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A review of the Korean cultural year 2023

A collage of highlights from 2023
Some highlights from 2023: the King embraces Hwang Jihae | President Yoon’s State Visit | Jung Jae-il at the Barbican | Blackpink with their honorary MBEs | Hur Jin-jo at LKFF | Zadie Xa’s installation at Whitechapel Gallery | Yun Hyong-keun at Hastings Contemporary | Yun Ko-eun talking about her book at the KCC | The drum tower in honour of war veterans in Horseguards Parade | The King with a gift of kimchi in New Malden | Chung Ji-young with Jeon Hye-jung at LEAFF | The Ties Through Time exhibition (photos: LKL, Diya Mitra, Hwang Jihae, KCCUK, LEAFF, official Palace photographers)

2023: a year when an environmental artist from Gwangju shared a hug with the King; four K-pop princesses went to Buckingham Palace and received honorary MBEs; and the tolling bell of Jirisan’s Daewonsa temple was broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

The year marked the 140th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the UK and Korea and the 70th anniversary of the Korean War armistice, and ended with a State Visit from South Korea’s President.

The King visited New Malden, Britain’s Koreatown, meeting North Korean escapees and the younger generation of Korean residents, and accepted an early birthday present of a kimchi recipe book and some specially made low-spice kimchi. President Yoon’s gift to the Lord Mayor following the State Visit was a consignment of particularly fiery kimchi. The Royal Borough of Kingston declared 22 November Kimchi Day.

The British Embassy building at night with a light projection featuring the 140 years logo
The British Embasy building in Seoul, whose construction featured in two London exhibitions this year, celebrates 140 years of diplomatic relations (Source)

Commemorative events

As well as the more prominent anniversaries already mentioned, 2023 was the 80th anniversary of an event which, to Brits at least, is a bit more obscure: the Cairo Declaration in which President Roosevelt, Chiang Kai Shek and Winston Churchill agreed that an Allied victory in the East would lead to Korean independence in due course. The implications of that agreement (and in particular those last three words) together with the contributions that Korean freedom fighters made to the Allied war effort in Burma, were examined in a fascinating conference at SOAS, sponsored by the National Memorial of the Korean Provisional Government – an institution which traces the lineage of the current ROK government and constitution back to the colonial era Provisional Government in Shanghai.

Other events specifically targeted around the theme of friendship between the UK and Korea included a concert in the historic halls of Hampton Court and an exhibition at the KCC focusing on the construction of the British embassy building in Seoul and the site of the first Korean legation in London’s Earls Court (- a plaque was unveiled at the legation’s site in October). A more ambitious exhibition (The Ties Through Time) organised by KBCE that opened both in Kingston and Seoul looked at more wide-ranging ties and included an opening event with an informative historical talk by Jim Hoare and performance by Daegeum player Hyelim Kim and dancer Suyoung Park.

A ceremony in Horse Guards Parade
The Korean War Service of Remembrance at Horse Guards Parade. (Photo credit: Ministry of Defence)

At the National Army Museum three British veterans of the Korean War shared recollections of their time in Korea, and the Royal British Legion organised a solemn commemoration event in Horseguards Parade, before which the military band premiered the arrangement of BlackPink’s Ddu-du Ddu-du that would later be performed outside Buckingham Palace during the State Visit.

Films and Film Festivals

Two smiling film directors
Chung Ji-young with LEAFF festival director Jeon Hye-jung | Hur Jin-ho at LKFF

It was a reasonably good year for Korean films in London cinemas. Two festivals early in the year had strands which focused on Korean LGBTQ+ films; and although early October’s BFI London Film Festival only found room for one Korean movie, LEAFF returned in late October with a strong Korean showing, with Korean movies occupying the opening and closing gala slots, and a retrospective of veteran director Chung Ji-young. The LKFF had its usual busy line-up in early November.

Outside of the LKFF, the KCC focused on two well-subscribed but short seasons of in-house screenings in collaboration with external curators, this year featuring two movies with Seoul as a backdrop and the now traditional summer documentary season.

