms Chun that transfixes Korean girls. She has the look they want. She is their it girl. And having it is what so many Apgujeong-dong habitu?s crave. But does the same fame and fortune await Ji-hyun outside of Korea? Apparently not. She is for domestic consumption.
When I tell students that Ms Chun used to be my student, they ooh and aah. Then I recount how students bum rushed her for autographs on the first day of class.
I was clueless of Ji-hyun’s celebrity on that day. The introductory class was barely over before students were up on the wooden teacher’s platform and elbowing their way in front of me as if I weren’t there. I was completely baffled. One student stuck a camcorder in front of my face to get a better angle on her; then looked at me apologetically, saying “That’s Chun Ji-hyun; she’s really famous”!
As I looked down at a student with a hat pulled down over her head, and who did not look up while giving the autographs, I thought, “Well, whoever she is, she’s paying a pretty price for celebrity.”
I later learned of the magnitude of this celebrity when I noticed Ji-hyun’s life-size cardboard cutout in front of a fast-food joint nearby Dongguk’s back gate. And I was reminded recently of her staying power when I passed through Inchon’s airport and saw a raven-haired white girl in a red dress impersonating Ms Chun in a Samsung commercial. Imitation, after all, is the highest compliment.
An American parallel to Chun Ji-hyun was the physically precocious Brooke Shields. She, too, was famous for simply being herself and especially for a Guess Jeans TV commercial in which the ing?nue coyly cooed, “Nothing comes between me and my Guess Jeans.” Brooke had the celebrity cachet to negotiate an agreement with Princeton (after Harvard and Yale said, “No.”) allowing her to skip as many classes as she pleased when these interfered with career demands. Brooke then proceeded to skip more classes at Princeton than anyone had before her. Not unlike Ji-hyun at Dongguk.
And then there were the days when a gaggle of school girls in uniforms waited patiently at a stairwell in K building, in expectation of getting the autographs of two HOT guys who were taking a class there. Each time I watched the duo run up some campus steps and up some more steps to evade the pursuing teenyboppers, the Beatles’ movie “Help” came to mind.
That pop celebrities and Buddhist monks share the same campus gives Dongguk panache and makes it unique among Seoul’s campuses.
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