Korean Television Is in the Midst of a Radical Renaissance

Squid Game, My Name, and D.P. all represent a growing trend of radical Korean television. Critics have attacked these shows for their vulgarity, but the violence they depict holds a mirror up to Korean society.

Han So-hee in My Name. (Netflix)

Toward the end of his acceptance speech for Best Original Screenplay in the 2020 Academy Awards, Parasite cowriter Han Jin-won made sure to place his movie in the context of his country’s filmmaking culture. “As there’s Hollywood in the US, in Korea, we have Chungmuro. I’d like to share this honor with all the storytellers and filmmakers in Chungmuro.” It was a moment of international validation from entertainment’s dominant (read: Western) culture and well-earned recognition for a national cinema largely consigned to independent art house screenings for hardcore cinephiles and Orientalists.

Two years later, Korean media has proliferated worldwide, fueled by streaming companies’ investment into the country’s programming. Last month, Netflix announced that it will release twenty-five original Korean shows and movies this year, following record audiences in 2020 for Squid Game and My Name. These shows are notable not just for their viewership – Squid Game remains Netflix’s most-streamed series, raking in over 111 million views as of last year  – but for the stories they’re highlighting. Stylistically striking and socially aware, they represent a departure from traditional network television, which has long been a medium for the government and corporations to project and protect their commercial aspirations.

Constrained by stringent broadcast regulations, Korean TV over the past two decades has depicted sanitized worlds free of obesity, pimples, and poverty. Behind its on-screen façade of purity and glamour, the dominant ideology within Korea remains one hostile to women, minorities, and the poor. It is a nation which, in the minds of its political elite, is defined by tensions between its Confucian history and high-tech modernity. This is a conflict which came to a head in the election of the self-avowed “anti-feminist” Yoon Suk-yeol to the presidency earlier this month.

Netflix and other streaming services have removed the albatross of state regulation from contemporary Korean television. A shift away from sanitized pop culture reflecting how the Korean state wishes to present their country has accompanied this move from the small screen to the laptop. The result has been the flourishing of more radical storytelling that confronts the nation’s realities.

The Korean New Wave

The success of Parasite and the reinvention of the Korean film industry in the 2000s offers helpful perspective on the current broadcast transformation. The “Korean New Wave” at the turn of the century was born out of the political and social turmoil that followed the war. Coming of age during an era of artistic repression and censorship imposed by the military dictatorships of the 1970s and ’80s, the formative years of auteurs like Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden) coincided with the devolution of cinema into long-form propaganda.

Of course, a subversive tradition, evinced in films like Kim Ki-Young’s 1960 The Housemaid and Yu Hyun-mok’s 1961 Aimless Bullet, remained and would go on to influence members of the New Wave. For the most part, however, these directors were very much what the Korean film critic Darcy Paquet described as “children without fathers,” entering an industry left stagnant by the politics of postwar Korea, primed for a creative boom.

The catalyst for this boom was the national democratization movement of the ’80s, which saw censorship laws repealed and movie financing shift toward independent producers. Its fruits were the early works of filmmakers like Bong and Park, which defined a national style by imbuing pop cinema with inventive takes on genre and sharp social commentary.

From Big to Small Screen

Korean television has arrived at a similar point in its history. Over the past two decades, network television has reflected the country’s idealized image of its self. Successive governments have rightly recognized these cultural products as one of its most effective forms of PR abroad; a 2017 poll by the Korean Tourism Organization found that 56 percent of surveyed tourists chose to visit the country after watching K-dramas. The television industry also benefits from hallyu (“Korean Wave”) subsidies from the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism as a key part of the country’s active campaign for cultural soft power. For domestic audiences, these shows are billboards for product placements that generate over $110 million annually.

The inextricable links between network television and its commercial interests have reduced the medium to formulaic melodrama where characters are symmetrical, violence is bloodless, and love is without lust. Casting for shows is rarely meritocratic, but rather a revolving door of in-vogue singers and celebrities (referred to as idols in Korea). Toting sponsored products and branded merchandize, these idols represent an image of television as an extension of the Korean capitalist ethos. A theme recurrent in K-dramas is that of the modern Cinderella, proving enormous wealth gaps and structural disadvantages are no match for the billionaire’s love for the spunky working-class girl.

The predictable form and polished style of the network K-drama is not a natural expression of Korean culture, they are primarily products of rigid broadcast censorship laws. A legacy of the postwar military dictatorships, the Korean Broadcasting Act was written with the “aim to create unity within the people.” In practice, this “unity” has meant censoring or blurring sensitive subjects that may incite or upset, including guns, smoking, sex, historical inaccuracies, and media alluding to Japan’s imperialist history. Last year, the popular network series Mr. Queen was placed on administrative warning after thousands of angry viewers sent complaints regarding an offhanded joke about a national artifact and a character’s use of a mildly obscene gesture.

Still from Squid Game. (Netflix)

Free from network oversight and censors, streaming companies like Netflix and kakaoTV are now producing and distributing original programming that would’ve been previously deemed unairable via broadcast. When writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk tried pitching the story for Squid Game in 2008, it was dismissed by production companies as grotesque and unrealistic. Since its release last September, it has become the most viewed series in Netflix’s history. Hwang’s allegory of capitalism’s fatal consequences is just one example of a new movement of Korean TV that is distinctly bloodier and bawdier than their broadcast counterparts.

Like the cinema of the New Wave, these mega-popular streaming dramas are perfectly comfortable combining violence and politically attuned narrative. Extremity, in violence, political critique and moral ambiguity, is the currency of this new wave TV. The TV series D.P. uses graphic depictions of abuse and suicide as commentary on men’s relationship with military conscription; in My Name, a jarring scene of sexual violence is a turning point for a woman’s revenge story; Squid Game turns lethal children’s games into capitalist critique; and All of Us Are Dead, released earlier this year, is a classic zombie apocalypse tale set in a high school, where institutionalized Confucian hierarchy turns a blind eye to abuse and leads quite literally to the end of the world.

Critics, both domestically and internally, have taken issue with the morbidity and omnipresent gore of these shows. Writing for the New York Times, Mike Hale described Squid Game as “empty, bloody calories,” in which “a thin veneer of pertinence [is] meant to justify the unrelenting carnage that is the show’s most conspicuous feature.” Hale’s colleague Frank Bruni echoed this sentiment and added to it a dose of moral panic: “that [young people are] not repelled by the incessant bloodletting and by many characters’ flamboyant cruelty to one another says something weird and disturbing about modern sensibilities.” In their country of origin, these shows have also drawn the ire of an older generation similarly disgusted by the explicit and vulgar portrayal of the country’s problems.

While individual tolerance of violence may differ, fixating on it would be to miss the point. In a video essay for TIFF, Bong Joon-ho commented that the distinguishing hallmark of Korean movies is the “extremity” in graphic violence — a reflection of the country’s political and social traumas. Murder and massacre aren’t the purposes of these works of fiction, but the means through which Korean directors have highlighted the scope of injustice and inequality. By extension, its extremity is in itself a statement against those in power who’ve sought to silence tragedies and exploitation.

Over the past century, the Korean peninsula has resisted foreign invasion, lost family in a civil war, and felt the pangs of accelerated modernization. These events have created lasting traumas that left an indelible mark on the national psyche and social fabric. Far from the genteel purity depicted in network dramas, it is a nation of binge drinking and overworked people who are famously proud and profane. Art should confront, rather than obscure, these realities — finally, we’re seeing Korean TV rise to the challenge.