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A review of the Korean cultural year 2020

Sights and sounds of 2020.
Sights and sounds of 2020. Clockwise from top left: BTS | Sinnoi (for K-music Festival) | Joonhong Min’s The Debris from the Future Past (2020) | Hong Sangsoo’s The Woman Who Ran | The participants in the Kingston BTS conference | K-pop choreographer Bae Yoon-jung (for Festival of Korean Dance) | Ambiguous Dance Company performing Leenalchi’s music in a tourism video | Lee Young-hee’s contemporary hanbok in Paris | Centre image: zoom calls featuring choreographer Ahn Eun-me (for Umbrella Dance Festival), Yun Ko-eun (for KCC literature night), Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton (for SOAS) and an improvised art / music event for Resonances while assembling some Korean ingredients for lunch…

It would be an understatement to say that the cultural year 2020 has been markedly different from previous years. The pandemic has had a huge impact on the cultural scene, with most live events cancelled and event promoters falling back on the internet to provide us with our cultural fixes. Some of these attempts have been more successful than others. Nevertheless, there have been some real-life events this year, and, as a preview to this longer-than-usual post, the new discoveries and the new memories that have sustained me through to the end of the year have been as follows:

Experiences out in the real world:

Home-bound experiences:

The write-up that follows is divided into the following sections. Click on the links to head straight there.

  1. Korean culture in the mainstream – an overview
  2. The films and film festivals of 2020
  3. Online performance
  4. Live performance
  5. Exhibitions
  6. Talks and Seminars
  7. Other online events
  8. Books: separate post

1. K-culture in the mainstream – an overview

BTS (photo – Big Hit Entertainment)

As in previous years, we note that Korean culture shows no signs yet of halting its march into the mainstream. K-pop of course leads the way, with BTS seemingly breaking new ground or new records with every release. Landmarks include being the first all-Korean pop act to top the Billboard 100 singles chart with their English-language single Dynamite (now heard every day on commercial TV thanks to an advert for the latest Samsung phone) – which also got the band the first Grammy nomination for a K-pop group and also their first UK number 1 single, and of course being crowned Time Magazine Entertainer of the Year. They also made a return visit to the UN General Assembly (two years after their first appearance), and their ongoing success enabled their management company to launch Korea’s biggest IPO in three years. Perhaps even more ambitious was their international art project, Connect BTS, launched in January in collaboration with, among others, the Serpentine Gallery in London.

Blackpink (photo – YG Entertainment)

Not to be outdone, Korea’s biggest girl group Blackpink was named the biggest pop band in the world by Bloomberg, generating more than 1 billion YouTube views in October 2020 alone; their album reached number 2 in the UK charts. Outside of the charts, the band were enlisted to promote the UK’s climate change agenda in the run-up to the 2021 Glasgow COP26 summit.

Outside of the mass audience, bands such as Leenalchi seem to be catching the imagination in some circles: they were name-checked in a BBC Radio 4 Saturday morning talk show in which for half a minute the participants were chatting about K-pop. It no doubt helped that one of the show’s presenters had been hired to do a promotional video for the K-music festival, but the prop seemed genuinely meant. Leenalchi’s success has been driven by their catchy Naver Onstage performance at the tail end of 2019 featuring their collaboration with the eccentric moves of The Ambiguous Dance Company. The Onstage video has received more than 10 million views on YouTube and its popularity has led to the Korea Tourism Organisation producing a series of promotional videos featuring the artists, entitled “Feel the Rhythm of Korea“. Leenalchi deserve to be more broadly known both for their sense of fun and for their musical sophistication. At the opposite end of the sophistication scale, Pinkfong’s Baby Shark has broken new records for YouTube views.

Leenalchi’s performance of Tiger is Coming on Naver’s Onstage show

Literature in translation continues to register on the radar. Cho Nam-joo’s Kim Jiyoung Born 1982 (LKL review here) has made it into a couple of mainstream “best of 2020” lists by Vulture and Time Magazine. The latter list also includes the translation of a book by Zainichi Korean Yu Miri (Tokyo Ueno Station) and an English novel by Korean American Frances Cha (If I Had Your Face). A steady stream of novels and short stories appear in translation, with more popular genres (thrillers and now science fiction) beginning to make headway.

