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A review of the Korean cultural year 2021

Review of the 2021 cultural year
Clockwise from bottom left: Haegue Yang’s Strange Attractors at Tate St Ives | BTS at the United Nations | ADG7 at Kings Place for K-music | Youn Yuh-jung | Ji-young, the new Korean-American muppet | SaaWee’s New Ritual album | Sung Im Her in W.A.Y (Rework) for the Festival of Korean Dance

Each year when I come to write this review, I wonder whether Korean culture in the West has reached its high water mark. And every year so far I’ve come to the same conclusion. Korean music and film, TV and food continue to win admirers, and we can expect to see it continue to thrive for the moment.

In the music world, BTS continues to dominate, with a performance at the UN to go with their successes in the charts and awards. Their Army marches on, too. Who could have imagined, ten years ago, that in 2021 a Singaporean cryptocurrency exchange would be suspended by regulators for peddling a digital currency targeted at fans of a K-pop group?  Or that researchers for a mainstream newspaper, rather than a hallyu studies academic, would ask BTS fans to “explain their fandom”, finding that it “has helped rejuvenate them, heal racial trauma and understand their identity“?

Minari
Alan Kim (left) and Steven Yeun in Minari

Of course, this year there has been other Korean culture in the mainstream. Following the success of Parasite last year, the indie movie Minari (dir Lee Isaac Chung) brought another first: a best supporting actress Oscar for Youn Yuh-jung to go with her BAFTA. Youn’s acceptance speeches hit the headlines. For her BAFTA she expressed surprise that the “snobbish” British had honoured her in this way. At the Oscars, Western commentators assumed that she was fangirling Minari executive producer Brad Pitt while Korean reporters suspected her references to his absence from the film set were a subtle reprimand for keeping the purse-strings tight. Perhaps her post-Oscar interviews will be most remembered for her put-down “I didn’t smell him. I’m not a dog” when asked a bizarre question by one of the reporters.

The doll from the first Squid Game
The doll from the first Squid Game

But it was a Korean production for the small screen which really hit the headlines this year, breaking into the mainstream in a way that a movie – even one by a megastar like Bong Joon-ho – can not. The stratospheric success of Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Squid Game, so soon after the Oxford English Dictionary welcomed 26 Korean loan words into the English lexicon, had the mainstream media clamouring for answers as to why Korean culture was suddenly so big in the West. On one weekend the Sunday Times, the Observer and Radio 4’s The World this Weekend all grappled with this question, and none of them could suggest a credible answer, though government assistance was often cited as a supporting factor.

Separately, Korean literature in translation has been having an excellent year, with at least ten highly appealing titles appearing in English for the first time. Of the ten that I highlight separately, all were published in Korea this century, and eight published in the last ten years.

Maybe, as we get more used to watching films and TV dramas with subtitles and reading literature in translation, we become more open to hearing diverse viewpoints. Even so, I was surprised to see, out on the display tables along with other enticing new publications in my local bookstore, the memoirs of a young Korean American rock musician. I wondered why, of all the books that might have found a place alongside local celebrity Giles Brandreth’s memoirs that week, the staff had picked Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart. Perhaps it’s part of the same openness to the Asian American experience that has welcomed Ji-young, the first Korean American muppet, to Sesame Street

With those introductory remarks, onwards to some of the specifics of the cultural year.

Films and Film Festivals

The Man Standing Next
Lee Byung-hun (left) and Kwak Do-won in The Man Standing Next

After what was understandably a slow year last year, things looked up in 2021. The Glasgow Film Festival had a Korean focus, and apart from having what I think was the UK premiere of Minari it led its Korean strand with The Man Standing Next (dir Woo Min-ho), a fast-moving but thoughtful drama / thriller reconstructing the Park Chung-hee assassination. The London East Asia Film Festival had a decent-looking selection of Korean movies including The Singer, but I was out of town for the festival and they didn’t provide screeners, so I can’t comment fully on the schedule other than to say that the closing movie, Spiritwalker (dir Yoon Jae-keun), which subsequently had a limited theatrical release in the London area, did not live up to its promise.

