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The wave that never was? Mark James Russell’s Pop Goes Korea

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Mark James Russell: Pop Goes Korea
Behind the Revolution in Movies, Music and Internet Culture
Stone Bridge Press, 2008

Eighteen months ago, Mark Russell caused a minor stir at Naver and in the local Korean press by christening the hallyu the “Zombie Wave”. At the time, industry watchers were concerned that the momentum behind the overseas success of some of Korea’s TV dramas and movie seemed to be waning. Was the Korean wave dying? Russell’s argument was that there never was a Korean wave in the first place, so it couldn’t really be said to be dying.

Russell is unrepentant. In the wrap-up chapter to his fascinating book Pop Goes Korea he repeats his thesis. “There never was a Korean Wave. Rather, what we are seeing is globalization in its latest iteration, and Korea was the first country in Asia to fully embrace the idea.” There are some pretty prominent showbiz folks who support Russell in this. Park Jin-young, for example, wishes all the nationalism could be taken out of it, while Russell himself notes that some people will only grant him interviews if he promises not to use the word “hallyu”.

Some readers who pick up this lively-looking book and thumb through its introductory pages and list of contents, might possibly suffer a small amount of disappointment akin to the reaction felt by those whose noses were put out of joint by the “zombie wave” incident. The first colour photo you come to is of Lee Young-ae in JSA; a couple of pages earlier there’s a (disappointingly small, black and white) photo of Lee Hyori’s navel. The book is liberally peppered with images of icons of Korean pop culture, both familiar and unfamiliar. The friendly font size, page layout and sidebars … all of the visual elements of this volume’s presentation would make a casual browser think that this is a fan-book.

It is not, but fans should nevertheless read it.

The book’s subtitle – Behind the Revolution in Movies, Music and Internet Culture – really holds the key to what this book is about. Those who are expecting a series of gushing appreciations of Lee Young-ae’s fragrant beauty or of H.O.T’s athletic dancing skills should nevertheless persevere, because they will be treated to a lively description of the industry and infrastructure which makes the creation and enjoyment of these stars possible. Successive chapters feature

  • the story of how the big corporations such as CJ Entertainment moved into film production and multiplex-building, making possible such box office hits as JSA – though success in film creation of course is not guaranteed, as evidenced by CJ’s first foray into production, Inshalla.
  • the economic dynamics of producing a blockbuster, focusing on Kang Je-gyu’s hugely expensive creations
  • the story of the Pusan International Film Festival, at ten years old now probably Asia’s most important film festival
  • an examination of the TV drama industry, partly followed through the career of heart-throb Lee Byung-hun
  • the story of how Lee Soo-man set up SM Entertainment, creators of BoA, Shinhwa and other massive stars
  • how internet file-sharing sites and services such as Soribada impacted the music industry
  • the manhwa culture.

Along the way, the reader will pick up all sorts of fascinating facts about Korea’s recent cultural history, from early rock stars entertaining the G.I.s to the latest manhwa artists which have caught on in the States and elsewhere. And, for when you want a brief diversion from the narrative, there’s a list of the top box-office record-setters, the most popular TV dramas, and a more subjective collection of box office turkeys. For those who really want to think laterally, you can try to figure out what some of the other tiny features are doing in the book – such as brief side-boxes on space kimchi and clone-faker Hwang Woo-suk.

The book presents a picture of individual hard work, luck, energy and no small amount of chaos – a cocktail which will be familiar to all who love Korea. In focusing on the individual characters, companies and stories which represent the Korean entertainment industry – and its success in some overseas (particularly other Asian) countries – we realise that to talk of a “wave” is misleading. Russell in fact argues that the most creative period for some elements of Korean popular culture was in the mid-90s or even earlier, not the post-Shiri era.

Those readers who focus on the glamour of the Korean entertainment industry – who look from the outside at the stars featured in the various celebrity blogs – might initially raise an eyebrow at a brief comment which Russell makes in his introduction: “This distinction [particularly evident in the Jeoseon dynasty] between the high arts and the baseness of entertainment also lingers into the present and is being transformed only through the many trials and tribulations of some very dedicated artists and businessmen”. But Russell explains the hard work, for example, undertaken by Rain in his long apprenticeship before he hit the big time; or the long contracts which bind TV actors to a particular station. We see in Rain’s breakaway from JYP an assertion of the artist’s individuality and independence while also an example of the riskiness of a company’s investment in its stars.

Russell helpfully analyses some of the things which need to change in the industry, highlighting in particular the lack of historical connection: the focus on today’s hits, today’s films. Anyone who has tried to explore the back catalogue of Korea’s movie industry, or listen to any albums issued more than five years ago, will heartily share this frustration at a seemingly throw-away attitude to the past which denies consumers outside of their teenage years access to interesting content – and which more importantly denies the industry an annuity stream of revenues. We can possibly see, in the work of the Korean Film Archive, and in the more recent (very occasional) reissue of the material of rock bands from the 1980s and 90s, a tiny change in this attitude which might bode well for the future.

Yes, this book might not be what fans are expecting, but there’s plenty of stimulating entertainment here for pop culture consumers as well as those who make a living in the industry, and cultural studies academics studying a phenomenon which might never have existed. It’s a book which you will want to read a second time.

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