Korean cinema goes global | Duc today

That Squid Game may have become an international success may even have surprised Netflix executives, but the international reach of Korean culture has long been increasing.

However, the “Squid Game” gorefest is another popular example of a particular genre of Korean movies and TV shows, a genre that includes Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” and “Snowpiercer”, and even the movie. of “Train to Busan” zombies. “Like ‘Squid Game’, the terror of the action in these shows is offset by the trauma created by a society built on extreme class divisions and the punishment imposed on people who lose out in the system. offer economic critiques, the Korean contributions seem particularly to attract the world’s imagination.

Professor Duke Nayoung Aimee Kwon is an Associate Professor in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and an expert in Korean culture, politics and history. She said the inequality issues raised in “Squid Game” were part of a long theme in Korean culture dating back hundreds of years. Below, Kwon discusses the history of political criticism in Korean art and the social and cultural nuances that American viewers may miss watching a giant children’s toy slaughter hundreds of people.

Q: What are American audiences most likely to miss when they watch “Squid Game? “

NAYOUNG AIMEE KWON: South Korean directors don’t always pamper global audiences and translate everything. There are many Easter eggs that the public may not be aware of. The gigantic doll in the game “Green Light Red Light”, is actually a ubiquitous image of a girl character that appears in textbook lessons. Her name is Younghi and her boyish counterpart is Chulsoo, common names like “Jack and Jill” from nursery rhymes here. This beloved and familiar character from childhood nostalgia is reincarnated as a spooky doll of gigantic proportions who leads a deadly schoolyard game while shooting balls with crazy eyes. It’s loaded.

Many Americans may not have understood the implications of the corrupt and privileged American figures who organize and bet on the games while the poor are pitted against each other and forced to fight to the end. There is a symbolism of the uneven dynamics underway between South Korea and the United States that dates back to when the United States divided the Koreas in less than 30 minutes using a crude National Geographic map. and installed their army in the South, in effect creating the dividing system of two of the polar opposition regimes still at war half a century later.

Q: Some characters in Squid Games are not South Korean. What does their presence on the social dynamics in South Korea show?

KWON: Since the 1990s, South Korea has undergone enormous demographic transformations. One of the factors has been the Asian financial crisis and the increased urban concentration of population and resources, especially around the capital Seoul. These and other factors have created a need in some manufacturing and agricultural sectors and attracted low-wage workers from regions such as China, Southeast Asia and Africa.

North Korean refugees and the Korean ethnic diaspora from China as well as the former Soviet Union have also been expelled by various political and socio-economic challenges in these regions, which has created additional push factors for these regions to South Korea. In addition, the growing popularity of Korean popular culture and the success of the tourism industry continue to attract people to Korea in recent decades in other sectors like the entertainment industry. “Squid Game” showed some of the diverse aspects of contemporary South Korea, including an actor from Pakistan who became a local celebrity playing the roles of migrant workers.

Q: What is happening in Korean art that increases its international visibility and why does inequality play such an important role?

KWON: It is perhaps natural that a society that has struggled with extreme inequalities throughout its long history stretching back thousands of years has developed compelling storytelling practices in this direction. Before the modern era, there was a sovereign monarchical and aristocratic order. There was a strict stillness between the different social strata. Artists tended to come either from higher scholars or from lower status groups. Some of the latter’s most iconic artists are kisaeng, or female artists, and p’ansori artists who often came from low-born groups like the shamans and whose art embodied their struggles. They could illicitly interact with the upper classes and even influence their art, but these relationships were not legitimized by society.

In the modern era, Korea was colonized by Japan and then underwent military occupation by the United States, the division of the country that spanned over half a century with a still ongoing war between the North and the South. With perceived and real external threats, internal inequalities are exacerbated. For example, the gender inequalities that exist in most societies tend to be over-exaggerated in a militarized society like Korea. Most able-bodied college-aged boys whose families cannot afford to buy them out of service. enlisted in the military during the early years of college. The patriarchal inequality underlying this military culture of hierarchies permeates corporate culture, education and other arenas. In the 1980s, the rise of socially engaged minjung art, or folk art, became influential in various artistic practices, including the New Wave of Filmmakers. These new artists began to more openly question the unequal geopolitical condition of the Koreas under the influence of the superpowers, especially the outsized impact of the United States which has always presented itself as a savior until then.

When you have such a long history of artistic traditions of socially engaged artists who creatively oppose social inequalities, you tend to be good at it. Again, I think this long story converges with new technological and distribution developments now coming together in exciting new ways.

Q: What explains the growing US interest in Korean culture at the moment?

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KWON: The world has been increasingly fascinated by Korean culture over the past two decades. It took a little longer for this to fully manifest itself in the United States. I think this delay has something to do with the sheer strength and historical monolingualism of the mammoths of the popular cultural industry like Hollywood that make it extremely difficult for newbies and especially non-English speakers. linguistic content to penetrate. Bong Joon-ho’s comment on the one-inch caption barrier in his Oscar speech was incisive.

Another interesting convergence is that there has been a huge demand for Korean culture and language courses in schools and universities. The Modern Language Association has shown that Korean is one of the few languages ​​that has seen a dramatic increase in enrollment at American universities over the past decade.

Duke tried to make himself known in the field of Asian studies. It currently has a campus in China, two masters programs in East Asian Studies, a Korean language program which has doubled enrollment in the past 5-6 years. I hope we can look to the development of Duke’s Korean Studies program to meet these increasing demands for a more comprehensive Asian Studies program from our students and the community. UNC-Chapel Hill has invested in this area in recent years. Building on the strength of what already exists, there is a tremendous opportunity to jointly build these programs in new, innovative directions in the South.


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