A set of stills from four of the top movies of 2021
Clockwise from bottom left: The Book of Fish | Aloners | Heaven: To the Land of Happiness | Josée

This was the year, however, when the London Korean Film Festival made a comeback. Last year I somehow failed to muster the enthusiasm or organisational ability to watch any of the screenings (which were all online). This year was a different story entirely, with several new movies that I’d definitely want to watch again. From a contemporary look at an atomised society in Aloners (dir Hong Seong-eun) to an historical reimagination of the problems in late Joseon society and the alternative solutions provided by Confucianism and Catholicism in Lee Joon-ik’s Book of Fish; from the romantic drama Josée by relative newcomer Kim Jong-kwan to fast-moving but reflective heist movie Heaven: to the Land of Happiness by the long-established Im Sang-soo, it was encouraging to see so many exciting new titles.

Humidity Alert and Rolling
Still from (left) Humidity Alert and Rolling

As a footnote, it was interesting to see two Covid-era movies on our screens this year. The BFI London Film Festival had Ko Bong-soo’s Humidity Alert (2021), an entertaining and excruciating satire on the indie film scene in Korea, set in a tiny movie theatre in the middle of the pandemic; and the LKFF had Kwak Min-seung’s Rolling (2021), a warm-hearted family story of healing through human interaction and food, set in a struggling kimbap cafe.

Live music and performance

Sadly, Korean participation at the Edinburgh Fringe this year was all online. Although it was nice that they showed that commitment – and it was particularly good to see a revised version of Sun-hoo Yoo’s  After 4 (which was one of LKL’s events of the year 2017), I couldn’t reconcile myself to watching online what I would normally go to Edinburgh to see in real life. Despite forking out cash to see all the Korean performances, I didn’t watch any of them in full, and some of them not at all.

Black String
Black String at Paddington Grand Junction for K-music (photo KCCUK / Ikin Yum)

But never mind, because this was the year that the K-music festival came back, fully live; and the Festival of Korean Dance in September featured two productions (each performed twice, to enable social distancing in the audience). Both festivals had a high-quality line-up, but it was a shame that one of the K-music performances clashed with the a screening at the London Korean Film Festival. I was out of town for some of K-music, and so missed Black String and Dal:um (though Federica really enjoyed the latter). Of the performances I saw, I could appreciate the musicianship, the polish and the technique of Soojin Suh’s Coloris Trio – whose soundworld would be familiar to afficionados of modern jazz – and would have welcomed an extension to the part of the set where they collaborated with saxophonist Camilla George.  Similarly it would have been nice to have had more collaboration between kayageum soloists Park Kyungso and Park Soona and Welsh folk-singer Angharad Jenkins: the latter was the pick of this year’s collaborations.

Sinnoi
Sinnoi – one of my own personal highlights of K-music 2021

The Coronet Theatre, a new venue for K-music, hosted two performances by Sinnoi – led by minyo singer Bora Kim – and the energetic rock sound of Dongyang Gozupa, while the whole festival was kicked off by the lively and colourful ADG7 – think Lee Heemoon, the Ambiguous Dance Company and Leenalchi all rolled into one. ADG7 deserve a special mention for the way they worked the audience and their entertaining stage presence quite apart from their musicianship. It was impossible not to like them. It’s a tough choice between them and the more melancholy, introspective Sinnoi as my favourite act of the festival.

The year also saw the beginnings of the return of hip-hop and more commercial musicians to London, the biggest name to make a showing being CL, who despite giving only two weeks’ notice of her appearance needed a venue upgrade to accommodate ticket demand.

Streaming

Hellbound
The first of many deaths foretold in Hellbound

Netflix were the early investors in Korean content (remember Okja?) and for a number of year’s they’ve been making available some of the best TV shows that have already aired in Korea. This service has been an open secret to K-drama fans, but with their own Squid Game they reached a whole new audience. Yeon Sang-ho’s Hellbound followed, publicity aided by preview screenings at the Toronto and London film festivals. This series was equally well received by the press but got far less public word of mouth. I question the Guardian‘s view that it will be remembered more than Squid Game but it’s a fun, extremely dark, critique of the power of Korea’s religious cults and the harmful impact of toxic online content, in a world visited by mysterious angels of death that look as if they are charcoal-dusted brothers of the Incredible Hulk. The year finished with the sci-fi thriller The Silent Sea featuring Bae Doona and Gong Yoo – hotly anticipated but not so well received.

