How South Korean movies are dominating world cinema

6 Mar

When South Korea's "Parasite" made history by becoming the first non-English language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, all eyes were set on director Bong Joon-ho. Bong had famously said the Oscars were "very local."

South Korean actress Yang Mal-bok, whose new film "The Apartment with Two Women" premiered at the Berlinale in February, says Bong's sentiments resonated with her. "I'm a bit tired of the cultural flow that was a bit monopolized in one direction," Yang told DW.

"I started to think that our tastes in movies were long concentrated on one side and it's obvious to me that your view expands when you come in contact with a culture or art of a different region, like South Korea," she said. But in recent years, audiences worldwide have developed a bigger thirst for Korean cinema.

Rise of South Korea's cultural economy

The Korean wave — or Hallyu — is a term widely used to describe the international success of South Korean music, film, TV, fashion and food. In October last year, the Oxford English Dictionary added the Korean word Hallyu to its latest edition.

When asked about Hallyu, Jung Bo-ram, Yang's co-actress in the "The Apartment with Two Women," said "It's the universalist themes of Korean society" which help drive the success of South Korean films abroad.

In her latest movie, Jung plays a woman in her late twenties who lives with her mother. The film centers around their turbulent mother-daughter relationship. "All mothers and daughters living in South Korea can relate to this story. I thought that this movie is not specific to South Korea but it contains various emotions that you can feel about the relationship of any mother-daughter," Jung told DW.

"When people watch this movie, they can relate with their own lives." Yang Mal-bok in The apartment with two women. 'Your view expands when you come in contact with a culture or art of a different region, like South Korea,' says Yang Mal-bok (pictured)

South Korean films take world by storm

The success of South Korean films abroad took off in the 1990s — after the last vestiges of its repressive military regimes ended. Censorship laws were eased and investment started trickling into the film business by large Korean companies. 

Investments through conglomerates — or chaebols — like Samsung, Daewoo and Hyundai have all played a major role in the country's film industry. Following the Asian financial crisis of 1997, new conglomerates like CJ Entertainment, the Orion Group (Showbox), and Lotte Entertainment emerged to become the biggest players in the South Korean movie industry.

In the first decade of Hallyu, international fans, particularly in the US, typically downloaded pirated films while South Koreans studying abroad did the subtitling. "This was happening long before OTT (over-the-top) platforms and easy subtitling," Yang explained.

But as her new independent film is touring international film festivals, the actor says South Korean films have finally become "elevated" and that Hallyu is here to stay. Yang also played a cameo in the South Korean series "Squid Game," one of streaming giant Netflix's all-time biggest hits. The nine-part thriller reached 1.65 billion viewers just in its first month of release. Yang said she "had no idea" that the series would "become so popular all over the world."

"It's obvious that Hollywood has had a huge cultural influence on the world. English-speaking movies are screened in theaters and multiplexes. It's hard to compete with that but, for two decades now, international independent film festivals have increased opportunities for us to be seen and heard," Yang said.

Author Akanksha Saxena    

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