Think Korea 2006: a review of the year

Clock2006 was a great year for Korean culture in London. I can’t rank it against previous years because this was the first time I’ve taken it upon myself actively to follow as many Korean-related events as I can, but for the wide range of things on show I think it must be one of the best years ever.

Part of the reason for this must be the existence of the Think Korea 2006 programme, part of the “Korea-UK Mutual Visit Year”. But there are events of a Korean nature which take place independently of specific initiatives.

Jonathan Ross's Asian InvasionFor example, interest in Korean film is gaining its own momentum in the UK, with the result that it’s not only Tartan that’s releasing DVDs and making theatrical releases. And the BBC’s Jonathan Ross (right), though still caught up in his love affair with Japan, has now started to notice Korean film, ever since Oldboy grabbed him. His programme on Korean film, as part of a set of three (the others featuring Japan and Hong Kong) was a good introduction, though inevitably you end up wishing he could have covered things in a bit more depth.

Then there’s the wealth of talks which are available free or for ridiculously small amounts of money. A few quid for a day and a half of papers on Asian popular culture at Birkbeck was certainly a bargain; but Keith Howard’s half day on Korean traditional music at SOAS was absolutely free; and then there’s all the talks at Chatham House (free again) and Asia House (very cheap).

Finally, of course, there are the one-off events which take a lot of organisation in terms of getting people, artworks, film prints, all into one place at one time, and which inevitably cost more money to put on. And it’s here I think we’ve been particularly lucky this year.

I’d like to highlight some of the good things about this year’as well as some thing which could be better.

Jump at the Peacock Theatre - the castFirstly, the overall impression of the year, summed up by Beth McKillop at the Asia House discussion on the Through the Looking Glass exhibition, is that Korea is anything but the Land of Morning Calm. We’ve had a vibrant variety of cultural treats, from the vigorously physical humour of Ye-gam Inc’s Jump (left), through to contemporary music via modern art and the latest in film.

We’ve also had some events of outstanding quality. The two Shakespearean adaptations at the Barbican stand out, but the stimulating events at Asia House have also been very rewarding. Tomorrow I’ll be announcing my event of the year.

And we’ve been lucky with the sheer quantity of events as well.

So having been appreciative of everything that has been laid on for us, I hope I can be permitted to point out some things which could be better.

Firstly publicity.

The Think Korea organisation itself seemed to be late in starting. The “official launch”, which I think was the performance at Asia House on 23 February, came way before the launch of the official Think Korea website. The result was that people had heard about this thing called Think Korea long before there was any hard information on it. I know. People were googling “Think Korea” and were coming up with my site because there wasn’t an official website.

Princess Aurora - one of the highlights of the London Korean Film Festival 2006Some teething problems in getting an organisation and a website together are understandable. What must not happen is for the organisation (and this goes for the future Cultural Centre too) to fall prey to what seems to be a particularly Korean tendency, which is not to tell people about things until every last detail is tied down, which is often at the very last minute. And then expect everyone to drop what they’re doing to come along to the event. I had cause to have a rant about the organisation of the May 2006 London Korean Film Festival (right). The dates of the festival were known in March or even earlier, but no official website was up and running until about two weeks before the festival. Totally ridiculous. Fortunately Tae-min had told me and Jase about it, so that at least people knew it was happening through my events listing together with posts at koreanfilm.org.uk and koreanfilm.org. But again, a google search should have been highlighting the official site first, and only listing the bloggers later.

The second Korean film festival of the year was a total surprise, with only one week’s notice. This just can’t be allowed to happen again. The message is: tell people things are happening at least a month in advance (isn’t 6 weeks the right etiquette for a wedding invitation?), preferably two or three months. You don’t have to know every detail. We just need to know that if we want to see the latest Korean films then we should try to arrange to be in London that particular week. Official websites help in the dissemination of information, but bear in mind that they might not be visited all that often — and then usually in response to people actively looking for information. More informal networks need to be used to spread the news by word of mouth or on unofficial websites. “Leaks” of future events to people like Jase, the Anglo-Korean Society (who themselves need to enter the twenty-first century with a website), the British Association for Korean Studies, the SOAS Centre for Korean Studies, and of course this site. We all have our mailing lists or network of contacts who can disseminate the information. And maybe the new Cultural Centre should think about a monthly or quarterly email newsletter to talk about upcoming projects.

One problem this year has been the lack of co-ordination between the various organisations promoting Korean culture in the UK. A couple of clashes highlighted the lack of co-ordination between the various bodies:

  • The Asia House ceramics talk being completely disconnected from CNE’s Traditional Yet Contemporary ceramics show, despite being within one week of each other
  • KPAUK’s Dano / Korean Breeze arriving at the Bloomsbury Theatre slap bang in the middle of CNE’s Film festival
  • An embassy-sponsored talk on the future of North / South relations colliding with an appreciation of Hwang Byung-ki. Both events at SOAS.

I have for a while thought that there needs to be an organisation which pulls everything together. I therefore look forward to the establishment of the Cultural Centre in 2007.

Education

Rite of Spring at Bloomsbury

Not everyone who comes to a Korean event will necessarily be familiar with Korean culture. Even those who might think they’re reasonably familiar with certain aspects are going to need a little help sometimes. So it’s important, if there are going to be westerners at the events (and one hopes that part of the purpose of putting these events on is to share Korean culture with non-Koreans), to have some reasonable programme notes.

