Top culture stories of the yearAlmost all kinds of cultural activities were hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, with creators struggling to find ways to survive and consumers turning to virtual spaces to seek solace in the arts. However, the global appeal of Korean culture did not falter, in part thanks to director Bong Joon-ho’s films and K-pop superstar BTS, but also due to Korea's rich heritage. The Korea JoongAng Daily has taken a look back on 2020 and chosen the top 10 stories that had the biggest impact in the cultural sector.
Although the local film industry was dealt a serious blow due to the Covid-19 pandemic, one glimmer of hope which showed just how much potential Korean films have was director Bong Joon-ho’s acclaimed film “Parasite” (2019), which reaped four awards — Best Picture, Best Director, Best International Feature Film and Best Original Screenplay — at the 92nd Academy Awards in February.
“Parasite” also became the first foreign-language film to receive the top honor of Best Picture and the first Asian film to win Best Original Screenplay, an award shared by Bong and screenwriter Han Jin-won.
It also marked only the third time in cinematic history that the winner of Palme d’Or of Cannes won the Best Picture Oscar since “The Lost Weekend” (1945) and “Marty” (1955).
Parasite's victory also spotlighted Bong’s translator Sharon Choi for capturing Bong’s sense of humor throughout his Oscar campaign such as his famous saying, "Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films," and subtitle translator Darcy Paquet for wittingly translating the Korean dialogue to English subtitles based on different cultural contexts, such as translating Seoul National University to Oxford and the local instant noodle dish Chapaguri into ram-don.
The 12 actors and crew members of “Parasite” were invited to join the voting body of the Oscars, though Bong and actor Song Kang-ho had already joined the voting body prior in 2015.
TIME magazine also included Bong on its 2020 list of the world’s 100 most influential people.
BY LEE JAE-LIM
BTS rewrites the history books
Boy band BTS continued to soar to new heights in 2020, rewriting the history of K-pop on countless occasions.
Its monumental No. 1 reign on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart with its track "Dynamite" in September made the band the first and only Korean act to achieve such a feat and also earned the band a nomination at the 63rd Grammy Awards, also a first for any K-pop musician.
A tumultuous year was forecast for the K-pop industry due to Covid-19, which prohibited nearly all concerts and tours from taking place.
And BTS was no exception, canceling what would have been the biggest world tour for the band yet, which was scheduled to kick off after its seventh full-length album “Map of the Soul: 7," which dropped on Feb. 21.
But the band persevered, spreading messages of hope and love, but online.
Its first online concert “Bang Bang Con” in June garnered over 750,000 viewers in a single day, a record topped by its second concert held in October, with almost 1 million viewers during its two-day run.
On Nov. 24, BTS became the first K-pop act to be nominated for the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance award for “Dynamite.”
The 63rd Grammy Awards will take place on Jan. 31.
BY YOON SO-YEON
Director Kim Ki-duk dies at 59
The film industry was left in shock with the news of the death of highly esteemed yet controversial filmmaker Kim Ki-duk, who died in Latvia on Dec. 11 due to coronavirus-related complications.
Aged 59, Kim died about a week before his 60th birthday.
The filmmaker debuted with “Crocodile” in 1996 and soon began to receive global spotlight with films such as “The Isle” (2000), “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring” (2003), “Samaritan Girl" (2004), “3-Iron” (2004) and “Arirang” (2011).
Kim won the Golden Lion at the 69th Venice International Film Festival for his 2012 film “Pieta.”
He still holds the title as the only filmmaker in Korea to have been invited to and received major awards at all three major international film festivals: Cannes, Venice and Berlin.
Despite his global recognition, his films were disputed for often including violent and degrading scenes of women.
From 2018, the filmmaker was mainly active overseas due to a series of allegations of sexual harassment in his home country which erupted with the global MeToo movement. Several female actors who’d worked with Kim came forward and claimed they had been physically and sexually assaulted by Kim. One actor from his 2013 film “Moebius” accused Kim of physical and verbal assault, but charges were never brought by the prosecution due to lack of evidence, though Kim was fined 5 million won ($4,600) for physical assault.
Kim denied that the claims were true, but had been shunned by the local industry since then.
