In the last few months alone, chances are you’ve heard the songs “Butter” and “Dynamite,” passed the “Skinfood” section of beauty superstore Ulta or scrolled down Instagram to see video after video of people trying to cut shapes out of thin yellow candy with needles. And if you haven’t, no offense, but where have you been? While they may seem unrelated, these posts and products are all part of something that’s been building for years: the “Hallyu,” or “Korean Wave.” And it’s not slowing anytime soon.
When Gayoung Choi, who immigrated to the United States from South Korea when she was 7 years old, first saw the name of her country in an elementary school textbook, she was excited and shocked.
“I was like ‘Wow, we’re in a textbook. That’s crazy!’” said Choi. After all, she said, it wasn’t until the 1990s and early 2000s that South Korea would really start to be seen globally as a “modern country.”
Oh, how things can change.
These days Choi, the executive director of the Orlando Korea Culture Center (OKCC), is less surprised to see her country’s name in print or to see products of her culture blasting on the radio, popping up at the front of the Netflix queue or being the topic of discussion for American skincare influencers.
Perhaps as a result of globalization, she said, the popularity of South Korean cultural exports like beauty products, music and film has grown in recent years, taking off in a major way after Psy’s “Gangnam Style” exploded in 2013. South Koreans, she said, have a unique and creative take on art and performance to offer the world, and the more Americans see it, the more they crave it.
“The demand is there to learn about Korean culture,” she said, and the OKCC exists to teach the masses about it. They host a yearly “Korea Festival,” classes on Korean language and food and special events like an upcoming “Squid Game’’ program in which participants will try the games featured in the Netflix smash hit. No one, Choi assured, will be “eliminated.”
But even before this dark drama lit up the Top 10 queue on Netflix, 2019 Korean thriller “Parasite” was cleaning up at the Oscars, taking home multiple Academy Awards including one for “Best Picture.” And groups like Wonder Girls were taking their acts overseas to wow American audiences, according to Choi, long before bands like BTS and BLACKPINK took hold in the U.S.
This growth of Korean culture in the States has a name: “Hallyu,” which translates to “Korean Wave,” according to Minhae Roth, who earned a master’s degree from the University of Miami in 2017 and is now a Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley incorporating Korean cinema into her studies.
If you, like tens of millions of other Americans, binged “Squid Game” on Netflix, congratulations: You’re a part of the wave. But what exactly is it about Korean cinema, as well as K-Pop and K-beauty, that we find
According to Roth worldwide audiences may be attracted to Korean cinema for some of the same features that prompted 60% of students who responded to a Distraction Instagram poll to watch “Squid Game.” These films and shows, she said, tend to take place in the real-world, versus a different universe, and have complex plot structures,
vivid violence and a brand of dark humor that appeals to viewers from all over.
Additionally, they frequently look at issues audiences from around the world can relate to: examinations of masculinity and femininity as well as struggles of class and wealth, pitted against the backdrop of a hyper-capitalistic society. While you may be hard-pressed to find superheroes on the silver screen in Korea, she said, underdog stories are common, and who doesn’t love a good underdog?
Both K-pop and K-drama, Roth said, are captivating because they present a version of hyper-realism, but in very different ways.
On screen, she said, Korean films oft en deal with a heightened reality and a unique brand of violence and darkness. But on stage, this hyper-realism takes the shape of the performers themselves, whose carefully crafted presences can be larger than life.
K-Pop concerts, said freshman psychology major Ari Nicolas, take place on a grand scale, complete with fi reworks, confetti and thousands of screaming fans waving specially designed light sticks to their favorite artists’ catchy tunes.
“BTS fans are called the ‘Army’,” explained Nicolas, who said this was her favorite group, even though that might be a little “basic.” And at concerts “there’s something called an “Army Ocean” where all their light sticks are lit up and there’s synchronized colors.”
This sort of interactive show, in addition to the elaborate dance numbers and styles displayed by the artists, helps pull in K-pop fans who don’t understand a word of Korean.
Roth said that in her opinion, five specific elements play a big role in the increasingly mainstream appeal of K-pop: choreography, fashion, sex appeal, fandom and hair.
The choreography that goes into music and shows, she said, is synchronized and rigorous, the result of hours and hours of training. Group members, she said, sport unique fashions and often dye their hair bright colors, making them stand out from the crowd as idols and trendsetters.
But, she said, sometimes idol culture can turn into a fetishization of Korean bodies.
Nicolas said she first started listening to K-pop about three years ago, aft er being exposed to it through her love of anime, a style of animated Japanese fi lm and television. Despite the differences between these distinct cultures, she said, there is a decent amount of crossover between the K-pop and anime communities, as anime productions may feature K-pop songs or fan artists may draw K-pop figures.
For Nicolas, one of the biggest draws of K-pop is simply the charisma of these bands and the seemingly genuine friendships between members, which are often on display as they post on social media, put dance videos on YouTube or make appearances on late night shows around the world.
This type of content, she said, helps fans feel a connection with their favorite artists and with each other—something Choi said is another essential element of the K-pop appeal. “Cohesion among fanbases is so
strong,” she said, “and I think that is all fueled by the artists themselves. They really try to cater to their fanbase.”
Becoming a K-pop star or “idol,” as they are called, is incredibly hard work, and those who succeed are often truly grateful for their fanbase and consistently show this appreciation.
The music industry in South Korea, Choi explained, is largely different from that of the U.S. In order to someday become idols, prospects must first audition for major entertainment conglomerates. Those who make the cut undergo a “rigorous process of being shaped by these companies.”
“They control a lot of aspects of your life like your social life: your dating life, what you look like, what your hair looks like, what your image is in public, what you wear, what you sing, how you dance,” she explained.
South Korea, Choi said, embraces a culture of hard work, and those looking for fame are held to incredibly high standards.
Another aspect of the culture, she said, is an emphasis on beauty and conformity that has likely contributed to the rise in popularity of Korean skincare products.
“The need to conform to beauty standards is what makes our skincare routine so intensive,” she said. “People on the outside looking in like Americans see that and say ‘wow, they really know what they’re doing, they really care about their skin.’”
Indeed, American beauty influencers have taken note of Korean products and processes, often raving about them in YouTube videos, TikToks and Instagram posts. A quick Google search for “10 step Korean skin care routine,” a popular regimen that some version of has been explored by publications like “Vox” and “Self,” yielded approximately
13 million results in .88 seconds.
“I f*cking love Korean skincare,” popular beauty influencer “Hyram” shared in a YouTube video with over 1.1 million views.
“Korea best exemplifies using powerful, effective ingredients but also focuses on naturally derived and soothing ingredients,” he said, “something I think the Western world needs to catch up a little bit on.”
Whether the “Korean Wave” will keep growing or market saturation will remain at a steady level, Roth said, remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure: Gone are the days where Choi would be surprised to see the name of her home country in a textbook, let alone on the big screen.
words_kylea henseler. design_maria emilia becerra & lindsay jayne. illustrations_daniella pinzon & isa marquez.