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[Kim Seong-kon] Between Hollywood and Hallyuwood

Many young Koreans are avid fans of “Mid” (“Miguk” drama or American drama) and Hollywood movies these days. They are crazy about American television dramas such as “Prison Break,” “CSI” and “24,” and idolize Wentworth Miller, David Caruso and Kiefer Sutherland. Korean women love Miller, who plays the charming Michael Scofield in “Prison Break,” and have nicknamed him “wansonam” (Totally Adorable Man). They love to watch other American television shows including “American Idol,” “Friends,” and “Lost,” to name but a few. They are also fascinated by blockbuster Hollywood movies such as “The Dark Knight,” “Matrix” and “Inception.”

At the same time, however, Koreans criticize and even resent American TV dramas and Hollywood movies, accusing them of spreading American values and capitalist ideology all over the world. “Hollywood movies play a crucial role on Americanizing the world,” leftist radicals insist resolutely. “In the early 20th century the world was westernized. Now the situation is even worse; the whole world is being Americanized.” They warn us that since globalization means Americanization, the world will soon end up with one monochromatic culture: American culture. Therefore, we should sabotage Hollywood movies.

Strangely, few Koreans acknowledge that Hallyu (the so-called Korean wave of movies and television dramas that has spread throughout Asia and even in Middle East) may have the same cultural influence American media has in other countries. Southeast Asian countries, for example, may complain that Korea is spreading Korean values, ideals and political ideologies through Korean movies and TV dramas. Yet, we could not care less and we are just overjoyed with the enormous popularity of our movies and television dramas overseas. That, however, is an extremely ego-centric attitude, aptly summed up by a famous Korean maxim: “When others have an affair, it is a scandal; when I have an affair, it is a romance.”

Some of us may argue that we do not intentionally spread our values to other countries through our movies and TV dramas. But Hollywood could claim the same thing. No country intentionally crams her values or political ideologies into pop art before exporting it. Films and TV dramas automatically reflect the values, ideals and customs of the country that produces them. By the same token, we cannot criticize McDonald’s or Burger King as a harbinger of American cultural imperialism, while we try to export kimchi to other countries. Once again, we cannot blame food for deliberately spreading a particular country’s values and ideals. Food, too, automatically embodies the unique taste, flavor and characteristics of the country of origin.

We blame American movies for transmitting American values. In this postmodern age, however, when all boundaries are rapidly collapsing, it is difficult to define what exactly an American movie is. In his unpublished essay “American Movie Industry,” John Sullivan points out that there is no such thing as a strictly American movie today. First, there are many foreign directors in Hollywood such as Rennie Harlin, John woo, Ang Lee and Jane Campion. Second, there are numerous non-American actors and actresses in today’s Hollywood: Nicole Kidman, Pierce Brosnan, Hugh Jackman, Hugh Grant, Sean Connery and a host of others. Third, most Hollywood movies are financed by foreign capital, including British, French or Italian investment. Fourth, many American movies are filmed in foreign countries: “Titanic” in Mexico, “Apocalypse Now” in the Philippines, “First Blood” (Rambo) in Canada. Besides, several major film distribution companies in the United States are owned by Japanese. What, then, is an American movie? Indeed, it is hard to tell.

Once again, leftist radicals may assert that globalization is actually leading to Americanization. If we look form a different angle, however, we can perceive globalization not as Americanization, but as cultural interaction, mutual influence and idealistic consolidation. Take recent Korean movies, for example, such as “The Quiet Family,” “The Host,” “Haeundae” and “The Good, the Bad, the Weird.” You can immediately notice mutually beneficial cultural interactions between Chungmuro and Hollywood. “The Quiet Family” reminds you of “The Addams Family”; “The Host” resonates with all sorts of American monster movies; “Haeundae” with so many Hollywood disaster movies; “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” is obviously a parody of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

People say that today there are three famous film-making meccas on earth: Hollywood, Bollywood and Hallyuwood. If so, it would be unfair to condemn Hollywood only in the name of cultural imperialism, while praising Hallyu’s popularity overseas, for Hallyu can just as well be condemned as cultural imperialism. Things are much more complex than the simple-minded assertion of radical leftist scholars. Even postcolonial feminism does not always perceive a husband as a colonizer and his wife as the colonized, because a husband and wife’s relationship is much more complex and profound. Before simply dismissing something as cultural imperialism, we should be able to penetrate into the complexities and profundities of cultural interactions and mutual understanding. And we should be mature enough to embrace and criticize both Hollywood and Hallyuwood on an equal basis. Then we will realize that the two can be quite similar indeed.

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, is president of the Association of Korean University Presses. -- Ed.