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As South Korean movies dominate world cinema, Yang Mal-bok says ‘Hallyu is here to stay’

Updated on Mar 03, 2022 02:33 PM IST

From independent films to hit series streaming on OTT platforms, South Korean films are capturing audiences worldwide.

Kim Se-in's The Apartment with Two Women premiered at the Berlinale in February.
Deutsche Welle |

From independent films to hit series streaming on OTT platforms like Netflix, South Korean films are capturing audiences around the world. What's behind their success? When South Korea's Parasite made history by becoming the first non-English language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, all eyes were set on director Bong Joon-ho. Bong had famously said the Oscars were "very local." Also read: BTS reacts as South Korean President Moon Jae-in congratulates group on AMA win: 'Feel a sense of pride'

South Korean actor Yang Mal-bok, whose new film The Apartment with Two Women premiered at the Berlinale in February, says Bong's sentiments resonated with her. "I'm a bit tired of the cultural flow that was a bit monopolized in one direction," Yang told DW. "I started to think that our tastes in movies were long concentrated on one side and it's obvious to me that your view expands when you come in contact with a culture or art of a different region, like South Korea," she said.

But in recent years, audiences worldwide have developed a bigger thirst for Korean cinema.

Rise of South Korea's cultural economy

The Korean wave — or Hallyu — is a term widely used to describe the international success of South Korean music, film, TV, fashion and food. In October last year, the Oxford English Dictionary added the Korean word Hallyu to its latest edition. When asked about Hallyu, Jung Bo-ram, Yang's co-actor in the The Apartment with Two Women, said "It's the universalist themes of Korean society" which help drive the success of South Korean films abroad.

In her latest movie, Jung plays a woman in her late twenties who lives with her mother. The film centers around their turbulent mother-daughter relationship. "All mothers and daughters living in South Korea can relate to this story. I thought that this movie is not specific to South Korea but it contains various emotions that you can feel about the relationship of any mother-daughter," Jung told DW. "When people watch this movie, they can relate with their own lives."

South Korean films take world by storm

The success of South Korean films abroad took off in the 1990s — after the last vestiges of its repressive military regimes ended. Censorship laws were eased and investment started trickling into the film business by large Korean companies.

Investments through conglomerates — or chaebols — like Samsung, Daewoo and Hyundai have all played a major role in the country's film industry.

Following the Asian financial crisis of 1997, new conglomerates like CJ Entertainment, the Orion Group (Showbox), and Lotte Entertainment emerged to become the biggest players in the South Korean movie industry.

In the first decade of Hallyu, international fans, particularly in the US, typically downloaded pirated films while South Koreans studying abroad did the subtitling. "This was happening long before OTT (over-the-top) platforms and easy subtitling," Yang explained. But as her new independent film is touring international film festivals, the actor says South Korean films have finally become "elevated" and that Hallyu is here to stay.

Yang also played a cameo in the South Korean series Squid Game, one of streaming giant Netflix's all-time biggest hits. The nine-part thriller reached 1.65 billion viewers just in its first month of release.

Yang said she "had no idea" that the series would "become so popular all over the world." "It's obvious that Hollywood has had a huge cultural influence on the world. English-speaking movies are screened in theaters and multiplexes. It's hard to compete with that but, for two decades now, international independent film festivals have increased opportunities for us to be seen and heard," Yang said.

Entertainment industry as 'soft power'

Netflix has announced that it would spend $500 million (€451 million) in 2022 as part of efforts to expand South Korean content. The pandemic, however, has taken a toll on the film industry.

"After COVID-19, there is less investment in the entire cinema industry in South Korea, so there might be less opportunity to have auditions for me, but it's also hard to say if it's a totally bad situation," said Jung.

Local productions, however, still account for a major share in the South Korean market. The South Korean government considers the entertainment industry a key driver for the future national economy and is heavily investing in films and series from the national budget. One of its main goals is to become the world's leading exporter and importer of entertainment and media.

The Apartment with Two Women is director Kim Se-In's debut film and was funded by the Korean Academy of Film Arts. "I can focus only on making the film. From writing the script to the post-production stage, the Korean Academy of Film Arts has given me every support to blossom," Kim said. "I don't have to worry about market and distribution, the academy helps with it."

Kim won five awards at the Busan International Film Festival in October. When asked what she thinks is behind the success of South Korean cinema, Yang said the country's entertainment landscape is adaptable and changes very fast.

"Media produces new content very fast. It's tricky to pick up only one reason why cultural content from South Korea becomes popular. Perhaps it is a wave and South Korea is at the center of it."

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