The Whole Idea Is to Gross You OutWhat began last year as a fad among the youth in cyberspace has caught the imagination of the public at large. Bizarre and even grotesque music videos, commercials and comedy shows are now in vogue, even in the mainstream of the media. This trend is exemplified in a popular new daily sitcom being aired by the Seoul Broadcasting System, "They Are Unstoppable" (Wenmanhaesoe gudeuleul mallilsu eopda).
In the show, a young woman is invited to visit her boyfriend's house for the first time and, much to her distress, discovers that his family is in the habit of passing wind with abandon. The exaggerated sounds of flatulence punctuate conversation as the family sits down for dessert. In a later episode, the woman's mother, during a visit to the man's house, takes her daughter aside and encourages her to join his family in passing wind, proceeding to set an example. Greatly relieved, the father comments that people should not be inhibited by what is, after all, a natural bodily function. This is a green light for the family to be at ease and the loud sound of wind being passed reverberates in the living room.
Sounds disgusting? Well, apparently not too disgusting to be aired on network television. The episodes from "They Are Unstoppable" rely on creating what would normally pass for disgusting or bizarre situations to make people laugh.
Hundreds of sites featuring yeopgi jokes, animation and films have mushroomed on the Internet, feeding the frenzy for the weird and the disgusting. In fact, according to the local Internet portal site Simmani, the word "yeopgi" － bizarre, in your face, shocking － emerged as the most searched keyword last year, surpassing "sex." This is a testament to people's fascination with the unusual. Naver.Com, another popular portal, selected Yeopgi House at www.ggame.net as one of last year's most popular Internet sites along with FoodFood, www.foodfood.co.kr, a grocery delivery service, and D3C Net, www.d3c.com, a free online site for Korean and Japanese comic books.
Cable television stations' offerings are more extreme than those by the networks, with some programs dedicated purely to the bizarre. After Comedy TV, specializing in comedy programs, aired a show in which people were forced to eat red-bean paste pastry filled with a live loach － a take on the fact that the pastry is called goldfish cake but filled with red bean paste － and billiard balls, among other things, were dropped on people, the station was ordered by the Korean Broadcasting Commission to air an apology to its viewers. The commission declared that "the program was harmful to youth."
"Yeopgi is in vogue at the moment because it appeals both to our sense of the cute and the gross," said Chung Shin, 24, a trend-spotter. In fact, the dictionary definition of yeopgi, "seeking the strange and the different" has gone out of favor.
According to Ms. Chung, yeopgi fever has its roots in comic books. For example, the characters in the movie "Unbreakable," a movie which she categorizes as belonging to the yeopgi genre, are based on characters found in comic books.
The advertising industry has also been bitten by the yeopgi bug. Industry insiders cite television ads for Korea Telecom Freetel, a mobile phone operator, as being the most representative of the yeopgi ads on air. The ads for Na brand mobile service feature a rather unattractive man as well as a popular singing group in a shabby setting hardly befitting the latter's pop idol status.
"The ugly model and unexpected settings all make the ads grotesque and unusual," pointed out Yoon Shei-ling, CEO of Cats and Dogs, an advertising agency. "People are so used to seeing stylized ads featuring beautiful people in beautiful settings that having a strange looking man as a main character in an ad threw them off."
Part of the explanation for the proliferation of such absurd and bizarre ads can be found in the advertisers' need to make a strong impression. "Advertisers want something that has an immediate impact, not necessarily something that translates into increased sales," Ms. Yoon said.
While most of the bizarre jokes and animation have been innocuous, the obsession with the grotesque has had some ill-effects.
"Yeopgi fever is having a ripple effect on the whole of society," said Ms. Chung, citing the example of the delivery of poison to g.o.d, the pop group that was featured in the Korea Telecom Freetel ad. "Even though there are probably very few yeopgi junkies interested in the real hard-core stuff, it cannot be denied that it is making an impact on all aspects of society."
While some people point at the mass media for having fomented the yeopgi craze, people in the industry deny that the media are culpable. "We are only following the trend that is already out there," said Yee Sun-woo, a manager at Welcomm, the advertising agency that created the Korea Telecom Freetel ads.
It is a just reflection of the social milieu in Korea in 2001, according to Mr. Yee. "We conducted an extensive survey of what the target group, those in or freshly out of high school, was interested in and discovered that yeopgi and retro were the common thread binding the people in the group."
What is driving the penchant for things dirty, bizarre and grotesque? It could very well have to do with the ever-increasing stress experienced by today's youth.
"People have two basic instincts - aggression and sexual drive," explained Yang Chang-soon, a psychiatrist in private practice in Cheongdam-dong, Seoul. When people are under duress, these two instincts increase and fascination with yeopgi may be viewed as an expression of the increase, Dr. Yang suggested.
However, the demise of yeopgi later this year has already been predicted. "A hot trend usually lasts 6 to 12 months at the most before it loses steam," said Ms. Yoon. Ms. Chung agrees: "I see it ending by this summer."
So what should we brace ourselves for next as we bid farewell to the Age of the Bizarre?
"I suspect we will turn to the other extreme," said Ms. Chung enigmatically. "We've had enough Tabasco Sauce for now, so the time may be ripe for some mineral water."
by Kim Hoo-ran