February 26, 2008

THE HIGH TIDE OF THE KOREAN WAVE(14)
Korean Wave coming to Latin America

By Min Won-jung koreaherald.co.kr

In the last few years, Korean films, TV dramas and pop music have become immensely popular abroad, a phenomenon known as the Korean Wave. This is the 14th in a series of essays by a select group of foreign scholars and journalists looking at the spread of Korean pop culture in Southeast Asian countries and beyond. -- Ed.

The Korean film "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring" by the director Kim Ki-duk received an astonishing response from Chilean audiences when it was screened here in 2005. Claudia, an aesthetics professor at my university, told her students to watch the movie and submit an essay about it. Nobody dared to explain theoretically the aesthetic value of the movie.

After this, another film by the same director, "3-Iron," was released, and Chilean newspaper reviewers praised the movie. The paper published at my university recommended the film, giving, as the main reason to watch it, "because it's Kim Ki-duk's movie."

But it seemed to make no difference to the Chilean audience whether Kim Ki-duk was from Korea or somewhere else. It is not surprising to find oneself sitting in a theater watching his movie, and hearing someone say, "After all, Chinese culture is amazing."

Chile's national broadcasting network TVN aired the Korean drama "Stairs to Heaven" beginning in March 2006. The network decided to air the show following the enthusiastic viewer response to earlier broadcasts on a cable channel owned by the same TV station.

One day, Francisca, one of the Korean culture class students, said to me: "Professor, my mom's watching an Asian drama 'Stairs to Heaven.' It is a Korean drama, right? She insists that it's Chinese."

A relatively larger number of Korean dramas were aired in Mexico. Dramas such as "Stars in My Heart" and "All about Eve" were shown in 2002, and "Winter Sonata" was broadcast in 2005, followed by "Henequen," a special documentary produced in commemoration of the 100 years of Korean immigration to Mexico. The 2006 broadcasts included "I'm Running," and "Four Sisters."

When former President Roh Moo-hyun visited Mexico in September 2005, enthusiastic fans of Korean actors like Jang Dong-geon and Ahn Jae-wook held rallies to try to get the stars to visit the country. This incident shows the fresh impact of Korean culture in one Latin American country.

A few years ago, Korean media reported that the so-called Korean Wave was also breaking on the shores of Latin America; as proof, there were examples of active fan clubs of Korean actors in Mexico. However, local media in Mexico did not show the interest in this phenomenon that some Koreans may have expected, and we must admit that most of the Korean dramas aired there were through regional broadcasting stations.

Korean culture gained recognition in South America when the film "The Way Home" was shown in Argentina and Chile a couple of years ago. Some Korean dramas were also telecast in Peru and Paraguay. Surely, there was room for Korean culture to be seen, but the phenomenon was as far from being a "Korean Wave" as the physical distance between Korea and Latin America.

This wave, however, is now on the verge of hitting Latin America. This year, TV Azteca, one of the main broadcasting stations in Mexico, decided to purchase two Korean dramas, "Jumong" and "All In."

Chilean students in my Korean culture class watch many contemporary Korean dramas on YouTube. They talk about shows such as "Gung," "Dalja! Spring," and "Misa." Students such as Natalia and Mariana like Korean boy bands, including Dong Bang Shin Ki and Sinhwa. Antonio asked me whether avatar was developed by Koreans. Paula said she came to know about admiral Yi Soon-shin while playing a computer game, "Seven-year War." At the Korean Film Festival held at the Catholic University of Chile twice a year, the performances of Korean dance and taekwondo have left a strong impression on Chileans.

Last year, Chile's National Museum of Contemporary Art held the Korean Contemporary Art exhibition called "Peppermint Candy" in response to the Chilean Contemporary Art exhibition held in Korea in 2006. Beatriz Bustos at Chile's Museum of Contemporary Art said that it was the best exhibition of 2007.

