Kyung Hyun Kim on Squid Game, Class Inequality, & South Korean Film

Prof. Kyung Hyun Kim is a creative writer, a scholar, and a film producer, who is currently a professor in the Department of East Asian Studies, UC Irvine. He has worked with internationally renowned directors such as Hong Sang-soo, Lee Chang-dong and Marty Scorsese. Prof. Kim is author of Virtual Hallyu: Korean Cinema of the Global Era, The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema, Hegemonic Mimicry: Korean Popular Culture of 21st Century, all of them published by Duke University Press, and a Korean-language novel entitled In Search of Lost G (Ireo beorin G-reul chajaso, 2014) about a Korean mother combing through the US in search of her missing son during his junior year in a Massachusetts prep school. He has co-produced and co-scripted two award-winning feature films Never Forever (2007, Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Main Competition) and The Housemaid (2010, Cannes Film Festival Main Competition), and his co-scripted film screenplay, The Origins of a Detective (Hyeongsa eui kiwon), won the cash prize (US$ 30,000) by being selected for the 2019 Best Film Development Project by the Korean Film Commission. He has also written The Mask Debate, his first theatre screenplay, which premiered in February 2021 through UCI’s Illuminations: Chancellor’s Initiative in Arts and Drama YouTube channel:

Jorlen Garcia CMC '24 interviewed Dr. Kyung Hyun Kim on November 22, 2021.

Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Kyung Hyun Kim.

Korean film and TV viewership abroad has largely been driven by K-drama fans. However, Squid Game recently became Netflix’s most popular television series with 1.6 billion views in its first 28 days on the platform, beating out rival English-language show Bridgerton by over two times in viewership. What explains the specific circumstances that led for Squid Game to gain such global popularity, contrary to what many critics believed no foreign language show could do for mainstream audiences? 

There is a similar notion across nations around the world that neoliberal capitalism is a real concern and a problem that has produced a larger gap between the "haves" and "have nots" over the past few decades. Instead of increasing and expanding the middle class, for the past 34 years, most countries feel that capitalism is no longer a hope for the people. It's become rather bleak, and that optimism disappears. Just like a lot of people feel that the American dream and the Korean Dream have changed. For a person who was born in a lower class to have socioeconomic mobility and possibilities, it's very difficult. Also, the popularity of Squid Game and other Korean cultural content shows you that social media has really been a game changer over the past decade or so. Now we have less barriers between nations in terms of movement of maneuverable cultural product, as well as language barriers that used to be a big issue when it came to maneuvering traffic of cultural products across languages. It's still there, the barrier, but a lot less than it used to be. 

This is not the first time that Korean media has gained worldwide traction. In 2020, Parasite won Best Picture at the Oscars, making history as the first foreign language film to do so in the Academy’s 92-year-long history. In the music sector, K-pop has also grown in immense popularity, charting high in Billboard charts and BTS being nominated for the Grammys in 2020. How does the rise of Squid Game build on, and differ, from previous Korean media achievements abroad? 

A lot of people, myself included, feel that Parasite and Squid Game have similar socioeconomic backgrounds. It tells the story about the gap between the "haves" and "have nots," and the poor circumstances in which the "have nots" have to battle each other, not necessarily the "haves," in order to gain any kind of meaningful progress. Additionally, K-pop is a whole other thing, and the Korean Wave is a whole other thing. However, there is overall worldwide attention being taken. This is not isolated. The different kinds of cultural phenomena that are happening around the world are in tandem. They meet and run into people at random places where they come up and talk about their latest passion, whether it's a K-drama, K-beauty, K-brand, or K-food. It's just all over. Even though BTS and Parasite speak to a different audience, you feel as if there is a sensation that is making its way around the world that has a K-brand on it.

You touched on this a little bit. Squid Game and Parasite share similarities where they both provide social commentary on class inequality and neoliberal capitalism in South Korea. Can you elaborate more on what is the socioeconomic context that led to the development of these plotlines in the show and film? Why is it that two of Korea’s most popular media abroad deal with similar themes and social issues?

The big question that I've been hearing is neoliberal capitalism and the ways in which it impacts people with the shrinkage of the middle class. This is not just a Korean phenomenon; it's a worldwide phenomenon, so why is Korea the one to tell stories that are so popular worldwide? Yes, it's a universal issue, but Korea has been experiencing this acutely. It's a country that has really taken seriously social inequality and became one of the more proactive countries in tackling it. South Korean society, because it's a more homogeneous society, feels as if everybody is the same. So, if there is a widening gap between classes or a sense of why is that particular person getting richer opportunities than I am, that type of inequality feels greater in South Korea, probably more than many other countries that are more diverse. Also, the country has been economically prosperous in the past 20 to 30 years. Within one or two generations, Korea moved from extreme poverty to one of the greatest economies of the world. However, you get all kinds of social problems right now because of the hurried-up industrialization. People feel a great level of pressure that coincides with the suicide rate. There are a lot of young and old people with rates of suicide that are the highest in the world. Then you have social indices that are almost embarrassing and shameful in the context of Korea. The fertility rate is extremely low. It's number one in the world for lowest fertility rate that is now almost 0.9 pregnancies per woman, which is substandard. You need two per woman for the population to stabilize. And yet, it's not even one, but lower than one. Many people feel that this is not the world to bring a baby into. So those things combined do have a way of telling stories that fuel the kind of intensity of frustration, anger and irritation that comes from social inequality.

