Mysteries, controversies mark 2015 culture scene

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Mysteries, controversies mark 2015 culture scene


A fan of pianist Cho Seong-jin picks up his new album on the day of its release on Nov. 6 at Kyobo Bookstore in central Seoul. [JOONGANG ILBO]

Cookbang, or cooking show, craze results in the rise of cheftainers

Newly coined words often reflect changes in culture and society. And some of this year’s neologisms - cheftainer and cookbang - certainly indicate top trends of 2015.


Cookbang is a compound of cook and bang, which comes from bangsong or “broadcasting” in Korean. A slew of cookbang have produced cheftainers, which are both chefs and entertainers. Of all the cookbang, “Please Take Care of My Refrigerator” on JTBC played a crucial role in expanding the popularity of chefs and cooking shows. The show brings the refrigerators of celebrities to the studio and chefs compete to create dishes from the contents in 15 minutes.

With the increasing popularity of the show, chefs who regularly appear on it such as Choi Hyun-seok, Sam Kim and Lee Yeon-bok are enjoying tremendous popularity.

All the aforementioned chefs have signed endorsement deals and expanded their businesses.

For example, Lee, a master in Chinese cuisine, launched his own brand of frozen, pre-cooked Chinese dishes through a TV home shopping channel in July and has sold more than 7 billion won ($5.9 million) worth of chili shrimp so far.

Another beneficiary of the cookbang craze is Baek Jong-won (pictured above). Before Baek began to appear on the popular reality show “My Little Television,” he was an entrepreneur in food franchises, but now his simple recipes have made him the most sought-after cheftainer.

Plagiarism and a deeper scandal cause shake-up in literary world

The plagiarism controversy that engulfed star novelist Shin Kyung-sook in June shocked local literary circles, as well as readers, because Shin is not only an influential literary figure in Korea, she is also one of the few Korean authors who has built a successful career internationally.

Novelist Lee Eung-jun wrote in an article published on Huffington Post Korea that Shin plagiarized from “Patriotism” (1961) by Japanese author Yukio Mishima (1925-70) in her own short story “Legend” (1996). Shin suffered further criticisms for her ambiguous response to the allegation. But after avoiding the press for days, she eventually said the “accusations are valid.”

“I don’t recall reading ‘Patriotism’ no matter how hard I sift through my memories, but it’s come to the point where I can’t trust my own memories,” she said.

But what’s more, the scandal revealed other skeletons in the closet of the Korean literary publishing industry. Observers say the Korean literary world has lost the self-correcting mechanism of true criticism leading to pure commercial hucksterism, pointing to what they dub the “literary cartel.”

They say publishing houses commission critics to write rave reviews to promote their star writers, and people who say negative things about the works being promoted by publishing houses are told to shut their mouths or be permanently excluded from the industry’s inner circle.

An artist dies mysteriously and a painting riddle remains unsolved

Chun Kyung-ja, a rare female artist of her generation and one of the artists most favored by local collectors, passed away Aug. 6 in New York due to chronic illness. She was 91. Chun’s death was confirmed in late October - two months later - by her eldest daughter, Lee Hye-seon.

Then, a few days later her son and second daughter held a press conference and said that Lee hadn’t informed them of their mother’s death. The event raised questions about the last days of the artist’s life and her death. Chun had lived in New York since leaving Korea in 1991, furious about the controversy over the painting “Beautiful Woman,” which has heated up again since her death.

In 1991, the artist insisted the painting was not hers but a forgery, but the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art rejected the claim. Chun’s son and second daughter have requested a re-appraisal of the painting.

Controversial works spark debate over free speech and expression

Controversies over free speech made headlines throughout the year. At the center of discussion was a violent poem by a 10-year-old girl and a popular singer’s interpretation of a well-known child character in a sexual way.


In “A Single Dog,” a collection of poems published in March that includes “The Day I Hate Going to the Academy,” young poet Lee Soon-young seems to suggest that her mother should be boiled and eaten for sending her to after-school classes. Many expressed discomfort at the violence in a book meant for children. As soon as the poem became controversial in May, the publisher decided to withdraw all the circulating books from stores. The book was republished in November without the controversial poem.

Singer-songwriter IU was also involved in the free speech debate with her song about the character Zeze, an abused child, from Jose Mauro de Vasconcelos’ novel “My Sweet Orange Tree.” The song “Zeze” of IU’s latest album, “Chat-Shire,” contains the lyrics: “You are pure, but you are sly. You look like a young child, but you are filthy.”

The novel’s Korean publisher also raised concerns over the album’s cover art, in which a child “wears fishnets and poses like a pin-up girl” in front of a tree.

Local films have a good year at the box office, beating overseas rivals

The local film industry enjoyed yet another prosperous year in 2015 as three home-grown movies amassed more than 10 million ticket admissions, which is considered a key yardstick in evaluating a film’s success here.

Yoon Je-kyun’s 2014-released family drama “Ode to My Father” became the first film this year to achieve the feat by attracting 14.3 million moviegoers, while earning 111 billion won ($94.8 million). With the character Deok-su (Hwang Jung-min), an emblematic figure of Korean fathers, the film played well with the older generation.

The month of August saw two movies that surpassed the significant milestone when Choi Dong-hoon’s historical action flick “Assassination” (12.7 million viewers) and Ryoo Seung-wan’s action comedy “Veteran” (13.4 million viewers) thundered into the summer box office.

