From BTS to ‘Squid Game’: How South Korea Became a Cultural Juggernaut

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The state was erstwhile mostly known for cars and smartphones, but a planetary assemblage has go mesmerized by its entertainment, and creators accidental occurrence didn’t hap overnight.

 Immortal Souls,” a South Korean TV play  that is expected to beryllium  released connected  Netflix successful  December.
Credit...Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Choe Sang-Hun

Nov. 3, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

PAJU, South Korea — In a caller Korean drama being filmed wrong a cavernous workplace gathering extracurricular of Seoul, a detective chases down a antheral cursed to unrecorded for 600 years. Pistol shots crack. A hush follows. Then, a pistillate pierces the silence, screaming: “I told you not to sprout him successful ​the heart!”

The country was filmed respective times for much than an hr arsenic portion of “Bulgasal: Immortal Souls,” a caller amusement scheduled to beryllium released connected Netflix successful December. Jang Young-woo, the director, hopes it volition beryllium the latest South Korean improvement to captivate an planetary audience.

South Korea has agelong chafed astatine its deficiency of groundbreaking taste exports. For decades the country’s estimation was defined by its cars and cellphones from companies similar Hyundai and LG, portion its movies, TV shows and euphony were mostly consumed by a determination audience. Now K-pop stars similar Blackpink, the dystopian play “Squid Game” and award-winning films specified arsenic “Parasite” look arsenic ubiquitous arsenic immoderate Samsung smartphone.


Credit...Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

In the aforesaid mode South Korea borrowed from Japan and the United States to make its manufacturing prowess, the country’s directors and producers accidental they person been studying Hollywood and different amusement hubs for years, adopting and refining formulas by adding distinctly Korean touches. Once streaming services similar Netflix tore down geographical barriers, the creators say, the state transformed from a user of Western civilization into an amusement juggernaut and large taste exporter successful its ain right.

In the past fewer years alone, South Korea shocked the satellite with “Parasite,” the archetypal overseas connection movie to triumph champion representation astatine the Academy Awards. It has 1 of the biggest, if not the biggest, set successful the satellite with BTS. Netflix has introduced 80 Korean movies and TV shows successful the past fewer years, acold much than it had imagined erstwhile it started its work successful South Korea successful 2016, according to the company. Three of the 10 astir fashionable TV shows connected Netflix as of Monday were South Korean.

“When we made ‘Mr. Sunshine,’Crash Landing connected You’ and ‘Sweet Home,’ we didn’t person a planetary absorption successful mind,” said Mr. Jang, who worked arsenic co-producer oregon co-director connected each 3 deed Korean Netflix shows. “We conscionable tried to marque them arsenic absorbing and meaningful arsenic possible. It’s the satellite that has started knowing and identifying with the affectional experiences we person been creating each along.”



The increasing request for Korean amusement has inspired autarkic creators similar Seo Jea-won, who wrote the publication for “Bulgasal” with his wife. Mr. Seo said his procreation devoured American TV hits similar “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “Miami Vice,” learning “the basics” and experimenting with the signifier by adding Korean colors. “When over-the-top streaming services similar Netflix arrived with a gyration successful distributing TV shows, we were acceptable to compete,” helium said.

South Korea’s taste output is inactive tiny compared with cardinal exports similar semiconductors, but it has fixed the state the benignant of power that tin beryllium hard to measure. In September, the Oxford English Dictionary added 26 caller words of Korean origin, including “hallyu,” oregon Korean wave. North Korea has called the K-pop penetration a “vicious cancer.” China has suspended dozens of K-pop instrumentality accounts connected societal media for their “unhealthy” behavior.

The country’s quality to punch supra its value arsenic a taste powerhouse contrasts with Beijing’s ineffective state-led campaigns to execute the aforesaid benignant of sway. South Korean officials who person attempted to censor the country’s artists person not been precise successful. Instead, politicians person begun promoting South Korean popular culture, enacting a instrumentality to let immoderate antheral popular artists to postpone conscription. This month, officials allowed Netflix to instal a elephantine “Squid Game” statue successful Seoul’s Olympic Park.


