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South Korean Popular Film and Television and the Global: A Critical Look at Cultural Exchange
Organizer and Chair: Robert Cagle, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
With the international critical and commercial successes of such motion pictures as Oldboy, Three-Iron, A Tale of Two Sisters, and My Wife is a Gangster, and record-setting viewership for Korean television dramas in various national markets, South Korean’s entertainment industry has established itself as one of the most important emerging markets on the planet. The surest sign of this success is the rapidly growing number of South Korean features slated to be remade by American production companies. This panel will examine South Korean entertainment forms (feature films, television programs) from a variety of perspectives in an attempt to situate these culturally and artistically significant works in a larger, global context. Of especial interest to participants will be the analysis of how the flow of information and influence travels back and forth between the nation that produces these popular texts and the nations that form its audiences. What types of revisions and mutations do these film and televisual works undergo in the consumption process? And how do these changes affect their reception and ultimately, their use by audiences world wide? What are the cultural consequences of adapting or remaking films? Do these extend beyond the boundaries of the aesthetic and economic? And if so, how do we measure the significance of such phenomena in cultural terms?
Laughter, Tears, and Rage: Melodrama and Social Critique
Robert Cagle, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
In 1999, just two years after the crippling economic collapse of 1997, the Korean entertainment industry achieved what must have seemed, up to that point, an impossible goal: It produced a feature film (Shiri) that out-grossed even US blockbuster Titanic at the box office. Over the next few years the Korean film industry continued to score both critical and commercial successes with such films as Friend, JSA, My Wife is a Gangster, Il Mare, Failan, and My Sassy Girl. Particularly interesting about these films is that although they collectively represent a variety of different genres (comedy, action, romance, drama) all contain a significant amount of material that can only be classified as "melodramatic." Indeed, many (most?) of the Korean films to garner international acclaim have been melodramas. The popularity of this particular genre (and its television counterpart) may be due to the fact that, as scholars have pointed out, the melodrama is a genre that has historically been linked to periods of socio-economic and cultural change (e.g., post-war America, 1970s Germany) given its ability to translate the political, the public, into the terms of the private, the domestic. In this presentation I will examine key Korean feature films and television dramas side-by-side with parallel American texts to arrive at a comparative study of the uses of melodrama and "the melodramatic" as a transnational mode of social critique.
From History to Fiction: A Case Study of Korean TV Serial Drama Today
Chan E. Park, Ohio State University
In the era of global production and distribution of popular culture and in the midst of the recent "Korean wind" (hallyu), the world has discovered the quality and the appeal of Korean films and TV drama series reaches an audience far larger than only Koreans. How does a success of such magnitude happening outside the hegemonic epicenters of global popular culture inspire nations with similar aspirations? Can the "Korean wind" phenomenon help mainstream academia recognize that cultural convergence and divergence is never a one-way flow from center to margin, but always two-way traffic?
The current "Korean wind," insofar as it is wind, should be susceptible to climactic changes, and explaining away the global impact of Korean film and TV drama solely in the context of shifty trend may be a poetic injustice to the Korean popular literary and dramatic tradition these works are heirs of. From the perspective of Korean diaspora and cross-disciplinarity, this paper presents a thematic and aesthetic analysis of two TV serial dramas circulated in 2005 to both domestic and international acclaim: T'oji (The Land), a roman fleuve of the multi-generational lives and struggles of the people of the village of P'yongsari during the time of Japanese Annexation, and Haeshin (The Sea Spirit), fictional dramatization garnished with contemporary flair of the rise and the fall of the historical Chang Pogo, legendary sea merchant and chivalrous rebel of Unified Shilla.
The Cultural Infiltration: The Fandom of Korean Cinema in the United States
Kwang Woo Noh, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
Studies of cultural imperialism have traditionally focused on the influence of Western popular culture in non-Western areas. As a result, they often overlook the appropriation of non-Western popular culture by Western societies, except for instances involving immigrant community cultures. In the era of globalization we are now seeing the enthusiastic reception of non-Western popular culture in Western areas. Some Asian cinema, Japanese animation, and television programs have been met with great enthusiasm by US-based audiences. This phenomenon demands a new approach to research—one sensitive to the means by which this ‘cultural infiltration’ of non-Western images upon Western audiences.
Using a system of in-depth interviewing, I have attempted to map out patterns of reception of Korean films in the US, and the demographics of the audience for these films in US art house/international film theaters. Because Hollywood corporations dominate the distribution branch of the industry, small size art theaters have come to function as the only window for US audiences to see foreign films and cultures. Unfortunately the number of art theaters has decreased since 1970s—a trend that is related to the stagnation of American Independent films and European films. The increase of audience of Asian films fills the vacancy that results from the maturation of art film audience of 1960s and 1970s. That is, art theaters are maintained by the alteration of generations and the culture of art cinema continues.
Spilling Over the Border: Korean Films Go Transnational
Jeongsuk Joo, State University of New York, Buffalo
Since the late 1990s, the Korean film industry has been riding waves of success, taking over 50% of its national market. Based on this success, Korean films, once virtually unknown outside its borders, are increasingly going transnational, leading to exponential growth in export sales from $3 million in 1998 to $63 million in 2004. Indeed, Korean films, along with other Korean popular culture—dubbed the "Korean Wave"—have become a key commercial component in neighboring countries. Japan has emerged as the biggest market for Korean films, a puzzling fact given that Korea’s lift of the ban on Japanese popular culture in 1998 was accompanied by the fear among Koreans of being swamped by more competitive Japanese culture. In addition, the Korean film industry has found a small but important niche in the U.S. through the sales of remake rights, selling over 12 films to Hollywood producers since 2001 when the first remake deal was signed.
While transnational cultural flows are often seen as undisrupted advances of American popular culture, the case of the Korean film industry complicates any easy mapping of cultural power in the context of globalization. Given the concern that Korean films are imitation of Hollywood titles, the success of the Korean film industry cannot be uncritically celebrated. But it does signal changes such as decentering cultural production and multidirectional cultural flows. What is required in this context is a view which acknowledges these changes, while continuously attending to the question of power.