In the world of sport, Son Heung-min continues to score goals and win hearts in North London, and his outstanding goal against Burnley was voted the best of the season anywhere in world. He can now be seen in a TV commercial for a major online store.

Korea’s online video streaming culture is, in its own way, making its mark, with mukbang (먹방) making its way into the dictionary as one of Collins’s words of 2020 – and down in New Malden Hanguk Hapa has recently started making her own food videos.

Source: Collins Dictionary Twitter account

Still on food, away from the south west London’s Korea town, interesting eateries and cafes have been popping up which feature Korean or Korean-influenced food and getting favourable coverage in mainstream media. At the high end, there’s the amazing Sollip near London Bridge (FT review) which joins Holland Park’s Flat 3 in serving interesting, Korean-influenced fine dining; in Exmouth Market there’s be-oom tea shop serving teas from Hadong and Boseong; in Brick Lane Vegan Yes serves interesting fusions of Italian and Korean food, while in Dalston Jay Morzaria’s Jae has brought modern Korean food with seasonal. local ingredients to the Untitled Bar (Guardian review).

Kimchi is making its way onto the high street: my local, very English, greengrocer, sells it, as does the Londis and Marks & Spencer. Not that I would want to buy it from a mainstream store: my big discovery of this year is home-delivered artisan kimchi from Korean Pantry. I’m sure there are other such services, but I always look forward to their interesting kimchi of the month as well as their regular cabbage kimchi.

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So, with that overview, what of the cultural events that we’ve been able to enjoy this year?

2. The films and film festivals of 2020

It seems ages ago that Parasite won the best picture Oscar, but yes, it was this year. Let’s not forget that another Korean film was also shortlisted for an Oscar at the same ceremony: Yi Seung-jun’s Sewol documentary In the Absence.

LEAFF opening
The LEAFF opening gala in December – just before the final lockdown

But I have to say that for me 2020 has not been a particularly standout year for Korean films. In terms of good mainstream viewing, Kim Yong-hoon’s Beasts Clawing at Straws provided the best entertainment – though maybe I’m biased because I saw it in a nice comfortable theatre, as it opened the London East Asia Film Festival in December. Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan follow-up Peninsula was OK, if a bit CGI heavy, the highlight being the performance by Lee Jeong-hyeon. Lee Hae-jun and Kim Byung-seo’s Ashfall was a hectic race against time, rogue Americans, North Koreans and Chinese gangsters, and the forces of nature, interesting for the fact that the normally pugnacious Ma Dong-seok was given a role in which he had nothing to hit apart from a computer keyboard. Making its way into the festivals was Jeon Gye-soo’s 2019 movie Vertigo – an interesting and touching film which among other things deals with a recurring theme in contemporary film and fiction: toxic office culture.

Shaman Sorceress and Vertigo
Ahn Jae-hoon’s Shaman Sorceress and Chun Woo-hee in Jeon Gye-soo’s Vertigo – highlights of Annecy and Udine respectively

When so much of our lives this year have been lived online, from almost hourly Zoom meetings at the office, via online book talks and lectures to Netflix K-drama binges, the prospect of an online film festival is not going to set my pulse racing. Yes, it was nice to have remote access to European film festivals such as Annecy and Udine (maybe even in a post pandemic world such festivals might want to think about providing some form of access to an international audience), but I’m afraid that by the time the LKFF came round I’d had my fill of online screenings. A cut-down LEAFF deferred their event to December and managed to slip in between lockdowns at superb west end venues, thus providing a brief window of enjoyment in an otherwise dismal year for screenings.

