A review of the Korean cultural year 2019

LKL review of the year collage 2019
Clockwise from top left: Parasite | Sita Chay of SaaWee | Son Heung-min | Hey String at the Purcell Room | Kim Doo-soo at Cafe OTO | BTS at Wembley | Work by Hyon Gyon at Parasol Unit | Bongsu Park and Jinyeob Cha at the Coronet Theatre

A review of some of the highlights and trends in the Korean cultural year, primarily in London but also with half an eye to anything we might have seen elsewhere in the UK. The review is a personal one, inevitably skewed towards the events we managed to get to.

Introduction

This time last year I started speculating whether London was reaching peak K-pop. Well, there’s absolutely no sign of that happening. From BTS’s two nights in Wembley Stadium to the countless of other bands with gigs in London and Manchester (Blackpink thus kept Blinks in the northwest happy), there is no let-up in the concert calendar, and there’s several scheduled for 2020 already.

There continues to be a thriving culture of K-pop dance cover groups, supporting at least two competitions plus various showcases – for example, at the Independence Day celebrations in New Malden it was impossible to get into the venue because of the crowds of K-pop fans supporting their dance heroes.

Interest in things Korean extend beyond K-pop. At the KCC, the Korean Literature Nights are regularly over-subscribed; there are two new stores selling beauty products – the independent store Sokollab and the Korean chain Nature Republic; and food stores seem to be getting bigger and better – I only recently noticed the new Oseyo store in Charing Cross Road that opened earlier this year. So, no signs of any immediate change in direction.

Against this backdrop, what have the cultural highs been this year? Read on for our personal selection. We divide the discussion into Theatre and Dance | Live music | Film | Exhibitions | Special events.

Theatre and Dance

2019 Performance collage
Clockwise from top left: Kim Bora performs A Long Talk to Oneself | Modern Table perform Sokdo | Choi Min-sun and Kang Jin-an perform Complement | Cho Hee-bong narrates Crossroads of Youth | Art Project BORA perform Somoo | Zadie Xa in Child of Magohalmi and the Echos of Creation | Manipulator Yu Ho-jin | Sung Im Her’s Nutcrusher

First, in the area of performing arts such as theatre and dance there has been so much to enjoy that it’s hard to separate out the contenders. The Edinburgh Fringe continues to attract high quality acts; the Festival of Korean Dance at the Place goes from strength to strength, and there’s plenty of performances to enjoy outside of these festivals.

As a complete entertainment experience, the performance of byeonsa Cho Hee-bong at the staging / screening of Crossroads of Youth at the BFI, as part of the celebration of 100 years of Korean cinema, took some beating (review here). Meanwhile the imaginative performance by Zadie Xa in Walthamstow Library as part of Art Night provided plenty to stimulate the senses. And I’m sorry I didn’t have time to make it down to Bath to see a month-long run of Hansol Jung’s Wild Goose Dreams, at Theatre Royal, as that was getting good write-ups.

The performances that almost made it onto the winners’ rostrum included:

And the winners, in reverse order, were:

3=: Modeun Company: Goliath in the Water, at the Edinburgh Fringe

Goliath in the Water
Goliath in the Water (photo courtesy Modeun Company)

A compelling dance adaptation of Kim Aeran’s short story (reviewed here).

3=: Cho-in Theatre: Spray, at the Edinburgh Fringe

Spray
Spray (photo courtesy Cho-in Theatre)

A slick and visually pleasing stage adaptation of Kim Kyung-uk’s short story (reviewed here)

2: The triple bill comprising Choi X Kang Project, Goblin Party and Noname Sosu that rounded off the Festival of Korean Dance

Choi Young Hyun aka Noname Sosu performs Silentium (photo: Tae-min Cho)
Choi Young Hyun aka Noname Sosu performs Silentium (photo: Tae-min Cho)

A triple bill of contrasts, with the mysterious Noname Sosu (pictured) sandwiched between the fun Goblin Party and the mindbendingly clever Choi X Kang project (review here).

1: Dream Ritual at the Coronet Theatre (with Bongsu Park, Jinyeob Cha and haihm)

Dream Ritual photo: Quan Van Truong
Jinyeob Cha in Dream Ritual. photo: Quan Van Truong

Part of Bongsu Park’s exploration of the multi-faceted world of dreams, this performance featured choreographer and dancer Jinyeob Cha and sound artist haihm in a collaboration that we found so absorbing we went to see it three times. Review here.

Live music

BTS at Wembley
Photo credit: Munhwa Ilbo

Undoubtedly the event of the year for K-pop followers of all ages was BTS’s two-nighter at Wembley Stadium, emphasising the group’s dominance of the world of commercial music (review here). Blackpink at Wembley Arena was another big event, but we also had visits from the Boyz, The Rose, ATEEZ, Dreamcatcher, VAV, Jay Park, GOT7, Monsta X, NCT127, Day6 and more. Personally, I didn’t manage to get to any pop, rock or indie concerts this year, and so I’m glad Shannen Hadaway agreed to cover both BTS and ATEEZ for the site. I did buy a ticket for the more affordable, almost veteran, hip-hop band Epik High, but in the event my day job got in the way; and I had diary clashes for the indie acts I most wanted to see: Gonne Choi for K-music and Say Sue Me on their UK tour.