Independently of the KCC, we’ve been pretty lucky with UK theatrical releases of current (Seoul Spring, Ransomed, The Roundup: No Way Out, Noryang) and recent (Broker) Korean box office movies, as well as Korea-themed movies made outside of Korea (Return to Seoul, Beyond Utopia, Past Lives, The Moon is the Oldest TV). While this year is probably exceptional at least in respect of the quality and quantity of these non-Korean films, the limited theatrical release of current Korean box office movies is a welcome new trend.

With that brief introduction out of the way, what movies caught our attention this year?

A beautiful dancer performs a Buddhist dance
Choi Hae-jun in Peafowl

At the LGBTQ+ festivals early in the year, Byun Sung-bin’s debut feature Peafowl stood out, featuring the stunningly elegant Choi Hae-jun; and Cho Hyun-chul’s The Dream Songs also merits a rewatch, delicately painting a story of teenage love and longing. At the BFI London Film Festival, Kim Ji-woon’s farce Cobweb paid tribute to the drive for creative perfection, but was just a little bit too silly to be satisfying. LEAFF also featured a recent comedy, with Lee Won-suk’s Killing Romance: enjoyably bonkers both visually and plotwise.

Still from The Boys
Sol Kyung-gu in The Boys

Both LEAFF and LKFF opened with serious movies by veteran directors and starring Sol Kyung-gu, neither of which had yet been released in Korean theatres. LEAFF’s choice, to go with its Chung Ji-young retrospective, was The Boys, in which Sol Kyung-gu plays a lone detective trying to rectify a past miscarriage of justice caused by police and prosecutorial malpractice.

Two elegant couples sit at dinner
Sol Kyung-gu, Jang Dong-gun, Kim Hee-ae, and Claudia Kim in A Normal Family

LKFF’s opener was Hur Jin-ho’s  A Normal Family – a powerful family drama examining the tension between morality and self-interest, and well worth a watch. Sol Kyung-gu is paired with Jang Dong-gun as two brothers with moral compasses that point in different directions. Also at LKFF, Lee Hae-young’s colonial era thriller Phantom was slick and good-looking as was the closing movie, Kim Seong-sik’s debut feature, Dr. Cheon And The Lost Talisman, a supernatural Indiana Jones style caper. My favourite new movie of the festival was Min Yong-keun’s Soulmate, a delicate story of love, friendship and jealousy. Definitely one to watch again.

We have a more detailed look at the two festivals (together with a gripe about scheduling) here.

A man and woman sit in from of a playground merry-go-round looking into each other's eyes
Teo Yoo and Greta Lee in Past Lives

Of the movies made outside of Korea, I’d rewatch Davy Chou’s Return to Seoul and especially Celine Song’s Past Lives in a heartbeat. Madeleine Gavin’s Beyond Utopia‘s selling point as a documentary on North Korean escapees is the embedded camera that follows three generations of a family on their escape through China, Laos and Vietnam to Thailand.

The front page of the BBC news website on 27 December 2023, showing the death of Lee Sun-kyun as the third itemTo end the year on a sad note, the film industry mourned the death of Parasite star Lee Sun-kyun. It is an indicator of the significance of that movie, and of the deeper penetration of Western interest in Korean culture more broadly, that the death was headline news on the BBC Today programme on Radio 4 and the lunchtime TV news, as well as featuring as item #3 on the BBC news website.

Books

We knew this article was going to get out of control, so we did a separate round-up of books here.

Collection of covers of books published in 2023

We tried hard, and whittled our list of favourites down to less than a handful, which you can find at the bottom of this page.

Live music and performance

I can’t really comment on any K-pop concerts this year, not having been to any, though I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the Daegu-based all-girl punk band Drinking Boys and Girls Choir at the Electric Ballroom. I wish there were more indie bands coming to the UK. We certainly have plenty of K-pop: the highest profile K-pop event of the year was BlackPink in Hyde Park; at the o2 there’s been Twice (for two nights) and ATEEZ, while at Wembley Arena there’s been NCT Dream, Red Velvet (G)I-dle and a composite gig in honour of the State Visit. There have been plenty of gigs at other venues too.

