Parasite or K-Pop? Which face of South Korean Culture do Koreans Prefer to See Represented?
Foreign Correspondent in South Korea, Milana Nikolova, asks Korean students what they think of the rise of Korean culture and what this means for their country.
History was made at this year’s Academy Awards. South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s film ‘Parasite’ was not only nominated for six Oscars, out of which it won four, but also became the first non-English language production to grab the so-called “big prize” for Best Picture. The film’s success was certainly not limited to awards, as it managed to earn more than $230 million worldwide with only a small budget. Having to read subtitles did not stop English-speaking audiences from taking an interest in the South Korean hit either. It quickly became the fourth highest grossing foreign film of all time in the US and the number one UK box office film on February 24.
While this kind of success might seem impressive even for nations with long-established film industries, many Koreans were not flabbergasted by this recent rise to fame. Bong is far from being the first Korean creator with impressive achievements on the international stage. The South Korean group BTS, which CNN described as ‘the world’s biggest boy band’, have been dominating the music scene for a long time. Their newest album ‘Map of the Soul: 7’ has been the most successful by far, hitting number one in all top five of the world’s music markets. However, the cute aesthetic of BTS and other K-Pop boy and girl group tends to appeal to a specific type of audience, usually made up of younger people. In contrast, the principle conversation that ‘Parasite’ aimed to start was about social inequality – a topic that has also attracted a more mature audience. So, which one of these polarised images of Korean pop culture do South Koreans prefer to see thriving abroad?
So, which one of these polarised images of Korean pop culture do South Koreans prefer to see thriving abroad?
Hagyong, a Visual Studies student at Yonsei University in Seoul tells me: “I don’t like K-Pop or K-dramas. They are all too mainstream and predictable. When it comes to movies, I prefer to watch the foreign ones. I don’t agree with some aspects of director Bong’s plots, mostly to do with his treatment of female characters, but I still did enjoy ‘Parasite’. I think it has introduced the world to a new face of South Korea and hope that South Korean cinema will be taken more seriously in the future.”
Yerim, a student at EWHA University, also in Seoul, had a similar perspective: “Personally, I think other countries, that don’t really know about Korean culture, might have a stereotype of our culture coming from K-Pop or K-dramas. Some people might think we have only K-Pop and k-dramas, but that’s not really true, you know? So, because of that reason, I think (the) movie ‘Parasite’ is a good chance to show a different side of our culture! I just want other countries to know about various side(s) of our culture”
Others disagreed with such a notion. They did not seem to think that the attention brought to South Korea by K-Pop and K-dramas is less valuable than that generated by ‘Parasite’. Boram, who is also a student at EWHA University, argues: “We love K-Pop stars and all their fans. Korea only wins from them. In general, we (South Koreans) enjoy K-dramas more than art movies. That’s why the art movie cinema is so small here in Korea, but movies by Marvel or any Hollywood movies are always welcomed. If it’s like this in Korea, why would it be different in other countries?”
As Korean music and cinema continue to gain international recognition, the image of South Korea will also continue to grow and become more complex.
Seunghoon, another student at Yonsei University, has even proposed that the success of ‘Parasite’ would have been impossible without K-Pop: “I think one of the main reasons (for the positive reception of ‘Parasite’) is BTS. As they became super popular all over the world, other Korean culture has gained attention. Also, if you consider the economic benefits of K-Pop on the (media) industry, it becomes clear why Korean movies have been becoming better and better.”
No matter where people stand on this question, it is clear that a large number of various types of Korean pop culture have been increasing in popularity in almost every corner of the world. As Korean music and cinema continue to gain international recognition, the image of South Korea will also continue to grow and become more complex. It is for this reason that consuming foreign and non-English language media is important to increasing our understanding of the world – even when a boy band is in question.