Be patient, the article is kinda long. :)
KOREAN DRAMA SERIALS - Sappily ever after
By Andy Ho
IF YOU live in Woodlands, you can catch up to about six hours of Korean TV serials daily - half on our Channel U and half on Malaysian free-to-air broadcasts.
Singapore and Malaysia aside, many other Asian nations have been bowled over by the Korean Wave, that fad for South Korean popular culture. These include China, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines,
Thailand and Vietnam. Even Mongolia and Uzbekistan are enthralled.
Building presumably on this 'kim chic' called Hallyu in Korean, Hanryu in Japanese and Hanliu in Mandarin, the Asian Civilisations Museum is now planning a Korean- themed exhibition.
But it was not always so. In Singapore, for example, many older people remember Koreans as those men who came to work on our huge infrastructure projects of the 1970s and 1980s. And the media portrayed South Korea as a nation shot through with political and industrial unrest.
For generations, the Western media had a stereotype of Koreans which an American academic, who specialises in Korean matters but asked not to be named, described thus: 'If we liken Japanese to
Germans - coldly efficient - then Koreans are to French - systematic folk who can also, at the drop of a hat, become all emotional and unruly.'
But Hallyu is changing this mindset, in Asia at least. Many now see Korea as a country of technological advancement, urban elegance and physically attractive people too. A Korea Trade Centre survey in 2005 showed that people in China and Japan perceived the country in very favourable terms.
But the Korean Wave is of recent onset. Korean trade statistics show that it was only in 2002 that exports of its TV content overtook imports of foreign productions for the first time. Most of these exports - with soap operas making up three-quarters of them - go to East and South-east Asia.
Dr Shim Doobo, until recently of the National University of Singapore, has noted that there was no mention of Korean cinema in the 1996 Oxford History of World Cinema, which claimed to cover 'every aspect of international film-making'.
Kim chic evolution
HOW did this 'kim chic' wave of Korean telenovelas come about then?
The genres are quite limited, the theme almost invariably undying love between a wealthy, handsome hunk and a gorgeous, asexually virginal female from a less privileged background. These forever young hunks are unconditionally devoted to their one woman, who is perpetually perfect, without a strand of hair out of place or eye bags after a sleepless night of tears.
Popular analyses tend to point to the dazzling brilliance of Korean cityscapes, luxurious houses, breathtaking countryside vistas but, above all, the stunning actors and actresses.
In fact, the leading stars have near-perfect faces and bodies, which some attribute to the reconstructive prowess of Korean plastic surgeons: The eyes are given double epicanthic folds, noses lifted higher, teeth bleached white and straightened, skin chemically peeled a shade
fairer and hair dyed brown.
Never mind that so much pain is inflicted on the Asian body to write the West on it, for this is but a creative marriage of East and West.
In fact, impressionistic analyses of Hallyu's ascendancy point precisely to how natural it is for Confucianist cultures to admire the allegedly creative marriage of West and East in Korean culture, which is portrayed as clearly modern but ethically traditional: Ancient Confucianist matriculation ceremonies meld seamlessly with Westernised college campuses, hanbok-clad women drive around in cars, while theme songs drift from Korean to English and back again effortlessly.
So, Koreans show us how we can be cultural collaborators yet maintain an unsullied Confucianist
essence - focus on the family, respect for our elders, preference for male offspring, self-sacrifice by the men and subservience by the women. They show us how to hold on to our putative traditions while sporting fetishised Western looks.
While Hollywood flaunts gratuitous sex and gore and its extravagance may seem distant, it is said that Korean productions show how Asians can enjoy the brilliance of capitalist materialism in real/reel life while staying true to their roots.
Of course, all this may be just fantasy as Dr Shim's 2006 study of Korean women residing in Singapore affirmed. (The Korean Association in Singapore says there are 7,000 to 8,000 Koreans
But the Korean women still drank it all in - and if they believed it, it must be pretty credible to their Chinese cultural cousins as well. (Women are the mainstay of Hallyu fans).
