As the movie industry continues to reverberate from the recent international success of Bong Joon-ho’s triumphant Oscar-winning movie Parasite, it seems that Bong has offered up an unsanitised version of Korea, one that may shock many followers of K-pop, which promotes a scintillating and polished image of South Korea.
BTS, global superstars that they have become, allow their young fans to follow their ‘K-wave Dream’, one that could mislead them into thinking that all is squeaky clean in South Korea.
The images of poverty and desperation in South Korea have remained far from the well-choreographed, glossy pop videos of K-pop, and to a large degree, K-dramas, which have become increasingly more popular thanks to Netflix, where the Korean offerings surpass those, not only of China and Japan, but also of France and other foreign language markets.
Bong’s latest work, like most of his others, draws our attention to the social reality and the gaping divide between the rich and poor in South Korea, as we now enter the second decade of the twenty-first century.
This does, nevertheless, call for a moment of reflection to consider how Korea has changed from a century ago when its culture and identity were threatened under the repression of Japanese colonial rule. Korean culture now rocks the world, literally and metaphorically.
But, K-pop’s image has taken quite the battering over the past year considering the disgraceful fall of Big Bang’s Seungri, linked to a prostitution ring along with other male celebrities involved in the Burning Sun nightclub scandal.
Maybe even more serious, has been the unfortunate number of tragic celebrity suicides, particularly K-pop stars, reflecting the growing problem of mental health and anxiety, heightened by social media and an ever-growing intrusive press with unrealistic expectations for young celebrities.
BTS have collectively drawn attention to issues related to mental health and have spoken of the need to open up and talk about them, carving out for themselves a pop image that is socially conscientious and that is important for their young fans, who may also face depression themselves due to stressful matters in their own lives.
Bong Joon-ho’s carefully crafted movies (Memories of Murder and Mother, for example) dare to highlight the sometimes troublesome and complicated harsh realities of modern life and present us with un-photoshopped Korean reality, in a sometimes abrupt manner, just as they also call for change.
His criticisms of government and police corruption, recurring themes in his impressive body of widely acclaimed work, led to his name being blacklisted with many others during the presidency of Lee Myung-bak and the failed ‘corrupt’ presidency of Park Geun-hye, herself daughter of the corrupt military dictator Park Chung-hee (1961-78).
These intersecting worlds reflect the complicated lives facing South Koreans, both young and old, in a diverse society that is rapidly changing, with some getting much richer, but more, being left behind, forced to deal with a reality that is not always so kind.
Contributing writer Kevin N. Cawley is Director of Korean studies at University College Cork, Ireland. He is also an author of “Religious and Philosophical Traditions of Korea,” which was published in 2019 by Routledge.