Nostalgia Again Big in Pop CultureNostalgia, or as the French call it "la mode retro," is back. As the country slides into another economic downturn, people have had enough of doom and gloom. Instead, they like to talk about the good old days, when people weren't rich but filled with hope and romance.
Perhaps the retro culture really never did go out of fashion. After all, nostalgia is more concerned with the emotional boundaries of time than physical boundaries.
The "Boramae Dance Hall" exhibition at the Gallery Loop, an exhibition center in Hongdae, is one such example. Filled with visual references and playful comments on modern art photography, the exhibition features scenes from the suburban ballroom dancing club.
In one picture, a woman is wearing a gaudy, almost eccentric-looking ball gown. Her partner appears to be posing in an exaggerated fashion. Although the dancers' postures and facial expressions are awkward, artist Jung Yun-do says the photographs were not staged. All the subjects are students and instructors at Boramae. They are simply concentrating on what they are doing.
The exhibition is not a parody, according to Gallery Loop curator Kim In-sun. She explains that the aim is not to laugh at the dancers, nor to deconstruct the images from an intellectual viewpoint, such as in kitsch, for example.
"Just try to appreciate the image as it is and have fun," she says. "That's what the dancers are doing."
Many artists and writers are focusing on these romantic aspects of the past.
Art critic Kim Mi-jin says the photographs are culturally significant because ballroom dancing is interactive and partner-sensitive compared to many activities of today's "techno generation." She names computer games and techno dances as a few examples of such modern entertainment.
"Also, this ballroom is clearly different from the fancy nightclubs or cabarets where rich people spend a fortune," she says. "These places are mere imitations of romanticized western culture. The ideas have probably come from Hollywood films."
Choi Jong-jin, a dancer at Boramae, says the essence of dancing is in "changing partners." He writes on the Boramae homepage that this is because "no one in the group feels left alone." He strongly encourages students to change partners while dancing, so no one feels alienated.
Boramae Dance Hall was once an air force military school where many political ceremonies were held during Korea's military regimes. Today it is a place where middle-aged men and women return to the past.
The music industry is also cashing in. "Dr. Lee", mostly known by his stage name, Shinbaram (roughly traslated into "Jolly Tune"), recently introduced a unique musical genre called "techno ppong-jjak," a blend of Korean-style foxtrot and rough techno beats. Titled "Shinbaram, Dr. Lee's Disco Melody," the debut album has sold more than a million copies. The music is popular with people of many ages, including teenagers.
Musicians such as Jo Sung-mo and Lee Eun-mi have also released popular albums containing songs from the '70s and '80s. The albums feature ballads and soft rock, which dominated Korean music back then. The albums have done well on the domestic pop chart. The commercial success of the recently released "The Beatles 1," a collection of digitally remastered hits, is another example. More than 200,000 albums have been sold in Korea alone, according to a Tower Record spokesperson.
Korean pop critic Song Ki-chul says nostalgia has almost become a "cultural product" in recent years.
"Nostalgia is no longer simply a momentary emotion," he says. "It's an emotional state with which many people easily identify. From a cultural viewpoint, it's a safe way to gain people's attention."
The film industry has jumped on the bandwagon, too. "Dachimawa Lee," directed by the 28 year-old Ryu Seung-wan is an example. Featuring poor choreography and badly dubbed post-recording, the film parodies Hong Kong martial arts films of the 60s. Showing on-line and off-line, this 35-minute comic action film has attracted the attention of young film enthusiasts. More than 200,000 have visited the on-line site since it opened in December.
Film critic Lim Sun-young draws an analogy regarding the spread of nostalgia in the film industry.
"It's strange, because most of the people who watch "Dachimawa Lee" probably haven't even experienced those times," she says. "But they are the ones who love the movie the most. It's almost like a fashion statement to them. At the same time, this is the limit of parody, or any form of art that is simply imitating or romanticizing the past. They are interesting to look at, but lacking any in-depth observation."
Whatever the reason, the '70s and '80s are booming amid today's mainstream culture. More and more couples want their wedding photographs in black and white, and LPs are back in the record stores.
Analog culture is "in" and so is Bruce Lee.
by Park Soo-mee