Korean events this year have had varied success at this. The event at the Fairfield Hall on Mayday was very poor in terms of helping the foreigner understand what was going on. The programme details presupposed some knowledge of Lee Soo-young and more traditional Korean folk / popular music. Fortunately I had briefed myself on the former, but apart from being able to appreciate the atmosphere of Kim Young-im’s performance with the RPO I think the foreigners felt rather excluded. The Rite of Spring at the Bloomsbury (above) was also a bit impenetrable. Much better were the printed materials at the Barbican and the Peacock. And the education programmes put on by Asia House around some of this year’s events have been exemplary.

Pricing

Queue for tickets

Having lots of free events is all very pleasing. But there comes a time when demand outstrips supply and then people aren’t pleased any more. The two film festivals this year have both been free, causing large queues (particularly at the Prince Charles cinema) and creating lots of disappointed people. Yes, as a result of the pricing people have come to see films they wouldn’t otherwise have come to. That’s got to be a good thing. But there are other people who have lost out.

I know that pricing is a sensitive issue: when sponsors are giving lots of money to support a festival they don’t want to see the organisers “making money” out of it. I assume the thinking is that the corporate generosity will be less recognised by the public if tickets have to be paid for. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I think we should experiment with paid-for, pre-booked tickets, with maybe some free “promenade” tickets held back for last-minute queuers.

Think Korea logoI hope my comments above will be taken in the right spirit by the organisers of the various events. I hope it’s clear that I’m making the observations in order to make 2007 an even better year. Feel free to leave your own observations below. Many thanks are due to the organisers for their efforts and to the sponsors for their generosity.

And my hopes for 2007? You’ll have to wait for my 2 January post.

3 thoughts on “Think Korea 2006: a review of the year

  1. “The second Korean film festival of the year was a total surprise, with only one week�s notice. This just can�t be allowed to happen again.”

    As you said 1 week isn’t enough time to prepare and as a result i couldn’t attend which i was very disappointed about!.

    This is the first time hearing of a Korean Cultural Centre and to be honest i was unaware of Cultural Centres existing for any nation as a result of finding this information i did a google search and came across (First Result) the London Chinese Cultural Centre i dont know if you have info regarding the Korean Cultural Centre but will it be similar to the Chinese Cultural Centre and hold film screenings?

  2. Hi Raku
    Watch this space for the Korean Cultural Centre. It will launch officially in the first half of 2007, and I hope to find out more about its plans very soon.
    In December I paid a visit to the Korean Cultural Centre in New York (have a look back at my mid-December post). I hope the London Centre will have film screenings. It’s certainly something I’ve put on my wishlist.
    Philip

  3. My opinion on the Korean event at the V&A was that it was extremely well organised. There was something for everyone, from the Dulsori drumming to an art exhibition, and an opera performace. One point that comes to mind is that most of the non-Koreans attending the event ‘happened’ to be at the V&A on that day, rather than coming to the V&A specifically for Korean Day. The event appeared on the V&A events calendar but I felt more publicity was needed. The ‘Oh Youran!’ opera was posted on a ‘free events in London’ website, perhaps the reason why it was so well attended. I would say Korean Day was about 50/50 demographically, and fairly well attended, although impossible to say as most just happened to be at the V&A on the day.

    One thing, although funny at first was slightly annoying……a visitor entered the John Madejski garden where Dulsori were preparing for their performance. She asked a V&A guard what was happening that day. He replied ‘some kind of Chinese festival’. Some education is needed here.

    The ‘Oh Youran!’ opera was well attended. And although it was excellent, it was let down by a few small details. There were problems to begin with as people had to collect a ticket from the foyer, but there was confusion as to where they could be collected. The main V&A staff did not seem to know anything about it. There was a desk at the back with ‘Korean day’ leaflets but this was not clearly signposted. A young lady in hanbok was at the entrance of the V&A greeting visitors and then finally I saw someone handing out tickets for the performance.

    I felt the length of ‘Oh Youran!’ (the show was delayed by 30 mins with people waiting outside the hall, and the actual production lasted nearly 2 hours) was a little too long. Although it was a real treat for us Korean fanatics, my feeling was that most of the non-Korean audience (particularly because of problems with subtitles) did not really follow the story. At the beginining, they seemed entranced at the beautiful and colourful hanboks and ‘unusual looking’ instruments. But many people did not realise the performance was going to be so long, and by the end some were confused as they did not truly understand the story.

    ‘Oh Youran!’ would have been an excellent choice for people already interested in Korea. But for an initial introduction to Korean culture/opera, perhaps it was a little too heavy. A light-hearted and shorter performance would be better at leaving people feeling excited about Korean culture and wanting to find out more. My thought is that such performances could be free, whilst more ‘serious’ Korean performances (such as Pansori) could be charged a small fee.

    Finally, I felt ‘Think Korea 2006’ was a success, but did not seem to reach the right audience. Most people attending the events already knew about Korean culture. I think the most important role of Korean events in the future, and the role of the new Cultural Centre, is to ‘break’ the barrier to the unknown territory of Korean culture to the general UK population. As you said a website is a useful tool for announcing information, but it is of little use if the target audience don’t even know of the event or the website.

    One reason I feel BBC are reluctant to show ‘Dae Jang Geum’ is that it is unknown territory to them. What they have told me about the length of the drama is irrelivant as ‘Heimat’ (a 60 hour long German drama series) was shown last year on BBC4. Jonathan Ross introduced Korean cinema to BBC viewers through ‘Asian Invasion’; and a couple of visitors to my blog say they started googling Korean films/dramas and came across my Campaign. ‘Lady Vengence’ was shown in UK cinemas and so some UK audiences have already seen Lee Young Ae in action.

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