What a difference a region makes

East Asian popular culture currents and counter-currents, Birkbeck College, 17/18 March 2006

Thanks to Chris Berry (Goldsmiths) and Nicola Liscutin (Birkbeck) for putting together a stimulating day and a half symposium discussing regional popular culture in East Asia.

Presentations mainly covered the creative industries in Japan, Korea and Taiwan. The focus on Taiwan was puzzling, given that by the speakers’ own admission the Taiwanese domestic film industry is virtually dead — accounting for under 1% of local box office except in “freak” years distorted by the success of one-off films such as Crouching Tiger. Maybe a future symposium could include the creative industries of Hong Kong and mainland China in its scope.

Sessions on Japan included a comparison of the cross-cultural experiences of the US / Japanese production teams filming Shogun (1980) and Lost in Translation (2003) (Yoshi Tezuka, Goldsmiths); and an interesting study of the representation of Hong Kong & China in recent Japanese TV soaps (Griseldis Kirsch, Trier). The latter talk suggested that Japan saw itself as a “Western” country which had lost its values in the process of modernisation, while China could be seen as a repository of “Asianness” which Japan needs to rediscover.

Given the remit of this site, I’ll say no more on the non-Korean talks. The Korean talks included

  • A discussion (SooJeong Ahn, Nottingham) of the connections between the PIFF programmers and the local film industry in the selection of the opening & closing films of the festival. It was noted that Peppermint Candy was the first Korean film to open the PIFF. What was not discussed in enough depth is how selections in subsequent years failed to come up with a film which met with such critical acclaim.
  • An intimate and moving study (Ae-Ri Yoon, Goldsmiths) of the Korean animation industry, where the animators work in sweatshop conditions, paid by the page (rather than the hour) regardless of the complexity of the artwork, to do the most boring “in-between” frames — the frames which give the images life in between the more significant movements of the characters. The industry is primarily an outsourcing service, doing the dirty work for the US and Japanese animation industry. It was noted that even if it meant doing pretty similar work, the animators would much rather work for Korean rather than foreign employers; but there was no suggestion that Korea had a creative force to rival Miyazaki.
  • A talk of two halves (Yoshitaka Mori, Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Culture)
    1. about the reception of Winter Sonata in Japan, and through interviews with fans (mainly middle-aged women) an examination of how their views on Korea had changed as a result (Mori noted how some fans, not necessarily techno-savvy, had taken up internet surfing to develop their fandom; held tea meetings with local Koreans, and even tried learning the language); and
    2. about recent trends in cross-border popular music flows between Korea and Japan. The speaker was less interested in the very commercial music of X Japan, Mika Nakashima, Park Yongha, BoA and Rain, seeing the indie music scene as more worthy of study. He noted the split personality of Cho Yong-pil, a popster in Korea but a melancholy enka / ballad singer in Japan. He also traced trends in post-bubble music in Japan (the international-influenced Shibuya Kei music of Pizzicato Five, Yashuhiro Konishi, Flipper’s Guitar, Kenji Ozawa and Tei Towa) and how these trends were mirrored in Korean bands such as Roller Coaster, Clazziquai and Oldfish.
  • An all too brief examination of Japan and the colonial legacy in Korean film by Mark Morris (Cambridge). Films examined were Hurrah for Freedom (1946) and President’s Last Bang (2005). Blue Swallow (2006) would also have been relevant, but was so new that no-one was able to discuss it in depth. Morris noted that anti Park Chung-hee demonstrators used his Japanese name from the colonial past (Takagi Masao) as part of their rhetoric. He also noted that objections from Park’s supporters resulted in documentary footage at the beginning and end of the film (President’s Last Bang) being cut — on the grounds that the audience would be confused between fiction and reality — and commented that the two minutes of blank screen which replaced the footage was just as eloquent, if not more so.
  • A barnstorming performance by Rowan Pease (SOAS) discussing the Chinese “Hahanyizu” (the “crazed for Korea” tribe). She illustrated her talk with entertaining extracts from web forum postings by Chinese teenage girls. Interesting facts are that the most popular K-pop bands in China are by far from the most current: Clon, Shinhwa, NRG, and the now defunct H.O.T.; BoA and Rain come well down the list, though Shin Seung Hoon is popular through the My Sassy Girl soundtrack. Pease described how the Chinese K-pop fans are sometimes regarded as unpatriotic by the mainstream; while the Hahanyizu regard the Korean stars as somehow more “authentic” and “genuine” than some of the more commercial Chinese bands; and somehow less “foreign” than Japanese or Western bands. Another interesting theme was the depiction of some of these Korean stars in the web forums: manga-influenced feminised and almost homo-erotic images of male stars such as KangTa (H.O.T.) (www.KangTa.com.cn) suggested an element of fantasisation (examples here). And commenting on an interesting talk on piracy in China by Laikwan Pang (Chinese University of Hong Kong), Pease noted that without piracy there would be no Hallyu — so the money had to be made not from legal sales but by using Hallyu stars in sponsorship deals.

An interesting day and a half. What was puzzling was some of the questions from the floor. In particular there seemed to be an obsession with academic methodology and approach — an agonising as to whether the subject matter was best approached from the perspective of a cultural studies person doing regional comparisons, or an area studies person looking at popular culture. The ethnomusicologist on the panel was stumped by that one.

2 thoughts on “What a difference a region makes

  1. I started a thread at Koreanfilm.org with a link to this post. I got the following comments:

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    1) From Q:

    Philip,

    Thanks for the excellent coverage. In my opinion, THE PRESIDENT’S LAST BANG was not a good example for an in-depth discussion of Korean cinema’s take on colonial experience. (Im Sang-soo making the KCIA character shouting President Park’s Japanese name is not, in my opinion, shocking or anything to many Korean viewers. The prevalent denial among Koreans that the colonial experience only concerned some biggiewiggies in politics or big business is the real problem, which I don’t think PRESIDENT’S BANG addresses at all) Indeed BLUE SWALLOW would have been a much better example.

    This makes perfect sense… this “agonistic reflection” is currently sweeping academia in the States as well. It requires a lot of investment (both dollars and manpower) to cultivate a really good regional specialist, regardless of the discipline he or she works in. Most often, though, such a specialist tends to be locked into a particular national/nationalist tradition and lack in comparative perspective. Conversely, a cultural studies/popular culture specialist faces the danger of his or her scholarship being deemed “shallow” by those who dig deeper in one particular cultural/national territory. The obvious ideal situation is for these two groups to collaborate extensively, and build numerous networks through which they can compare data and debate findings. Which is always easier said than done. But the conference you have just described seems to be a step in the right direction. Certainly a proper understanding of Hallyu will not emerge from considering it only from (non-Korean) consumer’s or (Korean) producer’s perspective.

    A well-traveled path has no gate/A tongue has no bones

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    2) From nkw88:

    Yoon Ae-Ri’s article on K animation is interesting.
    It seems that K animation does not find any solution but remains the subcontract production.

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