Yet if this cultural proximity argument - that Korean telenovelas touch the right chord of
Confucianist sentiment - explains it all, why does our own fare on Channel 8 attract so few eyeballs? For that matter, how many Malays here prefer the dubbed-in-Malay-Filipino dramas on Suria to, say, the US hit series Heroes, or CSI?
Clearly, as symbolic messages, TV dramas present different meanings to different audiences, so what you think is culturally close to you may not be so for me, even if we are of the same race or religion. Perhaps, the forces of supply and demand might matter more to 'kim chic' than popularly
First, the demand side. An importing nation may have achieved a certain level of economic development and thus a better quality of life, but if its cultural development lags behind, its people may look for an 'alternative' culture - like Korean or Japanese culture - as a stop gap.
This is the explanation proferred by economists who have shown empirically that the domestic market size - population and earning power - determines the quantity and quality of a nation's media products. They have shown that those made for larger and more developed markets sell better across borders to markets that are at a lower level of economic, cultural, and political development.
Thus Japanese TV fare was already a staple in Taiwan and Hong Kong, before Hallyu appeared on the scene.
But technological, political and institutional barriers might make it difficult for people to get their hands on such cultural products, so timing also matters. In the mid-1990s, media liberalisation in many Asian nations saw the number of free-to-air and cable TV stations in the region mushroom, so there was a heightened demand for new programming.
But even as Chinese and Vietnamese TV stations, especially, were sourcing for more programming, the prices of Japanese fare were escalating, so they turned to Korean telenovelas, whose quality was perceived to be almost on par with the Japanese but were four to six times cheaper. They also portrayed more conservative social views than Japanese or American fare.
Chaebols do national service
NOW for the supply side. Official figures show that TV dramas produced by its public broadcasters (KBS, MBC, and SBS) make up two-thirds of all Korean media exports, a direct outcome of an initiative that began in 1994 to make media a strategic industry: The Cultural Industry Bureau was set up in 1994 and the Motion Picture Promotion Law passed in 1995 to encourage chaebols to invest in the entertainment industry as their patriotic duty to raise exports.
Samsung, Hyundai and Daewoo answered the call, but their involvement ended not long after the International Monetary Fund mandated their restructuring in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
Still, chaebol involvement injected much needed management innovation such as market research, cutting edge technology as well as better scripts and editing. Graduates from the best universities, who would previously have opted for lifelong employment in manufacturing, were attracted to the
Because the financial crisis led to a drop in imports of foreign TV shows, there was a demand for more local fare. So after the chaebols exited the media scene, venture capitalists entered. Compared to just eight in the late 1980s, there are now more than 300 independent setups that produce TV dramas at lower costs than public broadcasters, whose programming has improved due to intense competition.
And the government continues to be involved. In 2005, it began setting up 15 cultural centres in Asia, South America and Eastern Europe to promote Hallyu at a cost of 100 billion won (S$150 million).
An interesting wrinkle in this supply chain is that Korean dramas are reprocessed before onsumption: Many are dubbed in Taiwan, where rewrites and improvisations in the dialogue take place in an effort to localise content. This means that Hallyu experienced in Singapore is actually filtered through Taiwanese eyes, so there might be something to the cultural thesis after all - albeit in a more nuanced way.
In a globalising East Asia, where traditional gender roles are being challenged, women may project their desires onto the actresses. These are seen as supportive of, yet at the same time, subservient to their brutish men, who can magically become transformed into caring lovers.
Hallyu's male leads routinely actually shove the women they love about. They unhesitatingly drag them about roughly by the hand - through crowds in train stations, church weddings or corporate parties - before plonking them down unceremoniously in their predestined place, that of the matrimonial throne, in the finale's overture to unreality.
That such (wo)manhandling actually ends happily defies logic, so it all works perhaps because it reassures audiences, women included, that a well-meaning patriarchy is still possible in a post modern world, where the secure past is fast fading but the insecure future cannot yet be grasped.
This yearning may well be the stuff that pan-Asian dreams are made of.