The Allure of K-Pop

Aimee Dawis, Contributor, Jakarta

In case you have not noticed, Korean popular culture, or K-Pop, is all the rage now. Meteor Garden, the Taiwanese television series that made a phenomenal splash in Indonesia in 2001, seems quaint compared to the onslaught of Korean dramas, movies, music videos, singles and albums.

Capitalizing on the immense popularity of K-Pop, The Face Shop, a Korean cosmetics company, now has branches in almost every swanky mall in Jakarta.

One of the company’s latest promotional campaigns offers its customers a trip to Seoul to see Korean megastar Rain dance and sing his soulful ballads and hip-hop infused tunes at yet another sold-out concerts.

What, exactly, is the appeal of K-Pop? Why has it virtually replaced imported media from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan and become the most popular Asian cultural industry in Indonesia? Those are the questions that intrigue me as a media scholar.

I first discovered Korean television drama in 2003 when I returned to Indonesia after spending 16 years split between Singapore and the United States.

In early 2004, I distributed questionnaires to research and analyze the different kinds of imported Asian television series watched by young Indonesians.

The resulting data showed that a majority of my respondents (80 percent) preferred to watch Korean television series rather than those from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan.

Titles such as Endless Love — starring Song Hye-kyo, an incredibly popular actress who endorses Etude, another Korean cosmetics company with stalls in Jakarta’s department stores — Winter Sonata — starring Bae Yong-jun, another Korean megastar who became a pan-Asian household name following the success of this series — and Hotelier — also starring Bae Yong-jun — cropped up many times as respondents’ favorite series.

At that time, my main concern was to collect data on trends in imported Asian media for my dissertation, and compare this with series that were popular during Soeharto’s New Order (1965-1998).

Thus, I did not pursue the K-Pop phenomenon until recently, when I began watching some of the series and realized, first-hand, why they have become so popular.

Compared to Hong Kong-produced series and movies that may seem staid and formulaic, Korean series and movies are innovative and well-edited. They also feature fresh, young faces rather than recycling the same stars over and over again. Their storylines are ingenious and fun, as opposed to unimaginative and serious.

The latest example of a creative and thoroughly enjoyable series that I have watched so far is Goong (also known as Princess Hours).

Rather than using megastars such as Rain or Bae Yong-jun, the producers of Goong have dared to cast relative unknowns. The series ultimately became one of Korea’s biggest hits in 2006.

The premise of the series is an imaginary modern-day monarchy, complete with a king, a queen and, most importantly, a 19-year-old prince (played by former model Joo Ji-hoon) with heartthrob good looks, who is worshiped by the entire teenaged female population in Korea.

Much of the series’ success, however, should be attributed to the fairytale story of a commoner (played by Yoon Eun-hye, previously a member of the pop music group, Baby Vox) who became a princess overnight after marrying the handsome prince.

Because the king’s health had taken a turn for the worse, the prince had to dutifully marry an ordinary commoner through an arranged marriage.

This unusual, arranged marriage was based on a promise his grandfather (the late king), made with his betrothed’s grandfather as a token of gratitude for saving his life.

In all of the 24 episodes, Goong holds its viewers captive through the blossoming love between the young monarchs, who at first disliked each other.

It also enthralls viewers with displays of the magnificent palace and the beautiful, hip clothing worn by cast members — especially those worn by the prince and princess.

The series became such a tremendous success that Goong 2 has already been produced and is slated for release in February 2007.

Unlike myself, my sister has been an avid fan of Korean dramas for several years. She gets the latest series from her friend, whose cousin is part of D-Addicts, a group of fans who download Korean series from an official website which permits the series’ transmission throughout the globe.

These D-Addicts also took it upon themselves to provide excellent English subtitles for the series and lyrics for the series’ soundtrack.

Members of D-Addicts have their own website and exchange information in chat rooms regarding stars, series, game shows, music videos and chart-topping singles produced in Korea.

Some are women in their 30s and admittedly have never had a steady romantic relationship because they are caught in the perfect dreamworld of Korean dramas.

Some even struggled to learn the Korean language so as to understand dialogue without subtitles.

In Indonesia, the recent establishment of a Korean Studies Center at the University of Indonesia is a testament to the escalating interest in Korean culture and language.

The Korean media industry’s fan base continues to grow as it aggressively markets and distributes more movies, series and albums throughout the world.

In October 2006 the Asian Wall Street Journal reported that Korean producers and distributors gathered in Busan, South Korea, for a film festival hoping to corner the Asian market.

Korean tabloids have also reported an ambitious US$30 million project starring Bae Yong-jun and Moon So-ri, entitled Legend, that will target 90 countries worldwide.

I predict that unless other Asian media producers improve their production and marketing efforts, Korean media will continue to dominate the Asian mediascape.

More and more fans will be saying "saranghae" ("I love you" in Korean) to their idols, while the popularity of Hong Kong, Taiwanese and Japanese stars fades away from the highly competitive world of Asian media.

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