His last film was Russian-language film “Dissolve” (2019).
BY LEE JAE-LIM
Treasures for sale
The family behind the Kansong Art and Culture Foundation, founded by legendary collector Jeon Hyeong-pil (1906-1962), shocked the nation this year by placing three art treasures up for auction for the first time, citing financial difficulties.
Two items first appeared at the K Auction in May — Treasure No. 284, Gilt-bronze Standing Buddha, and No. 285, Gilt-bronze Standing Bodhisattva. Then in July, Haeak palgyeong and Songyu palhyeondo (Album of Eight Scenic Views of Seas and Mountains and Eight Confucian Scholars of the Song Dynasty) by renowned landscape painter of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), Gyeomjae Jeong Seon (1676-1759) also went up for auction. But none of the three managed to attract any bidders.
As the late Jeon is a well-respected figure by Koreans for dedicating his fortune to buying and preserving the country’s treasures during Japanese colonization (1910-1945), preventing them from ending up in Japan or elsewhere, the news of the foundation facing bankruptcy shocked the public. The foundation possesses about 5,000 items, including 12 national treasures and eight treasures.
The two Gilt-bronze Standing Buddha and Bodhisattva were purchased in August by the National Museum of Korea for a little less than 3 billion won for both treasures. The two items had initially been put up for sale with a starting price of 1.5 billion won each.
BY YIM SEUNG-HYE
A new kind of tourism
In a bid to creatively promote travel during the pandemic, the Korea Tourism Organization captured much attention with its video series "Feel the Rhythm of Korea" that made use of traditional Korean music.
Band Leenalchi, named after one of the eight most talented singers from the Joseon Dynasty, took traditional Korean songs from centuries ago and mixed them with electronic beats.
In the six videos set in six cities of Korea, which have been released on YouTube and other platforms one by one since last July, the members of Ambiguous Dance Company in hybrid costumes danced some hybrid dances to Leenalchi’s music pieces, in which the old songs of pansori, or Korean traditional musical storytelling performance, are combined with electronic dance music beats.
The video series has become a global hit, attracting more than 500 million views in total.
Other global entities offered online seminars and photo exhibitions to inspire people to choose their countries as a place to visit as soon as international travel for leisure becomes more readily available.
For those who can’t be satiated with online interactions, some airlines offered a chance to come on board.
Taiwan’s travel agency Ezfly and Tigerair worked with the Korea Tourism Organization to fly locals from Taiwan around Jeju Island, without landing, before returning home.
In Korea, Asiana Airlines opened the doors to its luxurious A380 aircraft, which had only been used for long-haul flights, for flights around Korean skies.
BY LEE SUN-MIN
Concerts find a new venue
Whenever the country saw a hike in the daily number of coronavirus cases, the government raised social distancing regulations, forcing most performing arts venues to either shut down or operate with just one-third of capacity.
Musicians and performing arts troupes were forced to hold virtual shows as an alternative. The government also stepped in to fund artists who are having a hard time creating online content, though many criticized that it wasn't enough.
Genres like opera, ballet, plays, traditional Korean performances and classical music concerts found it difficult to attract audiences for paid virtual performances, forcing many of them to offer their work online for free.
Meanwhile, more popular genres like musicals fared well, even introducing new repertoires for online only, such as the Korean production of "A Killer Party: A Murder Mystery Musical." With music written by Jason Howland, lyrics by Nathan Tysen and based on the book by Rachel Axler and Kait Kerrigan, this digital, remotely performed musical was created this year during the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.
K-pop acts’ virtual concerts were also successful.
As the concerts are no longer constrained by space, fans across the globe are actively attending live, online concerts that have become abundantly available. Taking these new audiences into consideration, concert organizers are making purchasing tickets from overseas more accessible as well as providing English subtitles for video content that plays during the concerts.
BY YIM SEUNG-HYE
This year, author and illustrator Baek Hee-na of the much loved children’s book “Cloud Bread” made headlines worldwide by winning the 2020 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (ALMA), the largest children’s book award in the world, which is often considered the Nobel Literary Prize equivalent in the world of children’s literature.
Baek was chosen from a total of 240 writers from 67 different countries. It was the first time for a Korean national to be awarded with the honor since the establishment of ALMA by the Swedish government in 2002.
