There are two types of Korean faces that generally appear in the Western media. One is thin, chiselled, and attached to a K-pop star; the other is chubby, hostile, and spilling over the top of a DPRK uniform.
And then there is Bong Joon Ho. Parasite’s sensational run at the Oscars saturated news and social media alike, thanks in part to Bong’s exceptionally meme-able decision to make his newly acquired statuettes kiss. The unbridled wholesomeness of the director- goggling up at Quentin Tarantino with wire rims a-gleam and phone camera in hand— belies the tone of his work. In the words of The Guardian, Parasite satirises the forces of “status envy, aspiration, materialism, and the patriarchal family unit”. These forces, portrayed so cynically in Bong’s film, are equally present in another Korean mass cultural export: K-pop.
The so-called ‘Korean wave’, or hallyu, saw South Korean culture explode across the globe in the 21st century; a 2014 article in The Economist dubbed Korean pop culture “Asia’s foremost trendsetter”, partly due to its use as a government soft-power tool. Like many of the country’s post-war creations, however, K-pop reflects the highly corporate nature of South Korean society. In 2011, music mogul Lee Soo-man gave a speech at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, explaining the ‘cultural technology’ concept with which he changed Korea forever. Some 20 years previously, Lee had created a K-pop export manual, specifying everything from chords and eye shadow colours suited to particular countries, to the camera angles for music videos (a 360° opening shot followed by a montage of closeups). Lee’s company, SM Entertainment, also developed the ‘Four Core Stages’ model, which continues to dominate the industry- and which may be viewed as an expression of the same forces satirised in Parasite.
The Four Stages- casting, training, producing, and managing- are designed to maximise the efficiency and profit of the K-pop product. While this model brought Korean culture to international prominence, it also drew criticism for its heavy human cost. Aspiring idols as young as 12 or 13 are vulnerable to ‘slave contracts’- a form of indentured servitude with the agency that trains them, a process which can take up to a decade. Many groups take years to pay off their ‘trainee debt’, which covers the cost of singing and dance lessons, PR, plastic surgery, and more; despite the apparently luxurious celebrity lifestyle, performers may not actually receive royalties until they have repaid these expenses. Even after debuting, idols often continue to live in dormitories, where agencies control their diets, wardrobes, and social lives. The ‘Big 3’ companies, including SM Entertainment, are a notable exception, paying trainees as soon as they debut, but even their stars are not safe from the immense pressure of the industry.
In late 2019, a few months after Parasite’s Cannes debut, South Korea received international media attention for the suicide of two beloved female K-pop stars in as many months. Choi Jin-Ri, a former member of girl group f(x), and Goo Hara, formerly of Kara, died within six weeks of each other after complaining of misogynistic cyberbullying. Idols are expected to walk the line between sexuality and schoolgirl innocence, embodying a highly manufactured, unimpeachable perfection which requires extreme dieting and cosmetic surgery. While idols’ public love lives must be squeaky clean, the industry has also been rocked by sexual coercion scandals.
The extreme commodification of K-pop can also take a toll on performers’ feelings of authenticity. The creative process is usually outsourced to the same Scandinavian songwriters responsible for Taylor Swift and Katy Perry hits; one Korean girl band’s EP was entirely produced by Skrillex. This vision of ‘Korean culture’ is largely a reflection of Western appetites, with the additional selling point of exoticism. In this sense, K-pop offers a fantasy vision of Korean culture, and especially Korean womanhood, engineered for maximum profit and efficiency. This representation- which invokes age-old orientalist tropes of sensuality and submissiveness- finds a counterpart to its inauthenticity in the opposing North Korean stereotype, depicted as recently as 2014’s The Interview.
Recalling his surprise at Parasite’s international success, Bong commented: “The film was just full of Korean details and Korean nuances. But (the responses were the same across the world). I think maybe there is no borderline between countries now because we all live in the same country- it’s called capitalism.” Parasite was both authentically Korean and universally relatable in its criticism of consumerism, class discrimination, and human greed. Rather than seeking to appeal to these forces, perhaps the K-pop industry could draw some inspiration from Bong’s success- using its platform to support more authentically Korean creativity in response to breakneck social change, within the country and across the world.