Jung Jae-il playing guitar
Jung Jae-il switches from piano to guitar for the Squid Game soundtrack (photo:  KCCUK)

The K-music festival had another strong line-up this year, headed by Jung Jae-il with the London Symphony Orchestra. That particular programme was a little bit safe, majoring on Jung’s Parasite and Squid Game scores, but nevertheless showcased his versatility as a musician. In another popular evening, Jambinai and Leenalchi shared the billing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Leenalchi were genuinely delighted when some audience members spontaneously came to the front of the auditorium to dance to the final number – it really is impossible to keep still when listening to their strong bass-led rhythms. At the more cerebral end of the scale, Haepaary brought us an enthralling electronica take on the Jongmyo rituals. As is often the case the most exciting things happened when musicians were collaborating for the first time: daegeum player Hyelim Kim with drummer Sun-mi Hong, pianist Gee Hye Lee and the stunning vocalist Song Yi Jeon gave us an unrepeatable programme that ranged from the traditional to experimental.

Dark figures of a geomungo player and another musician against a bright pink projected background with words from a Shakespeare sonnet
Publicity photo of MUTO, who performed for Korea Tourism Organisation promotional events at the V&A and Outernet

Earlier in the year there was an interesting concert by Ensemble La Mer et L’Île in St John’s Smith Square featuring traditional and recently-composed music on both Korean and Western instruments. Sometimes such fusion events don’t work, but this progamme was definitely one I’d recommend and I’ll be looking out for other performances by this ensemble. In classical music, Leeds winner Seong Jin Cho showcased his new Handel-themed album in a sold-out recital at the Barbican, Van Cliburn winner Yunchan Lim made his London debut at a capacity event in the Wigmore Hall.

Two dancers in flowing black dresses
Eun Mi Ahn: Dragons

The Festival of Korean Dance featured some welcome and familiar names – the Korea National Contemporary Dance Company performing works by Jaeyoung Lee and Sung Im Her; Choi x Kang Project and Art Project Bora shared a double bill – Choi x Kang always fascinate with their playful use of video loops. The festival closed with Company SIGA and I think the first London performance by Berlin based choreographer Howool Baek. Outside of the festival we were fortunate enough to have visits from the Ambiguous Dance Company and the Ahn Eun-mi Company – each of them performing for a few nights: we were very happy that we had booked to see both performances twice. Also on stage we had the thought-provoking Untitled F*ck M*ss S**gon Play by Korean American writer Kimber Lee, and a virtuoso examination of Hell Joseon in the post-IMF Crisis era by Jaha Koo, aided and abetted by some talking rice cookers – a show which manages to be both humorous and harrowing. We’d have happily seen both of those productions twice, as well.

Cuckoo by Jaha Koo
Jaha Koo and his talking rice cookers

Recordings, streaming and podcasts

I can’t claim to have listened to any new music releases this year apart from Jung Jae-il’s Listen. As usual, I’ll be monitoring the year-end roundups by Jung Bae on HelloKpop to guide me on the next items to go on my music streaming list.

Similarly, despite having a little more time on my hands this year, I haven’t watched much in the way of TV dramas. I’ve only been watching two, both centred around female characters. The most talked-about one was The Glory, which surpasses Oldboy in having an even longer and more intricately planned revenge for schoolday misdeeds. It was the third most-streamed series on Netflix in the first half of the year. I also watched Little Women which involves three poor sisters mysteriously coming into a lot of cash, a no-good politician with a super-rich scheming wife, rare Vietnamese orchids, murder and more. But I really must catch up on some of the classics from the past.

