Hanliu (한류), also known as hallyu or the “Korean Wave,” refers to the Korean cultural phenomenon now sweeping across East and Southeast Asia. Korean culture is hot right now, especially in Japan and China. Asians are discovering the uniqueness and intrigue of a place once known as the Hermit Kingdom. The phenomenon started with the spread of a 20-parent Korean drama series produced a few years ago called “Winter Sonata.” You might have even heard of this series in the news. Right now it’s the hottest thing in Japan and very popular throughout Asia. Other Korean drama series that are popular right now include “Summer Scent”, “Fall Fairy Tale”, and “Stairway to Heaven” (yes, the Led Zepplin classic is one of the featured songs). I enjoy watching these dramas to improve my Korean, but they are not my kind of movie. They can be slow, and the plotlines are too simple and have too many coincidences for my taste. Rather than using violence to create suspense, these dramas tend to inflict characters with illnesses–blindness, amnesia, and heart failure. Nothing like a good heart transplant to bring people together.
My wife, who grew up in Asia, is crazy about these movies. Her favorite actor is a hunk who makes every woman in Asia weak in the knees, Bae Yong Jun (배용준). Very few actors have made the same kind of splash in the U.S. as BYJ has in Asia. The rapid rise of Leo DiCaprio after the release of the movie “Titanic” is probably the best comparison to Bae hysteria in Japan and Asia. Interestingly, the popularity of “Winter Sonata” has cooled in Korea because it’s already a few years old. I imagine that when the new “Spring” series comes out–the last of the four “seasons” dramas, it will be immensely popular in Korea and Japan.
Korean movies have heightened interest throughout Asia in other aspects of Korean culture, including music, technology, martial arts (tae kwondo), and language. In Japan the wave of Hanliu is still on the rise. It’s rare that the Japanese embrace another culture so quickly and feverishly. Korean dramas are especially popular with Asians because many closely identify with the dramas’ main themes–love, love triangles, family duty, personality conflicts and manipulation, innocence, intimacy, and tragedy. Korean culture itself is intriguing because it still embodies many Confucian principles, and Asians are revisiting these principles, perhaps for the first time. This is especially true in China, which lost some of its Confucist character following World War II and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.
For Christmas I bought my wife the “Winter Sonata” soundtrack and a Bae Yong Jun T-shirt. After an exhaustive search I found just one to buy on the Web. (I found it at Kpopmusic). I told my mother, and she exclaimed, “You bought her a T-shirt?!” An American, she doesn’t understand. At this moment that’s the best gift I could give her. She plans to wear it proudly and show it off to all the Koreans she knows.