The movie I was sorry not to see this year was Kim Cho-hee’s Lucky Chansil: it was the only ticket I bought in the LKFF but I managed to miss the brief online viewing window. And then there’s Kim Do-young’s Kim Jiyoung Born 1982. Having read the book I knew I ought to watch the movie, but the only London screening clashed with a much more appealing one-night-only Korean food pop-up. So I’ll have to watch that movie (with low expectations, based on the book) on DVD.

Kim Min-hee in The Woman Who Ran
Kim Min-hee in The Woman Who Ran

So what’s my film of the year? 2020 has been a year of the unexpected. My book of the year is by an author who has previously left me completely cold. Similarly I can’t quite believe it when I say that of the somewhat limited range of Korean movies I have watched this year my favourite is by Hong Sangsoo. But yes, The Woman Who Ran is my film of the year.

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3. Online performances – the norm for 2020

If online film festivals are no substitute for the real thing, how can online performance compete with a live concert or theatrical experience? Surprisingly well, as it happens.

Still from Plicker (2017). Director Byungjun Kim, choreographer Dabin Seo

The Festival of Korean Dance, originally scheduled as a live event in early summer, moved online and reemerged in December. It opened my eyes to what is, for me, a new genre: the dance film. The collection of short films by various dancers, and also the filmed performance of Beyond Black by the National Contemporary Dance Company, enabled a viewer to engage with the choreography in a completely different way: innovative camera angles or video effects can add to the experience in a way that is impossible when you are fixed to your seat in a theatre.

The festival also contained some informative documentaries, and for the first time the world of K-pop featured in the line-up. I’m not sure whether the programmers intended it to be so, but there was an interesting dialogue between two of the documentaries. The first documentary featured K-pop choreographer Bae Yoon Jung, the inventor of KARA’s infamous “Butt Dance”. As one of the interviewees in the documentary told us, Bae was known as “Pelvis Bae” (“배 골반”) in the trade, because of her signature moves. Later in the week, the documentary on Sung Im Her featured her dance work Nutcrusher which among other things critiques the preoccupation with the female pelvic area in K-pop dance. The two other documentaries, focusing on Cha Jinyeob and Kim Bora, both featured a new activity that choreographers have had to come to grips with this year: the making of dance films to show to audiences when public performance is not possible.

Four Parks: Park Jiha, Kyungso Park, Woojae Park + Soona Park
L to R: Parks Woojae, Kyungso, Jiha and Soona, in a collaboration for K-music 2020

The Festival of Korean Dance provided an online experience that surpassed expectation, and we had a similar outcome with filmed music performances. Despite the organisers’ brave efforts the 2020 K-music festival was entirely online, but in many ways was among the most rewarding edition to date. Two complaints that I raise almost every year in respect of Korean music performance were completely resolved this year:

  1. Sound levels. Either, in the case of Jambinai, the thing is just far too damn loud, or in the case of ethereal, atmospheric performers such as Park Jiha or Park Woojae, the ambient noise of the venue’s air conditioning (thinking particularly or Rich Mix) can ruin the live music experience. Both problems are solved at a stroke by moving online, while interesting camera angles and good sound quality can enhance the experience
  2. Information. Too often concerts have been presented without programme notes, a playlist or even the most basic information about the music, its origins and inspiration. This year’s music festival, with artist interviews and basic subtitles at the beginning of each track, was a refreshing break from this general rule. And I’m not sure who the interviewer was, but she did a great job engaging the performers even when at least one was clearly more comfortable communicating through her music than via the spoken word.
Sinnoi: L to R, haihm, Kim Bora and Lee Wonsool (source)

In a really high-quality line-up, once again Hey String provided one of the highlights, and K-music newcomers Sinnoi also made one thirst to see them live. The East-West collaborations that have become a feature of K-music also made for interesting viewing, particularly the long-distance sessions of pianist Kit Downes and drummer Soojin Suh. Another new name for me this year (although she shouldn’t have been, as she has played in London in previous years as part of Won Il’s Baramgot) was Park Soona. Her collaboration with pianist/composer Jung Jae-il passed far too quickly, so it was good to see her again in a four-way collaboration with three other Parks: Woojae, Kyungso and Jiha. In fact such was the quality of the programme, the fact that I haven’t commented on Leenalchi, Black String, Coreyah and Lee Heemoon’s performances speaks volumes. There was so much to enjoy that I wish they’d left the videos online for a little longer so that we could enjoy them some more. But some of the collaborations are still available on the KCC’s YouTube Channel:

