If you think that Boon Jong-ho’s Parasite (which won four Oscars this week, including Best Picture) is pretty black as comedies go, you should try the South Korean film The President’s Barber. Set in 1970s Seoul, a working-class hair clipper is appointed to tend the dictatorial leader Park Chung-hee, and tensions grow between his family and the upper-class presidential entourage. The barber becomes convinced that the head of state is a vicious, violent maniac, and his son ends up as the victim of an electrode punishment — played onscreen for laughs of the bleakest kind.
Parasite is the latest example of the Hallyu, or ‘Korean Wave’, or a cultural phenomenon that has been emerging over the past quarter century in South Korea’s cinema, pop music and literature. I’m a historian of modern China, yet over the past few years when I visit Beijing and Tokyo, I hear people talking more and more about the pace-setting culture of Seoul. And how South Korea, a country smaller than Bulgaria, is producing a freer and less hidebound version of Asian culture for the 21st century.
Its cinema is in the headlines this week but its music is also a global phenomenon. Korea’s ‘K-pop’ is eclipsing J-pop from Japan. Seoul’s biggest stars find themselves mobbed by teenagers in their Beijing hotels. The West caught a glimpse of that culture with the success of Psy’s hit ‘Gangnam Style’ in 2012. Then, after the split of One Direction in 2016, Korea’s BTS rose to become the highest-paid boyband in the world — last year their album Map of the Soul reached No. 1 in the UK, and their first six stadium sets in the US grossed $44 million. Globally, when people think about Asian pop music, literature or film, it’s increasingly Korea that comes to mind.
No one would have predicted this a couple of generations ago. The country was a colony of Japan between 1910 and 1945, and the collaboration of many of its elites (including the future president Park Chung-hee) with the occupiers became a source of deep resentment in the postwar years. The Korean War of 1950-1953 devastated the country, killing millions, and left it one of the poorest countries on earth. South Korea was poorer (at least on paper) than its northern counterpart until the 1970s.
The development of an industrial economy that allowed the likes of Hyundai and Samsung to thrive created one of the fastest--growing economies in the region. South Korea is now the 12th largest economy in the world, an astonishing turnaround. But it was achieved during a period of harsh dictatorship under Park and his successors, leaving a legacy of bitterness that even the democratisation of the 1980s hasn’t fully exorcised. In recent years, a toxic combination of growing inequality, stalled social mobility and a rapidly ageing population has taken the shine off the Korean economic miracle — and has led to the frustrations now being explored in Oscar-winning cinema.
Many young South Koreans now call their country ‘Hell Chosun’ (Chosun is an archaic term for Korea), as they feel increasingly hopeless in a society where economic growth doesn’t yield enough decent jobs. Parasite’s dystopian view of class is part of a much longer debate about what it means to be a rich yet increasingly unequal country. Cinema has been a major battleground for differing South Korean views of recent history.
The film Ode to My Father (2014), directed by Yoon Je-kyoon, sold 14 million tickets and was one of the most popular movies in the country’s history. A sort of South Korean Forrest Gump, it tells the story of Deok-soo (played by Hwang Jung-min), an everyman whose childhood is spent in the poverty of the Korean War years. He spends time as a ‘guest worker’ in West Germany, serves in the Vietnam War, and then becomes a successful businessman. In one scene, Deok-soo and his wife are quarrelling in public when they suddenly hear the national anthem; instantly, they and every-one around them fall silent. It depicts a people scarred by war who show the grit needed to turn a devastated country into an economic superpower. This appealed to millions, particularly in the older generation; as one younger academic put it to me pointedly: ‘My parents loved this film.’ Yet Ode was also criticised for what was not there: in the 1980s, South Korea was rocked by a powerful democracy movement against the dictatorship of president Chun Doo-hwan. No signs of that dissent appear in the film.
Even more controversial was Im Sang-soo’s The President’s Last Bang (2005) which satirised the 1979 assassination of Park. The film used real footage of Park’s funeral, leading to a copyright suit from the dead president’s family, and portrayed Park as a dilettante who was enthralled by Japanese culture, a jibe that still had bite 60 years after the end of colonial rule.
The scars left by this era of dictatorship are also visible in the work of another figure who has become a face of South Korean high culture to the world, the novelist Han Kang. Winner of the Man Booker International prize in 2016 for The Vegetarian, her novel Human Acts (2014) deals with one of the most horrific events of South Korea’s path to democratisation: the massacre of students by troops in the city of Gwangju in 1980, where some 600 people protesting against martial law were killed. Unlike Tiananmen Square, the Gwangju Uprising is properly acknowledged and is the subject of a display in Seoul’s Museum of National History. Division over Park’s legacy runs through contemporary South Korean politics even now; his daughter, Park Geun-hye, was elected as a conservative president in her own right in 2013, but fell foul of the law and is now serving a long prison sentence for influence-peddling.
The democratisation process in Korea was real and should not be underestimated. The sometimes daring and sexually charged imagery of the K-pop phenomenon couldn’t have been developed under the dictatorship. (Miniskirts were banned under Park, and long-haired men were taken to barbers by police and made to issue statements of repentance.) The dominance of East Asia’s music scene by Korean girl and boybands is the result of an industrial effort that rivals Samsung or Hyundai, both in terms of the size and profitability, and the fact that it’s heavily supported by the state behind the scenes. When the music industry was hit by illegal downloads in 2009, the government gave K-pop a $91 million bailout, saying it wanted to ‘globalise’ its pop industry. If people laughed then, they would not now.
But for all its wealth, the conditions under which Korean teenagers now sing and dance are regimented in the extreme, giving the lie to the image of exuberant freedom seen in the music videos. The case of Kim Jong-hyun, a 27-year-old singer with the band Shinee, has become notorious; he became deeply depressed by the pressure of his lifestyle and took his own life in December 2017. A charitable foundation was set up in his name to try to relieve the pressure on young artists, but the K-pop factory continues to operate at full tilt. After all, it is one of the engines by which South Korea creates huge soft power.
For decades, the most important thing in South Korea was growing its GDP — a process which involved regimentation, in culture as well as the economy. Its sprint from poverty to riches in a generation has left a messier culture — more vibrant and more realistic. This means dealing with the traumas of past and present. But paradoxically, the difficulty all this can cause society is also — through its cinema, music and art — the most potent way in which South Korea can appeal to the outside world.
Rana Mitter is Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at Oxford. His documentary South Korea: The Silent Cultural Superpower is on BBC Sounds.