Closer to some hearts

A quick note after watching 3 Idiots – a 2009 Bollywood comedy – last night. It holds many box office records in India, but, interestingly, it is also the most highly rated film of all in Korean cyberspace. As of 9 August 2011, 9,094 Netizens have participated in the review and given, on average, 9.46 stars out of 10 to it.

Is this popularity random? Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that the film hasn’t been released in Korea (it is going to, next Thursday) and the naturally following question how these many people have then managed to see the film. The question I would like to pose here is this: when does a cultural product resonate beyond its contextual boundaries?

I have here and there on this blog talked about the (in)famously competitive Korean education system – a system that President Obama seems to be fantasising about, but survivors such as myself are (although degrees vary) traumatised about. Despite my unhidable sarcasm towards it, however, part of me has always been cautious that things might have moved on since my school years and I should probably let go. Sadly, news like the following tells me that things are not any better after more than a decade, if not worse.

Cruel spring at KAIST with fourth suicide (The Hankyoreh, 8 April 2011)

Indeed, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) is the South Korean real-life equivalent of the Imperial College of Engineering in the film. After the tragedy of a series of suicides earlier this year, insiders of the KAIST as well as outside observers started to voice out their concerns and call for a reform. With nothing concrete in sight yet, in the meantime, KAIST students are now eagerly looking forward to the release of the film and are even planning a group screening in their amphitheatre. To paraphrase a Twitter user, the film is now taken as a desperately needed dose of idealism.

During my master’s programme in Leicester in 1999, one essay question I worked on was:

Do popular phenomena, such as Madonna or rap, ‘resist’ dominant culture?

In response to this question, practically saying “Yes, they do”, I took an example of Korean youth’s love for hip-hop back then. (Well, as you will see, the language kind of gives away that I was young and into the whole hip-hop thing myself. :P)

In addition, it seems reasonable to question quite what makes “black rap music attract largely non-black audiences” (Stephens, 1992, p.62), especially Korean youth, who have nothing to do with ‘the bitter black history’. […] Korea has such a strong hip-hop subculture to the extent that the adjective ‘popular’ cannot fully describe the phenomenon. It is not just about club music and low-slung trousers. For example, recently, many hip-hop institutions, even colleges, have been established in Korea claiming that they can teach what real hip-hop is. When the first official institution opened on 7th of June 1999, public interest was so high that all places were taken up within three days.

[…]

Then it may be worth considering what about it attracts them to this extent, and the rigidity of the society can perhaps explain the phenomenon. […] For example, the censorship of the national TV channels is so strict that they do not broadcast the performance of any singers who wear earrings or have dyed hair. School discipline is more military in nature: many schools not only have school uniforms but also, for example, the restriction of hair length. Thereby a male student’s hair should not be longer than 1 centimetre and a female student’s should not be longer than three centimetres from her ears, with no hair accessories other than those in black or brown.

[…] It seems reasonable to argue that hip-hop’s ‘anti-formality’, above all other characteristics, appeals to Korean youth, who are somehow suffocated by too many disciplines. […] They interpret the essence of hip-hop culture in their own way, as a kind of symbol of freedom, which perhaps makes them feel emancipated, at least when they listen to rap music while wearing baggy jeans.

After many years, I find myself maintaining the exact same argument: phenomenal popularity is symptomatic of something within the society.

<Added on 13 Aug>

Amused by the pure coincidence between digging up a decade-old essay about the ‘black culture’ and coming across the next day David Starkey’s “the whites have become black” comment, which is now flying high on the BBC’s most watched/listened clips list.

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