Other streaming services are seeing Korean content as an essential part of their offering: Apple TV’s Dr Brain (by star director Kim Ji-woon) got a thumbs-up from the Asia Times, but Disney’s Snowdrop has been less successful. Perhaps one of the services should focus on giving us a decent back catalogue of Korean movies, because that’s something we’re still waiting for.

Meanwhile let’s not forget the content about Korea that is available online. This year I stumbled over the BBC’s superb podcast The Lazarus Heist – which was just as gripping as Squid Game, occupied almost as much air time. And factual. It documents the activities of North Korea’s army of cyber-warriors as they terrorise a film studio, raid an Asian nation’s foreign currency reserves and cause mayhem in the UK’s National Health Service. Well worth a listen, and coming to a bookstore near you in 2022. Also, this year saw the launch of New Malden based Not So Korean Podcast, by long-term Korean culture followers Jason Verney and Timothy Holm.

Recordings

I can’t claim to have listened to many new releases, but the one I’ve listened to most has been SaaWee’s New Ritual, which captures on disk their improvisatory performances such as their appearance in 2019 that was LKL’s live music event of the year.

Talks and Seminars

Discussions in 2021
L to R: David Mason’s talk on Korean Confucianism | Paul Quinn’s talk on quirky Korean movies | the LKL / Hangul Celluloid interview with Cho Jungrae, with star interpreter Seh Rho

To blow my own trumpet for once, the online discussion events that I’ve enjoyed most this year were the ones I organised myself: David Mason’s talk on Korean Confucianism (the first ever event organised for LKL readers) and Paul Quinn’s talk on Korean movies outside of the mainstream (for the British Korean Society). You can find the latter on the BKS’s YouTube channel. The third event was was an interview with pansori drummer and film director Cho Jungrae. Director Cho was very generous with his time and answers. You can find a transcript of the interview (by my co-discussant Paul Quinn) here.

Separately there have been plenty of enticing talks that I’ve been meaning to dial into, organised by the Scottish Centre of Korean Studies and the RASKB, but most of them are during the working day. I really find it difficult to focus on more interesting things when I’m logged in to the office network, and although I promise myself I’ll catch up with them later on YouTube when available, there are always other things to do. I’ll be making sure to watch, though, the edited highlights of the discussion organised by the Peaceful Unification Advisory Council: North and South Korean women in the UK speak of peace.

Exhibitions

Park Seo-bo at White Cube
Park Seo-bo at White Cube

It’s been nice to see Bongsu Park’s Dream Auction project come to its conclusion – you can see the final exhibition at Gallery Rosenfeld still – but in a year when Covid seems to have sucked much of the energy out of the Korean art scene in London, the exhibition that sticks in the mind is the Park Seo-bo solo show at White Cube Bermondsey earlier this year – a show that included works from the 60s (not for sale) through to some of his most recent creations.

The KCC hosted fewer exhibitions this year, and with the centre now closed on a Saturday it’s difficult for office workers such as myself to visit without taking a day off. Sometimes an exhibition can take two or more visits to get to understand or fully appreciate. I began to appreciate Round and Around, the Gwangju-related audio-visual collaboration between Jang Minseung and Jung Jaeil, on my first visit and was sorry not to have the chance to try it a second time.

You had to go further afield for what was probably the exhibition of the year (which we didn’t manage to get to): Haegue Yang’s Strange Attractors at Tate St Ives, which the Telegraph described as “the zaniest, peppiest artworks around” and Wallpaper as “dazzling“. It actually opened in late 2020 and lasted for almost a year, but accessible for only a fraction of that time because of lockdowns.

Summary

  • Film of the Year: Heaven: to the Land of Happiness. (Some of the reviews appearing so far have been mixed, but for me it was just the sort of story-telling I needed this year)
  • Live Music: ADG7 and Sinnoi
  • Dance: Sung Im Her’s W.A.Y (Rework) for the Festival of Korean Dance
  • Album: New Ritual by SaaWee
  • TV show: Squid Game
  • Podcast: The Lazarus Heist
  • Translated fiction: My Brilliant Life (Kim Aeran) | On the Origin of Species (Kim Bo-young)
  • Non-fiction: A Korean Odyssey (Michael Gibb) | The Prisoner (Hwang Sok-yong)
  • Exhibition: Haegue Yang’s Strange Attractors

Here’s hoping that the cultural scene continues to navigate the difficulties presented by new variants of Covid, so that we can have an even more enjoyable year in 2022.

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