How Hallyu-wood Is Challenging Hollywood

Hallyu is a term coined in 1999 by a Beijing journalist to describe the craze for Korean goods. It has since become synonymous with the craze for Korean pop culture in general, led by TV dramas like Winter Sonata in 2001 under the term “The Korean Wave”. Regardless of what it’s called, current trends suggest Hallyu-wood may become the new Hollywood, at least in Asia and perhaps even in the Middle East, South America, Eastern Europe and other parts of the world.

In August of 2010 Korean girl group Kara became the first foreign group in 30 years to break into the top-10 on the Japanese pop chart when its debut single “Mister” hit number 5. Since 2006 China has been restricting imports of Korean TV dramas after they began accounting for over half of all imported TV programs. The popularity of Korean films has inspired Indian movie companies to make unlicensed remakes, including Zinda (Oldboy) and Ugly Aur Pagli (My Sassy Girl). Punctuating the popularity of Korean films is the fact that Pusan has already become the scene of Asia’s leading film festival.

Even the U.S. has begun feeling the Korean craze. The Korean Music Festival at the Hollywood Bowl, the largest outside Korea, has become an L.A. institution, especially after it became the finale of the 2007 LA Hallyu Festival. Korean music acts like Rain, BoA and Wonder Girls have made a splash with live performances and appearances on American TV. The latter’s “Nobody” became the first song by a Korean group to make the Billboard Hot 100. And Rain’s popularity has won him roles in Hollywood movies Speed Racer and Ninja Assassin.

Hallyu’s success feeds on itself. The several billion dollars earned through overseas sales since the Korean Wave began in 2001 has given Korean producers the confidence and resources to make Korean actors the world’s second highest paid after Americans. As of earlier this year ten Korean actors were earning $10 million a year, with Winter Sonata’s Bae Yong Joon reportedly commanding $5 million per picture. The exports have also added to the production values, including special effects that increasingly rival Hollywood’s.

It may baffle some that Korea has become one of the world’s top-10 cultural exporters. After all, the nation has barely 50 million people. Despite its swift rise from the ashes of the Korean War, it’s still only 36th or so in per-capita GDP. By all measure, its pop culture shouldn’t be eclipsing those of countries like Germany, Spain, Italy and Canada. And while countries like France and Britain are big cultural exporters on the strength of their longstanding status as global fashion and cultural capitals, in terms of media entertainment products, they too are looking like slackers when it comes to exports.

One reason for Korea’s rising popularity in everything from music to movies to food is that it’s at the epicenter of East Asia, the world’s new economic driver. Its cell phones, LCD TVs and cars have penetrated every corner of the world and come to symbolize modernity itself. That creates a curiosity factor about the people behind the products. Yet, unlike Japan, Korea isn’t associated with recent bad historical memories of imperialism. And unlike China, whose consumer culture is only a single generation deep, Korea is well into its third generation as at least a nominally democratic, free-market economy. The casual freedoms of the lifestyle depicted in Korean films is what the rest of Asia and the developing world aspires to in the near future.

In this connection, we reach what I think is a key factor behind the Hallyu explosion: a dawning consciousness of identity. In the scheme of 20th-century post-colonial life, identity was a luxury that much of humanity had to postpone in the hurlyburly of economic survival. Now that much of the populations of nations like Japan, China, Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and the rest of the non-white world is able to enjoy the comforts of middle-class life, the masses of humanity are awakening to the desire to see affirmations of themselves, albeit in idealized form. That desire is no different than the escape fantasies that Hollywood has been selling to mostly white consumers of the developed world the past three-quarters of a century.

White actors living western lifestyles were good enough approximations way back when. In a new era in which a sense of one’s identity grows in proportion to material comfort, many Asian and other third-world audiences are choosing fantasies that better fit their realities. Throw that identity factor into the media mix and the underdog Hallyu-wood may become the dream merchant of choice for about half of humanity.