The performances I did manage to get to tended to be jazz, classical, folk, improvisation, world or contemporary gugak. In these categories the performance I was most sorry to miss was Black String, rounding off the K-music festival with tracks from their latest album, Karma, though I also regret not seeing Hyelim Kim’s improvisations with the Australian Art Orchestra at the Vortex and with Merit Ariane at LSO St Lukes.

Korean Gipsy Sangjaru
Korean Gipsy Sangjaru – the musical highlight of the Edinburgh Fringe (photo courtesy Korean Gipsy Sangjaru)

Without seeing Black String and Gonne Choi, both of whom I suspect were rather good, it’s hard to come to a balanced assessment of the K-music festival this year. Jambinai’s excellent performance was both blinding and deafening, which has brought me to the sad conclusion that I won’t go to see them live again; Park Jiha was possibly let down by the venue, but also maybe she’s happier with other live musicians on stage with her; and SB Circle lacked the improvisatory feel that you expect from live jazz. Despite all this there has been so much live music enjoy that it is hard to pick a winner.

The performances which almost made it were:

And the favourites, in reverse order, were:

3: Hey String at the Purcell Room, for the K-music Festival

Hey String at the Purcell Room
Hey String at the Purcell Room (Photo courtesy KCCUK)

This trio is a great discovery. We hope to see them stepping up from support to headline act for their next gig (review here)

2: Kim Doo Soo at Cafe OTO

Kim Doo Soo with Kim SoonOak at Cafe OTO, 14 October 2019
Kim Doo Soo with Kim SoonOak at Cafe OTO, 14 October 2019 (photo: LKL)

I didn’t know quite what to expect from this gig, but when a veteran musician from the 80’s makes an appearance you’ve got to turn up. And wow! – I can still remember the feeling of complete peace that I felt at the end of the evening. (review here)

1: SaaWee’s New Ritual, at Albany Red Room

SaaWee (photo 앤서방)
Photo: 앤서방

Percussionist and performer Jihye Kim has had a great year: everything she’s done has made for compelling listening, from her jazz session with Byron Wallen (review here) to her Art Night collaboration with Zadie Xa. But the most thrilling of all was her work with violinist Sita Chay at Albany Red Room in Deptford: well worth searching out for an astounding musical journey (review here).

Films

This we celebrated the 100th anniversary of Korean film. A season was held at the BFI that explored the recently rediscovered prints of films from the colonial period, and the London Korean Film Festival looked at major films from the postwar era. Outside of the festivals and the anniversary celebration, the KCC continued its collaboration with outside bodies to curate the free film nights. For me, one of the most rewarding of these events was the selection of shorts curated by a team from Birkbeck as part of the Love without Boundaries season.

This is the time of year when people list their top 10 or so films of the year. In fact, I think I’ve seen one site listing their top 30 Korean films of the year. I’d struggle to name ten recent films I’ve seen in the last 12 months; but I take comfort from the sage comment from a respected critic that (provided I add Cha Sung-duk’s Youngju) I’ve seen the best ones. And of the ones I’ve seen, the top three are:

3: House of Hummingbird (Kim Bora, 2018)

House of Hummingbird

Set in 1994, the movie is a subtle portrayal of a young girl in middle school trying to make her way her way in the world. Great performances from Park Ji-hoo and Kim Sae-byuk pictured above (review here).

2: Kokdu – a story of guardian angels (Kim Tae-yong, 2018)

Kokdu

An absolute feast for the eyes and ears, with a simple but moving storyline in which a family drama in Jindo is interwoven with a traditional music performance in Seoul (review here).

1: Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, 2019)

Parasite poster

As with Burning, I’m still digesting Parasite so haven’t reviewed it yet. But it’s great to see Bong Joon-ho returning to form after Okja, with a movie that’s full of great story-telling, twists and turns, social conscience and memorable visuals. And it was nice to see Bong Joon-ho and Song Kang-ho in town to promote the film earlier this month.

Exhibitions

Kimsooja: A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is a Souvenir (2014)
Kimsooja: A Needle Woman: Galaxy was a Memory, Earth is a Souvenir (2014) (photo: LKL)

It has been a busy year for exhibitions. Outside of London, Kimsooja was centre stage at the Yorkshire Scultpure Park (review here), while in London we’ve had Haegue Yang and Geumhyung Jeong earlier in the year and now Nam June Paik at Tate Modern.

Shin Meekyoung: Weather
Shin Meekyoung: Weather. Installation view courtesy Barakat Gallery

It was good to see two well-established UK-based artists have an opportunity to show their latest work: Meekyoung Shin at Barakat Gallery (review here) and Bae Chan-hyo at Purdy Hicks, while in Luton we enjoyed Yva Jung’s Monday Morning.

