Thursday, August 1, 2013

K-Pop and Korean Film: An Unlikely Marriage?

Today on the KOFFIA blog, blogger Ben Lee takes a look at the relation between Korean film and K-pop. Make sure to look out for our Reach for the Stars category at #KOFFIA2013, which includes the K-pop documentary 9 Muses of Star Empire and the true story of a variety show star in My Paparotti, if you want to learn more about Korean music on screen!

Globalisation has truly swept through South Korea during the past two decades. From its status as a hermit state under the Joseon dynasty during the 19th Century to becoming a world leader in electronics, steel production and shipping in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, Korean popular culture has now made the jump to global audience. This is seen through an info-graphic from "YouTube Trends"...

K-Pop stars appearing in Korean dramas is not uncommon; to give a couple of examples, members of boy and girl bands such as Yuchun from JYJ appeared in 'Rooftop Prince' (옥탑방왕세자). 'Dream High' was a drama based on performing arts school students wanting to become singers, featuring idol members such as Jiyeon from T-ara and Suzy from Miss A. Park Jin-young from JYP Entertainment has commented on the capacity of Korean idol group members to assume different identities while performing songs and says this ability should be translated smoothly into film, where actors adopt different identities to convey stories and themes.

These ‘idols who act’ (연기돌; 'yeon-gi-dol') were initially targets of criticism from the media, as their excursions into acting were perceived to be opportunistic. Using a hypothetical example for a comedy drama whose target audience is in the ’aged 18-35 and female’ demographic, casting a well-known member from a Korean boy group could increase domestic demand and create international interest for the series. However, current widespread acceptance of idols in the drama industry has demonstrated that inter-industry collaboration can be an excellent cross-promotion vehicle to spread Korean popular culture globally through one or more media products. 

Therefore it is not too surprising to see the step taken from television to cinema screens; this year’s KOFFIA selections feature Suzy (of Miss A) in 'Architecture 101' and a documentary on 9 Muses, showing that inter-industry collaboration is starting to become commonplace. Mutual involvement between the music and film industries has also taken the converse route (film industry stakeholders being involved in music industry products) when Park Chan-wook of 'Oldboy' fame directed the music video for Lee Jung-hyun’s new single, ‘V.’

There is a greater need for the Korean entertainment industry to harness the newfound popularity of K-Pop and channel it into other avenues such as film. As seen by the YouTube infographic above, global interest in K-Pop is flourishing and Hallyu (Korean Wave) has started to spread beyond Asia. However, the assumption that K-pop will sustain its nascent popularity is a dangerous one to make, as seen by mixed results from American showcases of Girls’ Generation and Wonder Girls. These two examples demonstrated that what works in Asia will not necessarily reproduce similar levels of success in other markets.

The Korean entertainment sector therefore needs to find strategies and approaches towards sustaining the attention 'Gangnam Style' has provided. Korean films, songs, food and other cultural items need to find ways to remain globally relevant, now that the world has been exposed to Korean cultural products through K-Pop. Stakeholders in the industry know that offerings from Korean popular culture can sustain longevity, but the average music fan who does not follow K-Pop is likely to consider for example, 'Gangnam Style' as a ‘one-hit wonder’ if Psy is unable to produce and perform songs that capture their attention. Popular culture provides non-political avenues through which Korean can be promoted to non-Koreans, spreading awareness of South Korea beyond its neighbours above the 38th Parallel. 

Inter-industry collaboration will also greatly assist Korea’s nascent rise in global society, with two examples being food and tourism. Campaigns such as the ‘Visit Korea Year’ have featured celebrity endorsements, but why not take the next step and promote say, movie festivals more aggressively? If recent developments such as Music Bank World Tour and its live performances in Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong, Chile and Jakarta have demonstrated the potential to ‘export’ Korean popular culture items, then equal emphasis and interest should be placed towards film. The Pucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (PIFAN) and Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) are two examples of well-respected Korean film festivals that deserve more global attention.

While North and Southeast Asia have experienced Hallyu (the ‘Korean Wave’) over the past decade, it has yet to strike the Americas, Europe, Africa and Australasia. This is where the film industry could play a significant role. Unlike its counterparts in popular music with Gangnam Style, the Korean film industry has yet to produce its ‘global breakthrough’ piece that provides its stakeholders mainstream recognition, but its reputation for intriguing works of art is growing steadily. Perhaps a greater focus towards promoting Korean films globally will not only help Korean cultural initiatives by diversifying its assets, but also strengthening one of its most prolific and productive sectors. It is about time Korean movies step into the global limelight; perhaps it will do so with the help of its K-Pop peers.

By Ben Lee
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Twitter: @KOFFIAFilmFest | #KOFFIA2013 

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