It is important to note that Latin Americans aren't apt to see what we Koreans want them to see and to understand. They like to see things with their own eyes and come to their own conclusions, even though sometimes it means they might focus on a fragmented piece of Korea's reality, and exaggerate it.

Director Kim Ki-duk's new movie "Time" was released in Chile a few months ago. Many Chileans might not know where Korea is or what Korean culture is like. But they have heard of director Kim many times. Many dailies and magazines write about his films whenever a new film comes along. Christina, a theology professor whom I expected an amazing film review from, said, "I like Kim's movie because of the beautiful visual image of Asia, but also because I don't have to bother reading the subtitles."

When Im Kwon-taek's "Seopyonje" was released here, many students said that they couldn't understand why a daughter had to go blind because of her father's passion for singing. Some of them interpreted the father's line "Sing beyond your rancor," as being too obsessive and macho.

Cesar, after watching the movie "Oh! Soojung," asked whether all Koreans consider a dark backstreet as a good place to kiss their lover. Sebastian, who watched "Joint Security Area," saw the subtitle saying "Take the dog meat. It's a health supplement." He later said that he came to believe that Koreans actually eat dog meat regularly. Augustin, an arts professor, said, "Korean women seem to be aggressive and bossy. Is it common to see them beating their husbands, like they do in dramas?"

My colleague Claudia watches Korean dramas on YouTube, and even buys DVD titles of the shows. She says she can learn about the way Koreans think through these dramas. "Koreans seem to be overly romantic. And, in the end, their love always ends in tragedy."

When encountered with pictures of Korean pop icons, Chileans unanimously say that they all look alike or that they are too skinny and that they wear too much makeup. They also often say that the songs of popular girl bands sound exactly like Japanese ones and that the girls look like Japanese cartoon characters.

Central and South American countries cannot be taken as one entity. Except for some countries like Brazil, Surinam and Belize, where Portuguese, English or Dutch is spoken, most Central and South American countries speak Spanish. But it is important to know that they all have different accents and varieties in their lexicon.

"Stairs to Heaven" with subtitles written in Mexican Spanish seem rather odd to Chilean viewers. "The Way Home" translated into Argentine Spanish can be confusing to viewers in the rest of Central and South America.

In Latin America, the pressing need for the Korean Wave, in the minds of Koreans here, is that Korea must be get wider publicity. This means that the successful models of the Korean Wave in other countries cannot necessarily be repeated, and will not apply to all Latin American countries.

Dramas are often lengthy and they usually have some translation or purchasing problems. It is necessary to develop various cultural contents -- for instance, films, music, dance, animation, taekwondo and even IT -- and expand the methods which will work in Latin American countries. Dynamic performances such as samulnori and "Nanta," both of which are all about percussion, will surely fascinate Latin American audiences. It is also important to remember that exchanges can increase when Koreans also show interest in Latin American countries and their culture.

As a teacher of Korean studies, I often meet students who are interested in Korean dramas and pop songs. I was one day given a DVD of "Gung" with English subtitles, as well as a CD of "Shinhwa." Some students here even operate their own websites on Cyworld, a popular networking website based in Korea. However, these are not typical Chileans. But who knows? Some day, they might lead the growth of the Korean Wave in Chile, and spearhead its expansion in Latin America.

Korea's Culture Ministry defines the Middle East and Central and South America as "areas of potentiality" regarding the Korean Wave. In 2006, a Korean council opened in Buenos Aires so as to make Korean culture better-known in the country. It is my humble hope that this goal will be realized, and that I can see the Korean Wave happen in Latin America.

The ways to promote the potential energy of Korean culture depends on Koreans. It is important to promote Korea to Latin Americans who are still unfamiliar with the country. It is crucial to develop our cultural products, and brand them as "Made in Korea." The faraway land of Latin America will also be enriched by the Korean Wave, as long as we remember the simple, but challenging truth: "What's most Korean is what's most global."



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