Eastern storytelling and the rise of Korean pop culture in the West

Eastern storytelling and the rise of Korean pop culture in the West

In his 2020 Golden Globe acceptance speech for best Foreign Language Film, Parasite director Bong Joon Ho famously said (through an interpreter), “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

I think about this quote often.

Over the past few years my taste in TV has morphed, fewer and fewer of my favorite shows being in English. I have annoyed my friends and family to no end with the number of K-dramas that I try to get them to watch, knowing they probably never will, usually saying something along the lines of, “I just don’t want to have to read while I’m watching TV.”

So, when Squid Game came out, I was thrilled when people were excited about it. Over 111 million households watched within the first month or so of being released. People who had previously refused to watch anything with subtitles were suddenly spending hours watching a show that they couldn’t understand without them (unless they chose to listen to the dubbed-over dialogue which is another discussion altogether).

However, both my personal conversations and discourse about the show online have revealed something rather interesting: despite the rise in popularity of Korean pop culture worldwide over the past few decades, many Americans are still surprised when they like it.

Korean pop culture has been on the rise for years. Consider the K-pop groups topping charts all around the world and the influence K-beauty has had on the cosmetics industry. And yet, at least among the communities that I’m a part of, K-dramas are still a relatively niche interest. This might seem like a point of pride for me, but I actually find it sad that there are so many people that could experience these incredible stories but don’t because subtitles act as a barrier for them.

For me, there is something so compelling about the genre’s style of storytelling. Where American and other Eurocentric style shows and films hop from one plot point to another, rarely taking a moment to breathe, K-dramas let the audience live in those moments of heightened emotion. They don’t try to expand the story longer than it needs to be; most K-dramas are only one season long. Also, there’s an aspect of spirituality and fate that plays into how these stories operate that harkens back to the culture.

Sure, there are cultural barriers as well as language ones, but there are fewer than one might think. It’s why a show like Squid Game can gain so much traction. The show deals with struggles with personal finances and massive debt, which is a common experience among Americans as well. Even those who are privileged enough not to have experienced financial hardship can at least relate to the compelling characters or can be intrigued by the dystopian premise.

Because humans are capable of empathy, they are capable of connecting with stories from anywhere, in any language. The history and the power of Hollywood when it comes to the movie industry has given the U.S. a reputation for great movie making, to be sure. And obviously the stories coming out of the U.S. are going to have a “western” audience in mind, so they subscribe to a western style of storytelling. However, “western” storytelling is not the gold standard, it’s just one way of doing it.

Every year, there are more international films and shows that are able to gain popularity among English-speaking audiences. I hope that this means that creators from around the world can get the respect they deserve and that those who have only ever experienced eurocentric-style storytelling can learn to be open to a new way of looking at things.