After the Korean War, South Korea experienced decades of authoritarian government, particularly under the leadership of Park Chung-hee. Popular culture, including music and TV, faced heavy censorship for anything that might be considered subversive until the minjung movement and democratization starting in the late 1980s. How does Korean cinema comment on, and inform, political movements and history in Korea?

You have a lot of films and shooting content. And to a certain extent, television serves this function as a cultural harbinger of social discontent. Many films are also in some ways protest films that try to critique the social status quo. There's a longer history in the 80s and 90s, especially with the media, in which a lot of these stories could be told despite the censorship. There's a lot of resistance to tell the story about social inequality, and a lot of films that came out of the period try to deal with storylines and plotline characters that were not necessarily politically acquiescent but politically in protest of the military dictators. Many directors, including Bong Joon-ho who made Parasite and Hwang Dong-hyuk who made Squid Game, grew up with that kind of purpose and culture while they were in college. That has a way of translating to different stories that they now tell in a larger, bigger, and more global format. So, there is a symbiotic relationship.

In 2019, Netflix signed a multi-year partnership with Korean media entertainment giant CJ ENM and its subsidiary Studio Dragon to produce original series for the platform and air some of the Korean company’s own titles. In total, Netflix has invested $700 million from 2015 to 2020 and another $500 million this year alone in Korean dramas and films. What makes Korean dramas and films so attractive outside of Korea?

There's obviously the language barrier and the cultural difference, but Korean film has made Korea not as exotic. At the same time, in terms of production value, storytelling, and the themes they pursue, consumers don't feel that this is a country that is an anomaly when it comes to Hollywood resemblance or familiarity. This is a country that does very well trying to tell a story that has a beginning, middle, and end, trying to stay within the kind of plot structure and production value that is familiar to the Hollywood audience. That is, the images, soundtrack, and props. That's probably part of the reason why you have Netflix and other streaming content models, like Disney, Apple TV, and several other companies that are looking to Korea for content. You get something a little bit different but still familiar for the global audience that is comfortable with other languages. Why is that the case? Because for 75 years, Korea, outside of maybe England, has been the most active military, cultural, economic, and political partner of the U.S. So, that digs into the three generations of cultural impact in Korea: kids growing up learning English, some of them going to study abroad in America, modeling the Hollywood American system, and transplanting it into Korea. It has taken a while, but you now have an understanding of the cultural nuances of American stuff that they can easily translate into Korean society, and Hollywood is taking notice.

South Korea has emerged as Asia’s Hollywood, rivaled only by China. Despite having a population of only 50 million, Korea has one of the highest movie theatre ticket sales in the world. Its film industry has also performed remarkably well in its domestic market without Hollywood dominance as seen in other nations. How does the Korean film industry compete and compare with Hollywood outside of the country? What could the future hold for Korean cinema in the global market?

In terms of the global market, cinema market, and theatrical market, Hollywood still dictates about 90% of the world market. And with the rest of the market are a lot of other countries that includes Chinese, German, Korean, and Japanese films. All of that combined probably doesn't comprise, in terms of the market value, more than 10% of the world stake. That's how dominant the Hollywood box office is. Still, it's incredible that South Korean cinema, like Parasite, did extremely well, but mind you it's still a fraction of what Avengers could do. That was the most successful non-Hollywood film, probably in the past 10 years. And you got a very small niche market for these non-Hollywood films. There's a little bit of China, Korea, Japan, and a little bit of other things that are very negligible. So, does it really compete on a global scale? No, it's still dealing with a lot of barriers. But what has happened overall is that the larger portion of the pie is streaming television. And that to me is the biggest turn of what's going to happen in the future because a lot of people are more comfortable watching home theater. Although theater is going to come back, it's not going to be the same. A lot of people thought that 10 or 20 years down the line, streaming will replace theatre. Because of the pandemic, that forecast is happening way sooner. This year's numbers, streaming television's pie is bigger than theater’s worldwide. You’ve got more people who are drawn to storylines and plot lines that are smaller. When you're watching television or on your own computer screen, it's very different from the expectation that you may have in theaters. If you go to theaters, you want the heavy-duty soundtrack and all that stuff that makes you feel as though you’re going for a thrill ride. That's what theater has been for years now that it'll probably be for years later. But barring that, your home theater is different. It's very difficult to simulate that kind of local success elsewhere. So that's when more local stories are successful. They're a lot more attractive. These local stories are popular on HBO, like "Curb Your Enthusiasm.” However, these huge budget streaming series are not that popular outside the English market. It doesn't really translate to different cultures. So, you get the possibility of a niche films being more effective in the streaming market rather than popularly known films where you have to raise the bar of getting that thrill ride high. It's about a more global and targeted approach to stories that are geared to you. Many minor stories have a chance of becoming number one or top ten worldwide.

Jorlen Garcia CMC '24Student Journalist

Netflix, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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