05-22-2009 17:23
Local Pop Culture Facing New Challenges

Clockwise from top left, Korean blockbuster film¡°, Shiri¡±directed by Kang Je-gyu; BoA of SM Entertainment; Korean TV drama ¡°Jewel in the Palace¡±starring Lee Young-ae / Korea Times File Photos

By Chung Ah-young
Staff Reporter

Is hallyu, or Korean Wave, waning or still booming? There has been lots of talk about the sustainability of hallyu among industry insiders as the overseas success of some of Korea's TV dramas and movies seemed to have declined in recent years.

Freelance writer Mark James Russell, however, dismisses the term, hallyu. He once jokingly called it ``Zombie Wave'' for these worriers, arguing that there never was a Korean Wave in the first place, so it couldn't really be said to be dying or anything.

Then, what is the Korean Wave? Korean pop culture crosses many media, demographics and regions and it means very different things to different people.

``I don't like the term, Korean Wave, because it is like a black box. It doesn't really explain anything. Why is something popular with older women in Japan and with younger kids in Southeast Asia and middle-aged men in America? These are very different trends and forces that are happening,'' Russell said in an interview with The Korea Times.

Russell, author of the new book ``Pop Goes Korea,'' said that there are a lot of negative connotations associated with Korean Wave ¡ª shortsighted fad, poor financing and crude nationalism.

``Korea was at the forefront in Asia supplying this kind of lessons from the entertainment industries. Hong Kong is getting very aggressive in its movies, making its movies pan-Asia's blockbusters. Taiwan is trying very hard to emulate the Korean movie industries. Korea was very fortunate to be at the forefront of this change. ¡¦ You have to fight and struggle to keep that cutting-edge trend,'' he said.

The journalist came to Korea from Canada to teach English in 1996, and worked as a correspondent for the Hollywood Reporter and Billboard. In his new book, Russell analyzes the evolution of the country's pop culture from the past to the present.

The lively-looking book with colorful images of Korean celebrities delves into various genres of pop culture and features his abundant in-depth profiles of the entertainment moguls.

He portrays the film industry and infrastructure through the story of how big corporations such as CJ Entertainment stepped into film production and multiplex-building, transforming the local cinematic landscape and the economic dynamics of producing a blockbuster, shedding light on Kang Je-gyu's big productions.

Concerning the screen quota, he said that ``it is a placebo.''

``At best, it was a psychological aid,'' he said. In his book, he argued that people buy tickets to movies they want to see; if there is nothing playing that they like, then they don't buy tickets. Forcing theaters to show movies no one wants to see does not mean more box office receipts, it only hurts the theater owners and distributions.

Instead, he said that there are a lot of things that the government can do to help make the industry stronger. ``Having a strong, reliable rule of a law or having good financing ¡¦ things that you can trust ¡¦ Enforcing copyrights. The government and the film industry have to put more energy into enforcing copyright than they do for the screen quota,'' he said.

Japan has a protective market and strong copyright protection. DVD sales in Japan are also going down but physical sales in Japan have been strong for a long time. When it comes to Korea, everything is already full of piracy, he said. ``Every street corner has tape guys and video CDs or whatever. The most important thing is creating good alternatives. I don't think you need to put all your energy into cracking down on illegal stuff ¡¦ you need to put more energy into providing reliable, convenient and affordable alternatives,'' he said.

Also, one of the most serious problems facing Korean pop culture is the lack of historical connection, Russell argued. People buy today's hit songs but they don't buy the hits of yesterday. They flood the movie theaters, but they don't watch films at the repertory cinemas or buy DVDs.

Compared to the Japanese who love to collect, Koreans are kind of the next generation, he said. ``They don't need such things as books or DVDs at home and they want to just hook up to the Internet and read it there. It's a more immediate and next generation culture,'' he said.

In America and Europe, movie theaters are less then half the revenue of a film. More revenue comes from all the other things ¡ª TV and home videos. But in Korea, 80-85 percent of revenue comes from the movie theater. ``Very risky and very unhealthy. People have shown that they are willing to pay for contents in many different ways,'' he said.

Catalog sales are essential to any country's pop culture, bringing in steady revenue streams that can tide companies over in the lean times and when big projects misfire. ``That means the industry has to look at long-term development. It's not about today's hits. It's about cultivating artists and it's also making the companies more stable. Today's hits tend to be things younger people are interested in. It's limiting the market. The 35-year-olds don't watch the same movie the 25-year-olds watch and the 45-year-olds don't listen to music the 15-year-olds listen to,'' he said.

He also pointed out that Korean music has become less diverse. ``It's easy to blame SM Entertainment or JYP. But if people start buying good music and different kinds of music, the record companies will respond,'' he said.

It's interesting to examine pop culture through personal profiles, such as the TV drama industry through the career of heartthrob Lee Byung-hun, the story of how Lee Soo-man of SM Entertainment produced BoA and Shinhwa and other profile stars and how internet file-sharing sites and services such as Soribada impacted the music industry and the manhwa culture.

``People find people stories and personal struggles interesting in terms of individual stories rather than the institutions ¡ª Miky Lee from CJ Entertainment, Kang Je-gyu from blockbuster movies and Lee Soo-man rather than the music industry and Lee Byung-hun in the television industry in general and Sean Yang in Soribada,'' he said.

The book reveals not only the challenges of Korean pop culture but also triumphs and feats in entertainment and arts with poignant analysis and anecdotes to help the industry move in a better direction.

``The question for Korea is how will its entertainment industries respond to the new challenges and competition heading their way. Ten years is a long time to shine and doubtlessly as other entertainment industries around Asia grow and learn, they will compete more and more intensely with Korea. Contending with this rising competition may be difficult, but it is also healthy, pushing creators and creative industries in Korea and across Asia,'' he said.