Credit...Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

The explosive occurrence didn’t hap overnight. Long earlier “Squid Game” became the astir watched TV amusement connected Netflix oregon BTS performed astatine the United Nations, Korean TV shows similar “Winter Sonata” and bands similar Bigbang and Girls’ Generation had conquered markets successful Asia and beyond. But they were incapable to execute the planetary scope associated with the existent wave. Psy’s “Gangnam Style” was a one-hit wonder.

“We emotion to archer stories and person bully stories to tell,” said Kim Young-kyu, CEO of Studio Dragon, South Korea’s largest studio, which makes dozens of TV shows a year. “But our home marketplace is excessively small, excessively crowded. We needed to spell global.”

It wasn’t until past twelvemonth erstwhile “Parasite,” a movie highlighting the yawning spread betwixt affluent and poor, won the Oscar that planetary audiences genuinely began to wage attention, adjacent though South Korea had been producing akin enactment for years.

“The satellite conscionable didn’t cognize astir them until streaming platforms similar Netflix and YouTube helped it observe them astatine a clip erstwhile radical ticker much amusement online,” said Kang Yu-jung, a prof astatine Kangnam University, successful Seoul.


Credit...EPA, via Shutterstock

Before Netflix, a prime fig of nationalist broadcasters controlled South Korea’s tv industry. Those broadcasters person since been eclipsed by streaming platforms and autarkic studios similar Studio Dragon, which supply the financing and creator state needed to people planetary markets.

South Korean censors surface media for contented deemed convulsive oregon sexually explicit, but Netflix shows are taxable to little stringent restrictions than those broadcast connected section TV networks. Creators besides accidental that home censorship laws person forced ​them to excavation deeper into their imagination, crafting characters and plots that are overmuch much compelling than most.

Scenes often overflow with emotionally affluent interactions, oregon “sinpa.” Heroes are usually profoundly flawed, mean radical trapped successful intolerable situations, clinging to shared values specified arsenic love, household and caring for others. Directors and producers accidental they deliberately privation each of their characters to “smell similar humans.”


Credit...Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

As South Korea emerged from the vortex of war, dictatorship, democratization and accelerated economical growth, its creators developed a keen nose for what radical wanted to ticker and hear, and it often had to bash with societal change. Most nationalist blockbusters person communicative lines based connected issues that talk to communal people, specified arsenic income inequality and the despair and people struggle it has spawned.

“Squid Game” manager Hwang Dong-hyuk archetypal made a sanction for himself with “Dogani,” a 2011 movie based connected a real-life intersexual maltreatment ungraded successful a schoolhouse for the hearing-impaired. The wide choler the movie incited forced the authorities to ferret retired teachers who had records of intersexual abuse​ from schools for disabled minors​.

Although K-pop artists seldom talk astir politics, their euphony has loomed ample successful South Korea’s lively protestation culture. When students successful Ewha Womans University successful Seoul started field rallies that led to a nationwide anti-government uprising successful 2016, they sang Girls’ Generation’s “Into the New World.” The lad set g.o.d.’s “One Candle” became an unofficial anthem for the “Candlelight Revolution” that toppled President Park Geun-hye.


Credit...Netflix, via Associated Press

“One dominating diagnostic of Korean contented is its combativeness,” said Lim Myeong-mook, writer of a publication astir Korean younker culture. “It channels the people’s frustrated tendency for upward mobility, their choler and their information for wide activism.” And with galore radical present stuck astatine location trying to negociate the tremendous angst caused by the pandemic, planetary audiences whitethorn beryllium much receptive to those themes than ever before.

“Korean creators are adept astatine rapidly copying what’s absorbing from overseas and making it their ain by making it much absorbing and better,” said Lee Hark-joon, a prof of Kyungil University who co-authored “K-pop Idols.”

On the acceptable of “Bulgasal,” dozens of staffers scurried astir to get each item of the country conscionable close — the smog filling the air, the h2o drops falling connected the damp level and the “sad and pitiable​”​ look of the gunned-down man. The show’s supernatural crippled recalls American TV favorites similar “X-Files” and “Stranger Things,” yet Mr. Jang has created a uniquely Korean calamity centered connected “eopbo,” a content among Koreans that some bully and atrocious deeds impact a idiosyncratic successful the afterlife.

Based connected the caller occurrence of Korean shows abroad, Mr. Jang said helium hopes viewers volition flock to the caller series. “The takeaway is: what sells successful South Korea sells globally.”


Credit...Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
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