Soojin Suh and Kit Downes | Kyungso Park with Soona Park | Heo Yoon Jeong and Vincent Peirani

Watching the June Résonances livestream (featuring Hyelim Kim) while preparing lunch

Of course, a certain big-name boy band had to cancel their two-day stint at Twickenham Stadium and instead treated fans to global online events (Bang Bang Con and Bang Bang Con: The Live). But let’s not forget the smaller, independent performers such as Hyelim Kim (in collaboration with the Vortex) and Younee who have been live-streaming on Zoom and Facebook this year. Bringing livestreamed music into your kitchen was undoubtedly one of the new experiences of the year.

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4. On stage: yes there were some live performances!

The first two months of the year managed to pack in three K-pop / hip-hop gigs, of which the biggest was SuperM at the O2 Arena, a major Unsuk Chin premiere in Birmingham and an appearance by Park Jiha at LSO St Lukes as well as some smaller classical recitals.

There was a performance of Jimin Suh’s moving play about the Koryo Saram – well worth seeing again if you get the chance; Y Dance performed as part of Resolution 2020, exploring Korea’s yellow dust problem, and Sung Im Her’s p’ansori-infused work looking at the experience of Korean migrant workers in Germany featured in a double bill at Brunel University.

Babylon Cycle
Lee Eunseog (standing) and musicians take a breather during the Babylon Cycle workshop at October Gallery in February.

But for me the live event of the year was a private performance of Lee Eunseog’s work-in-progress project The Babylon Cycle which explores the pain of exile through the han of the p’ansori form in combination with Western choral styles. In the words of the composer, the cycle is “a cross-cultural work that seeks to explore Biblical perspectives on exile and identity through the tensions and resolutions between two traditions (Korean and Western).” It certainly spoke to the audience in a very direct way and I look forward to hearing the finished project.

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5. Exhibitions

The pandemic slowed down the pace of exhibitions this year, but nevertheless there was a decent range of works to see. In between their often challenging artist of the year exhibitions the KCC presented Rendered Reality, a two-man show featuring Shinuk Suh and Joonhong Min, both of whom have benefited from recent residencies in London. The installations of both artists complemented each other, and Min also presented a new side to his work: a highly personal video interview with his mother. It wasn’t a logical fit with the rest of the exhibition, but it somehow worked (and unlike many video pieces had me watching it a couple of times). In fact the prize for the most active artist of the year without doubt goes to Joonhong Min, who seemed to appear in exhibition after exhibition in London and then Berlin.

Lloyd Choi Gallery at Collect 2020
Lloyd Choi Gallery at Collect 2020

We failed to log any Korean interest in the 2020 London Art Fair, but as usual Collect, which this year was held in Somerset House rather than the Saatchi Gallery, had plenty of fine Korean crafts to enjoy. Launching her gallery there was Lloyd Choi, who in previous years has been a lynchpin of the KCDF stall. Choi’s display focused on modern and contemporary ceramics, introducing her audience to “Do-jo” – ceramic sculpture that fuses traditional ceramic craft with fine art. Elsewhere in Somerset House, Gallery Sklo introduced us to some fabulous Korean glass artists, while Han Collection presented a fine collection of ceramics from potters based in Icheon.

Later in the year Saatchi Gallery hosted START Art Fair (which included a huge display of Ceviga’s work by Skipwiths) and also the 2020 iteration of Korean Eye, which this year included the work of a Korean hip-hop artist alongside more established visual artists.

Prize for the most colourful exhibition of the year goes to Song Ginyoung whose whimsical installations at an East End cafe bar were enough to banish the winter blues. More restrained but equally enjoyable was Joung Young-gu’s debut at Pontone Gallery. More established artists to be found during the year included veteran Dansaekhwa artist Ha Chong-hyun, who was given a generous amount of space at Almine Rech to exhibit his minimalist works.