The award-winning book was first released in 2004. The following year, it won the Illustrator of the Year Award at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in 2005.
Other achievements in the literary world this year include a double win by Kim Yi-deum who took both the ALTA National Translation Award and the Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize for her book "Hysteria."
"Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982" by Cho Nam-ju garnered a nomination for the Emile Guimet Prize for Asian Literature and was also a candidate in the National Book Awards’ category for translated works in the United States.
Jeong You-jeong's "The Origin of Species" and Pyun Hye-young's "The Hole" were both candidates for this year's LiBeraturpreis Award in Germany, which selects one female writer each year from either Asia, Africa or Latin America to spread creative works from their regions to readers in Germany.
"The Disaster Tourist" by Yun Ko-eun, released in Britain and the United States this year, has also been well-received, according to the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.
BY LEE SUN-MIN
Trot around the clock
Continuing their popularity from last year, television programs based on Korea’s unique old-school trot music genre saw high ratings again this year.
Korea’s trot fad began last year with TV Chosun’s all-female audition program “Miss Trot” that ran from Feb. 28 to May 2, and saw an 18.1-percent viewership rating at its peak during the final episode which crowned Song Ga-in as the winner.
Other channels soon followed with their own trot programs, but it was when entertainer Yoo Jae-suk created his own trot-singer persona Yoosanseul through MBC’s variety show “Hangout With Yoo” in September 2019 that the trend was considered in full swing.
TV Chosun followed the same format as its successful audition program, but this time with an all-male series.
During its 12-episode run from Jan. 2 to March 12, “Mr. Trot” recorded a whopping 35.7-percent viewership rating for its final episode. Winner Lim Young-woong and runners-up Youngtak and Lee Chan-won were showered with commercial deals, making them some of the most sought-after celebrities of 2020.
Even the film “Mr. Trot: The Movie” grossed 150,000 tickets after opening in October.
The second season of “Miss Trot” began airing on Dec. 17 on TV Chosun, while KBS airs “National Trot Festival,” SBS “K-Trot in Town” and MBC “The People of Trot,” every weekend.
BY YOON SO-YEON
Let there be lanterns
Yeondeunghoe, the lantern festival in celebration of Buddha's birthday, made it onto Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List this year.
The official name, "Yeondeunghoe: Lantern Lighting Festival in the Republic of Korea," was added during Unesco’s 15th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage that began on Dec. 14 at Unesco’s Paris headquarters.
A tradition that dates back to the 9th century based on the records in Samguksagi (the 12th century historical text of Korea's Three Kingdoms), Yeondeunghoe is an annual event celebrated both by Buddhists and non-Buddhists, who can easily participate by carrying self-made lanterns and join the parade in the streets festooned with colorful lotus lanterns.
Made out of hanji, or traditional Korean paper, the lanterns are crafted by traditional artisans who have mastered their skills through repeated practice every year during Yeondeunghoe.
The committee acknowledged Yeondeunghoe as a festival that plays a role in overcoming social boundaries and encouraging cultural diversity.
Held on the eighth day of the fourth month of the lunar calendar, the festival usually falls someday in late April or early May.
Yeondeunghoe is Korea's 21st intangible cultural asset.
BY KIM YEON-AH
Zen Buddhist monk and best-selling author Haemin quit all his public activities after being criticized for his not-so-Buddhist behavior portrayed at home and at work.
In November, Haemin appeared as a guest on tvN’s entertainment show “On & Off” which gives the public a glance into celebrities’ daily life at home and at work. During the program, he showed off his spacious two-story house located in Samcheong-dong, central Seoul and portrayed himself as the chief content officer of a start-up company that develops a meditation app — not so modest for a monk.
Local news outlet Chosun Biz also reported that his house in Samcheong-dong is owned by a temple of which Haemin is the chief monk.
These details of his life were in stark contrast to the image he had built in the past through his best-selling book “The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down” (2012), in which he advocated for a life with no possessions.
Haemin gained international fame through his book “The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down” which has been translated into more than 35 different languages and sold over four million copies, even topping Amazon Britain's list of best-selling books in 2017.
BY KIM YEON-AH