Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Korean Wave

- Ruchi Junnarkar

When I moved into the Sophia College Hostel, of the many things that I found unusual was the strange popularity of Korean Dramas among the girls here. If you’re passing through the common room, no matter what time of the day it is, you are bound to pass at least two girls glued to their laptop screen with earphones plugged into their ears, watching a Korean Soap Opera. Initially, I didn’t really think much of it. I figured everyone has their eccentric choices. But soon I realised this wasn’t a one-off thing. There were lots of girls who were hooked to Korean dramas and in love with these strangely effeminate Korean boys. I realised this wasn’t just a Sophia College thing. Not only were girls’ hostels across the country enamored by Korean culture, some basic preliminary research  (read Google) revealed that Korean culture was actually sweeping the entire world in what has come to be known as the “Korean Wave”.

The term ’Korean Wave’ was coined in 1999, when a Chinese journalist noted the invasion of South Korean pop culture which included everything from TV series, to movies and Korean pop music (now famously known as K-pop) into the local entertainment industries in Asian countries like China, Japan, Taiwan, North Korea and Hong Kong. Although experts initially dismissed it as being a temporary phenomenon, it has only grown since, and has today captured niche audiences in Europe, the Americas, and clearly, India as well. This is of course, in addition to taking over mainstream entertainment in the countries in the “Sinosphere”, so to say.

Such has been the growth of the ‘Korean Wave’, or the Hallyu, as the Koreans call it, that it has been one of the biggest contributors to South Korea’s export revenue over the past decade. Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), a Korean entertainment channel exported content worth 43 million USD in 2005. This amount grew to 65 million USD in 2009, going to as many as 38 countries. Overall in 2009, South Korea exported content worth 3 billion USD in entertainment, more than double its 2002 export.

What started as the success of a few drama series exported to China and Japan, has now snowballed into an all-out cult following for Korean television and pop music all over the world. So much so that South Korean actors are now among the most highly paid in the world. Bae Young Jun, star of the Korean drama ‘Winter Sonata’ now charges 5 million USD per film, the most anywhere in Asia. In a matter a few years, Jun is believed to have accumulated an empire of over a 100 million USD based on acting fees and merchandising alone. In 2008, K-pop group TVXQ made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for having the largest fan club in the world with more than 12,00,000 official members.  This same group has also been listed as the most photographed celebrities in the world. From their debut in March 2009, the 5 members have been photographed about 500 million times I magazines, album jackets, commercials etc. The Hallyu is that big.

The question is, why? What is it about Korean drama that makes it so popular among so many completely different audiences? To some extent, the popularity of Korean entertainment in Asia is fathomable, but this magnitude and persistence of its cultural domination is something to be inquired into. It is also something that clearly continues to baffle experts. Some say relatability, some say better writing and better writing, some say because it’s cheaper. On asking a lot of my friends who watch these shows I learned however, that Korean dramas are essentially feel-good, soppy, romances with dreamy male leads, which is why most of them watch them so obsessively. None of those reasons are valid enough to explain the enormity of the phenomenon though.

As of now, no one knows why it’s so popular, but it’s an acknowledged fact that Korean culture is pretty much taking over in China, Japan and other south-east Asian countries and capturing niche audiences everywhere else. Watch out America, the South Koreans are taking over the world.

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