It all started with K-pop fever, brought about by groups such as Big Bang, Girls Generation, Blackpink, and BTS. But now there’s a new fever sweeping the world: K-drama. Releases such as the Oscar-winning movie Parasite (2019) and Netflix’s Squid Game (2021) have taken the world by storm, building on the increasing global interest in Korea’s creative industries.
This is great news for diversity in film, and for anyone who’s long been a fan of world cinema. But it’s also promising for UK-based performers with East Asian heritage, given that Korea’s stellar creative output has coincided with China’s booming cinema industry (just see The Battle at Lake Changjin – China's biggest film of all time and 2021’s second highest-grossing film, after Spider-Man: No Way Home). But where exactly has Korea's delightfully unique contribution to the entertainment industry come from? Korean media first boomed in the west in the form of K-pop, which is sometimes referred to as "Idol Music". This came in waves, from music groups such as Girls Generation – with their hit song “Gee” – and Big Bang with “Bang Bang Bang”. Although still in its early stages, the love for K-pop was already strong, including in the UK, where “Gangnam Style” swept the nation all the way back in 2012. On YouTube, PSY's iconic music video is sitting pretty on 4.3 billion views.
But now, Seoul-based BTS are breaking records on YouTube for “most views in first hour” and “most views in 24 hours”. They were even nominated for Pop Duo/Group Performance at the 2021 Grammys. Without a doubt, K-pop has been the foot in the door for Korean media’s global popularity, but it’s not been the only distinctly Korean content to stir up a media storm. In 2019, the film world was rocked by the release of Parasite. The thriller showed up at the following Oscars and scooped awards for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film. This was the first Korean film to ever receive a nomination, let alone win an award. It was also in 2019 that Netflix began adding K-dramas to their listings, the first being Kingdom. The popularity for K-dramas has only risen since then, with hits such as Itaewon Class, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay and, most recently, the viral hit Squid Game. Squid Game dominated Netflix when it was released in 2021. It’s been sitting pretty at the number one spot on the Netflix leaderboards since its release. The show has become so popular that scenes from the show, such as the “Dalgona Candy" have become viral trends on TikTok and Instagram.
Never before have we seen such worldwide clamour for a show produced in East Asia. With speculation over a second season ongoing, fans have also turned to similar shows such as Sweet Home - a “Manwha” (Korean Manga) - and Alice In Borderland, a Japanese show similar to Squid Game, this time based around a deadly game in a dystopian Tokyo. Korean media seems to be going through a new boom, with no end in sight. Could we see even more Korean films and series succeed in the west after the successes of Parasite and Squid Game? Might we see other media booms from nations with lesser reputations than those of Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood?
One thing’s certain: the Academy Awards, and streaming disruptors like Netflix, are beginning to recognise and reward game-changing writing, directing and performing across the globe. That’s opening up a new world of entertainment for film buffs, and a new world of opportunity for performers worldwide.