Song Hye-gyo in The Glory
Song Hye-gyo in The Glory

Although I’ve not been watching much TV, I listened to the occasional audiobook and followed a number of podcasts to accompany me on my long walks along the river. For the BBC, Chloe Hadjimatheou presented Burning Sun – three hours of compelling programming that looked at the rapes and other abuses committed by celebrities many of which were centred on a Gangnam nightclub. At NK News my personal favourites of the year were Jacco Zwetsloot’s interviews with Sue Mi Terry on the making of the documentary Beyond Utopia and with James Hammond on science engagement with the DPRK and specifically the Mount Baekdu Research Project. The Dark Side of Seoul (Shawn Morrissey and Joe McPherson) had an unmissable interview with Dr Nial Moores on the recent history of environmentalism in Korea, in particular the controversial Saemangeum land reclamation project. At David Tizzard’s Korea Deconstructed, it’s hard to pick a favourite, but the episode on Voguing came at just the right time to illuminate for me a dance culture that features is one of my favourite movies of the year, Peafowl, and a really interesting conversation with three very different students about their experiences of compulsory military service. I also enjoyed the most recent edition of the NotSoKorean Podcast in which Jason Verney chatted with James Turnbull of The Grand Narrative.

Talks and Seminars

It’s been one of the best years I can remember for in-person talks and Q&As: London audiences had the opportunity to meet authors Han Kang, Yu Miri, Yun Ko-eun, Cheon Myeong-kwan, Sang Young Park and Barbara Zitwer, translators Brother Anthony, Anton Hur and Kim Chi-young, musician Jung Jae-il, veteran directors Hur Jin-ho and Chung Ji-young and plenty of younger directors and actors besides. We’ve had visits from North Korean escapees and human rights activists, investment pitches at the London Stock Exchange by Korean hi-tech startups, book talks by the authors of Black Girl from Pyongyang, Film Korea and Korea: A New History of South and North and a fascinating talk on scientific engagement with the DPRK monitoring volcanic activity on Mt Baekdu, plus reminiscences about diplomatic life in Seoul in the 70s (the last two thanks to the British Korean Society).

Three modern hanboks
A modern recreation of the festive hanboks depicted in Elizabeth Keith’s famous print, at Ties Through Time, which also featured an interesting historical talk by Jim Hoare

Oxford received a talk from Brother Anthony to mark the donation of his Korea-related book collection to the Bodleian. Cambridge hosted an afternoon on the Past, Present, and Future of hallyu to commemorate Kim Dae-jung’s stay there, with sessions from Ra Jong-Yil, former Ambassador to the UK; Mark Morris, Fellow of Trinity College and friend of the LKFF; Hye-Kyung Lee, Professor of Cultural Policy at King’s College London and Shiri director Kang Je-gyu. All four presentations were full of interest and anecdote.

Apart form the SOAS conference on the Cairo Declaration mentioned above SOAS also hosted a one-day session on the “real” North Korea, and a workshop on Korean artefacts in the collections of UK institutions that dovetailed nicely with the materials associated with the Ties Through Time exhibition mentioned above. V&A hosted a one-day look at photography in Korea, and two days on Hallyu that bewildered with the plethora of specialist industry terminology, and highlighted K-pop’s globalised production process.

Exhibitions

It’s the year when promoters have been keen to piggy back on the popularity of Hallyu to try to bring Korean contemporary art into our drawing rooms. Korean Art London landed at the Mall Galleries for a couple of weeks; Focus Art Fair at the Saatchi Gallery had a big contingent of Korean galleries as, to a lesser extent did StART Art Fair, also at the Saatchi. Of the three, Focus was the most interesting, followed by StART. One artist that was common to both Korean Art London and Focus was Lee.K, who turned out to be a draw for younger art-lovers because of his portrait of BTS’s Jimin. He ran a popular sketching workshop at Focus.

A collage of three exhibitions
Soojin Kang’s installation at Gathering | Zadie Xa’s installation in Whitechapel | Yun Hyong-keun’s paintings in Hastings

Improvements in technology together with the popularity of total-immersion events in London featuring artists such as Hockney, Monet and Van Gogh have meant that this year we’ve had more Korea-related events featuring video projection. The Korea Tourism Organisation presented a big promotional event in Outernet, taking advantage of the huge wrap-around LED screens to showcase the work of Korean video artists. And, with President Yoon’s State Visit as their cue, KOCCA presented a showcase of the latest media art and virtual reality technology in a week-long show at the Saatchi Gallery. Personally I found the media art event that accompanied Park Geun-hye’s State Visit in 2013 more approachable, but the event proved popular with young audiences not least because of the enhanced videos of a BTS performance. An a more commercial basis, Seoul-based artist Gyoungtae Hong and director Younsook Im took over some cavernous spaces underneath the railway lines in Borough Market to project some colourful videos inspired by the past and present of Seoul.