Starring a slew of A-list actors including Jun Ji-hyun, Ha Jung-woo and Lee Jung-jae, “Assassination,” which centers on a group of independence fighters during the Japanese colonial era (1910-45), clicked well with the country’s overall sentiment leading up to the 70th anniversary of liberation.

On the other hand, “Veteran” which was packed with splashy action scenes, comedy and big-name stars such as Hwang Jung-min and Yoo Ah-in, drew in viewers with pure entertainment value.

Aside from local movies, Marvel’s “The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” of which a portion was filmed in Korea, was the only foreign film to achieve the 10-million mark.

Young classical musicians bring home the trophies and the honor

Classical music experienced a resurgence toward the end of the year with young Korean pianist Cho Seong-jin winning first prize at the International Chopin Piano Competition in October.


As the first Korean to ever win the top prize at the prestigious competition, Cho made Koreans proud and sparked renewed interest in classical music. In fact, 2015 has been the year of young Korean classical musicians, as they brought home top prizes from the most noteworthy competitions around the world.

It started with violinist Lim Ji-young, who won the first prize at the Queen Elizabeth Music Competition in May, and continued with Mun Ji-yeong, who became the first Asian winner of the Ferruccio Busoni International Piano Competition in September. And all three winners were educated only in Korea - a further point of pride.

Fashion, music and especially TV find success in going old school

Retro has ruled the nation’s entertainment scene ever since the hit success of “Totoga,” a special episode of the popular reality TV show “Infinite Challenge.”


“Totoga” is an acronym of “Saturday Saturday is a Singer” in Korean. The show held a concert that included all the big names from the ’90s earlier this year. Thanks to the show, these ’90s musicians have been experiencing a comeback. For example, Turbo, the ’90s dance duo, has reunited and released an album earlier this month. The dance group has since swept online music charts.

The drama series “Reply 1988” (pictured) also plays on nostalgia. The series, set in 1988, tells simple stories of families and friends, but its props, fashion and music become the talk of the town after every episode hits the air.

Since its first episode aired on Nov. 6, the series has been setting viewership records every week. The program’s Dec. 19 episode recorded 16 percent viewership, the highest in the show’s history, although viewership is calculated among households that subscribe to paid channels. It was also the highest among cable TV shows at the same time.

Contentious appointments in top positions make waves at ministry

It’s been a difficult year for appointments for top positions at affiliates of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

It started when the Korea National Opera attempted to fill its artistic director post that had been vacant for 10 months last January by choosing former soprano Han Ye-jin, 44, despite criticism for alleged lack of professionalism and appropriate experience from other opera-related organizations. She held the position for three weeks, but stepped down abruptly after much protest and the Korean National Opera was left leaderless once again. The spot was finally filled as the Culture Ministry announced in July the appointment of Kim Hak-min, an associate professor of theater and film at Kyung Hee University, as the new artistic director.

Another controversy took place earlier this month at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art when the ministry appointed Spanish-born Bartomeu Mari Ribas as the new director, bringing about great resistance from local art circles. He is the first foreigner to take helm of a Korean government organization.

Prior to his appointment, the director post, which was vacant for more than a year, has been considered by several local candidates, but Culture Minister Kim Jong-deok turned them down. Kim said he would consider a foreign applicant, stating there are no boundaries when it comes to contemporary art. Mari, former director of the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, started Dec. 14.

Summer MERS outbreak shrinks tourism by locals and foreigners

The Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak in the summer hit the country’s tourism industry hard after it had already been struggling to bounce back from the Sewol Ferry disaster in 2014, which kept many at home.

Many locals stayed away crowded places and many schools and companies also canceled their group trips and events. And because the outbreak swept the country in June, right before the summer travel season, the country also lost a lot of incoming foreign tourists. From January to October, the country saw almost 11 million foreign visitors, which is an 8.6 percent drop compared to last year, according to the Korea Tourism Organization.

To shake the negative image, the government kicked off the “Korea Grand Sale,” the country’s largest sales promotion for foreigners, in August instead of waiting until winter. Travel agencies also gave out discounts.

Deadlock continues as the status of a precious artifact remains unclear

Hangul, the Korean alphabet devised in 1446, is one of the rare writing systems in the world whose creator, year and reasons for the creation are so clear.

“Hunminjeongeum” is a guide to hangul published in 1446. Before 2008, Koreans had only one version of the text, kept in the Kansong Art Museum in Seoul. But that year, another authentic copy surfaced, as Bae Ik-gi, a collector of ancient artifacts, in Sangju, North Gyeongsang, informed the state-run Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) that he owns a copy - which CHA experts confirmed.

“Hunminjeongeum” made headlines this year, as there was a fire at Bae’s house and the possibility that the ancient text might have been damaged. Bae has not given clear answers as to whether or not the treasure is intact, but he is demanding that the government buy it from him for 100 billion won ($86 million). However, an antique dealer, who had claimed that Bae stole the book from him, won a civil suit in 2012 and announced that he would donate the book to the state. The CHA even held a donation ceremony - without the presence of the artifact, since only Bae knew where it was. CHA’s current position is that there is no need to pay Bae for the book, resulting in a deadlock.
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