Nam June Paik: Sistine Chapel 1993
Nam June Paik: Sistine Chapel 1993. Install view, Tate Modern 2019. Andrew Dunkley ©Tate

Prize for the most rewarding exhibition of the year goes jointly to the Guimet in Paris for their comprehensive survey of Lee Young-hee’s fashion career and to Tate Modern for their equally in-depth look at Nam June Paik’s output: it was a particular treat to be able to see the impressively cacophonous installation Sistine Chapel – its first appearance since the 1993 Venice Biennale.

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6. Talks and Seminars

As lectures and seminars moved online this year, people in the UK time zone had the luxury of being able to access a range of interesting talks presented by the RASKB in Seoul and by the Korea Society in New York. The KCC soon followed suit, and the monthly literature nights moved to a lunchtime slot to enable conversations with Korea-based authors.

Group photo of conference attendees
Group photo of attendees, presenters and organisers of the BTS inter-disciplinary conference at Kingston University

But regardless of the quality of online content available this year, without doubt the most stimulating and enjoyable seminar this year was the two-day BTS inter-disciplinary conference at Kingston University.

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7. Other online events

In a world which is increasingly moving online, the KCC recruited a new group of content creators, pulling together a network of new and established YouTubers dedicated to promoting different aspects of Korean culture. The full list of participants can be found on the KCC website here. For me the surprise was that there were as many as 30 channels recruited into the programme – another sign of the growing spread of interest in Korean culture noted at the top of this page. While all of the participating channels are worth a look, I have now subscribed to the Korea-based Odile Monod, who broadcasts informative videos on K-beauty, including some content that looks at Korean traditional medicine.

Kimjang Project recipe book

With so many events being cancelled, often at quite short notice, because of unexpected changes to Covid restrictions, promoters had to be swift on their feet to provide online alternatives. The KCC pulled together an online Hallyu Con as an alternative to the popular Korea days that have been popping up around the country at various universities in previous years. Justina Jang’s Korea British Cultural Exchange distinguished themselves by providing interesting online versions of the annual Kingston Harvest Fest in September and the Kimjang Festival in November. The latter festival provided the opportunity to launch the Kimchi recipe book that has been one of the outputs of the Heritage Lottery Funded Kimjang Project – the recipes collected from the various Korean communities (from South, North and China) in the New Malden area. The recipe book proved to be so appealing that the Korean embassy included it as the centrepiece of goody bags sent to people who would normally be invited to their annual Hangul Day celebrations.

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A shout-out to Paul Quinn at Hangul Celluloid, on whom I rely for non-mainstream movie recommendations, and to Young-Jin Hur at Where Cherries Ripen, for his insightful interviews with A-list musicians including Seong-jin Cho. Welcome and thanks to new LKL guest contributors Claire Evans and Federica Ionta for bringing a fresh perspective to the site. And of course thanks to the performers, artists and organisers without whom I’d have nothing to write about, and to LKL followers for reading it.

2 thoughts on “A review of the Korean cultural year 2020

  1. Good job, Philip!

    It’s always good to see your annual sum-up / review.

    I was wondering though, why there was no mention of Parasite? Of course, it was released in 2019 but the UK got it officially in February 2020, I believe (not to mention the Oscars;)… and then there was the B & W version, and of course the BONG Joon-ho BAFTA talk at Curzon Mayfair.

    All that said, I know you can’t include all and have to pick some favourites too.

    Happy New Year anyway, Mr G!

    Best, Jason V

    1. Hi Jason
      Parasite was the LKL film of the year 2019 (which is when the BAFTA talk was too), and while I thought the 2020 Oscar was worth a mention everything Parasite-related seems so long ago that I consciously edited it out of my mind. You’re right though, it was nice to see him again, with Song Kang-ho, at a Q&A in early Feb. I wonder what else I should have mentioned?

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