A pastoral scene in front of a rustic herb drying tower
Hwang Jihae’s A Letter from a Million Years Past garden at Chelsea. Hwang brews tea while Kim Hyelim plays daegeum. Photo: Ollie Dixon

My own highlights? In terms of time spent in public and commercial galleries, I tarried longest with Zadie Xa’s House Gods, Animal Guides and Five Ways 2 Forgiveness in the Whitechapel Gallery, Yun Hyong-keun at Hastings Contemporary and Soojin Kang’s To Be You, Whoever You Are at Gathering. But in terms of outside spaces the prize belongs to Hwang Jihae and her gold medal winning Letter from a Million Years Past garden at Chelsea, which had King Charles enthusing and making his minders nervous by taking an unscheduled tea-break in Jihae’s herb drying tower.

Food

Despite the closure of the past couple of years of two of my favourite places – K-Place in the City and Asadal by Holborn tube – the food scene seems to be thriving both in Central London and down in New Malden, where Cah Chi opened to an enthusiastic review from celebrity food critic Grace Dent. New grocery stores seem to be popping up in Central London, and browsing on Eventbrite will usually identify a couple of kimchi-making or Korean cookery classes somewhere within relatively easy reach. The Cordon Bleu cookery school hosts talks on temple food at least once a year, and Westminster Kingsway College host a series of Saturday morning K-cuisine classes. At The Taste of London food festival, the city of Andong showcased some recipes from a 500 year old Korean cookbook.

A signboard for a Marks and Spencer Korean Chicken Egg WrapInterest in kimchi shows no signs of diminishing yet: at the Kimchi-tasting event organised by KBCE I sat next to a teenage English boy whose hobby was making kimchi and had enjoyed a school trip to Korea. The Kimchi festival organised by KORSA was well attended, including by the local Member of Parliament. Korean influences are to be found in ready-meals sold in supermarkets, and on TV cooking competitions you increasingly see Korea-inspired flavours being used.

People

A listing of events is only part of the story. Much of the intangible benefit from going to events comes from engaging with the people who attend, organise or participate in those events. A description of a Chelsea Show Garden cannot convey the warmth and goodwill that seems to surround its designer and creator. Similarly, a report of a exhibition or concert cannot convey the dedication and hours of preparation invested by the curator, researcher, presenter or performer – who are often unpaid and sometimes wear a number of different hats on different occasions. I think, for example, of Suyoung Park, who was dancing for the King one day and erecting trestle tables for a kimchi-making demonstration the next, but equally Justina Jang deserves special mention for her ideas, energy and can-do attitude.

A Korean dancer performs a fan dance while a choir sings
Suyoung Park and the London Hummingbird Choir perform for the King in New Malden Methodist Church

Some of my most cherished memories from this year will be the interactions with these people over an informal meal, cup of coffee or glass of something stronger after an event, or maybe even as part of the event itself – and indeed one of those cherished memories this year was an invitation to the North Korean Resident’s Association end-of-year party at which everyone was royally watered and fed with home-made dishes. The next morning’s hangover was well worth it.

In summary, our picks of the year

Commemorative event
Film
  • Min Yong-keun’s Soulmate;
  • Celine Song’s Past Lives
Exhibitions
Live Music:
Other live performance
Books: Fiction
Books: Non-fiction
Audiobook
  • Dolki Min’s Walking Practice (tr Victoria Caudle) read by Nicky Endres
Podcast
Talks and Seminars

Thanks to all the artists, performers, organisers and others responsible for giving us all so much to enjoy.

Additional reading

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