Mari Kim at the PV of Immortal Beloved
Mari Kim at the PV of Immortal Beloved (Image courtesy Pontone Gallery)

Art Night showcased two Korean artists – Zadie Xa and Christine Sun Kim – while at the more accessible end of the spectrum the most fun we had this year was Mari Kim’s solo show at Pontone Gallery (review here).

Of the regular exhibitions and art fairs it was good to see that 4482 now seems to be back on a sure foundation, extending their presence beyond the brief exhibition at Bargehouse by presenting a series of talks by the artists throughout the year. Collect continues to draw a fantastic assortment of Korean crafts to the Saatchi Gallery (it was good to see the City of Icheon return with their collection of ceramicists) but I understand that sadly 2019 is the last year we shall be see the Korean Craft and Design Foundation bring their wonderful selection to the fair (review here).

With that preamble, here are LKL’s favourites of the year:

3=: Minhwa – The Beauty of Korean Folk Paintings at the KCC

An Event in the Snow by Kim Hyekyung
An Event in the Snow by Kim Hyekyung (detail)

Sometimes exhibitions at the KCC can require so much brainwork to penetrate that it’s nice when they put on a show that you can simply enjoy. This one was gorgeous. (review here)

3=: Najeon & Ottchil at Asia House

Kwon Yeon-jin and Kwon Mi-jeong: With the Moon and Stars
Kwon Yeon-jin and Kwon Mi-jeong: With the Moon and Stars (photo: LKL)

A simply stunning collection of lacquerware and mother-of-pearl, assembled by the Korean embassy to mark 70 years of UK – ROK diplomatic relations. Review here.

2: Circulation Metaphor at the KCC

Jeong Jeongju: Soswaewon (2018)
Jeong Jeongju: Soswaewon (2018). Video installation, scale model in blue celadon technique, video cameras, projectors, 360 x 240 x 140cm (photo: LKL)

This well-curated exhibition of artists from the Gwangju and Jeollanamdo region managed to be both aesthetically pleasing and intellectually challenging. Review here.

1: Hyon Gyon’s solo show at Parasol Unit

Hyon Gyon: Nobody cares about your misery (2018)
Hyon Gyon: Nobody cares about your misery (2018). Wooden sculpture and mixed media, 196 x 180 cm (photo: LKL)

Another exhibition I haven’t got around to reviewing yet, but this one stood out as one that provoked. It was impossible not to react to this angry, disturbing work.

Festivals and special events

The Move - Red Umbrella at Kingston Korean Harvest Festival 2019
The Move perform Red Umbrella at the Kingston Korean Harvest Festival in September (photo: LKL)

This year the KCCUK focused on the last two letters of its acronym by assisting with Korean festivals in Kent, Cardiff, Preston and Sheffield (and of course by taking screenings from the film festival as far as Belfast, Glasgow and Edinburgh, as well as other parts of England). The Cardiff festival was the first such event to be held in Wales, and featured among other treats the Welsh National K-pop competition.

Yiyun Kang projection, Canterbury
A still image from Yiyun Kang’s video projection outside the Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury on 4 October (photo: LKL)

Meanwhile within the Korean community located to the southwest of London, Justina Jang’s Korean British Cultural Exchange organised a number of special events, from an enterprising collaboration between Kingston’s School of Art, the Royal School of Needlework and the Korean Hanbok Advancement Centre (review here) via the annual Kingston Korean Harvest Fest (review here) to the Heritage Lottery funded project whose most visible manifestation was the Kimjang Festival in New Malden in November.

Kimjang Festival
VIPs including Ambassadors Uden and Park get a kimchi-making lesson at the Kimjang Festival on 23 November (photo: KBCE)

For me, the highlights of these various events were the video projections by Yiyun Kang in Canterbury and at the National Foundation Day celebrations (review here) and the open air street performances by The Move in Kingston (review here) that were repeated at the Scoop near Tower Bridge as part of Totally Thames.

Personality of the year

You just don’t think of him in the same category as footballing bad boy Vinnie Jones, but Son Heung-min shares with him the dubious honour of being red-carded three times in a calendar year. To be fair, the second red card was overturned on appeal, and Spurs boss Jose Mourinho attributed the third sending-off to some over-acting by Chelsea’s Antonio Rüdiger, while the red card against Bournemouth, his first, was said to be “provoked” and was also (unsuccessfully) appealed. But Sonny comes across as an all-round nice guy and scored one of the best solo effort goals you’re ever likely to see. He also scored Spurs’s first goal in their new stadium, and was awarded AFC Asian International Player of the Year for a record third time. So we resurrected the London Korean Personality of the Year award just for him. Nice one, Son.

Son Heung-min
Photo credit Spurs TV

Thanks as always to all the event organisers and sponsors.

LKL’s listing of all events in 2019 can be found here.

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