2021's top culture stories
“Squid Game” sweeps the world
Just a month after its release in September, Netflix Korea’s original series “Squid Game” became the most-watched Netflix content of all time with some 140 million viewers around the globe.
“Squid Game” centers around 456 players selected by mysterious hosts to participate in a series of children’s games that have a violent twist. Contestants put their lives at risk to become the ultimate winner and earn prize money of 45.6 billion won ($38.7 million).
The series also broke the record for longest time in the No. 1 spot on the Top TV shows in the world on Netflix chart — 46 consecutive days from Sept. 23 to Nov. 7. It also became the first Netflix original series to top the daily charts in all 83 countries in which the streaming platform currently streams.
All the lead and supporting cast members also saw global popularity. Lee Jung-jae, Jung Ho-yeon, Wi Ha-jun, Heo Sung-tae, Kim Joo-ryung, Park Hae-soo, Lee You-mi and Indian actor Anupam Tripathi saw their social media followers skyrocket soon after the release of the series.
In an online interview with local broadcaster KBS on Dec. 28, its creator Hwang Dong-hyuk said that he is in discussion with Netflix to create season 2 and 3 of the series.
The series recently won the award for Breakthrough Series — Long Format at the 2021 Gotham Independent Film Awards, marking its first major win at a U.S. award show.
The international success the series saw also had an impact on other Korean content such as “My Name” and “Hellbound,” both of which are Netflix Korea originals. The latter shot to the top spot on Netflix’s daily global chart just a day after its release.
Youn Yuh-jung brings home Korea’s first Oscar
“Squid Game” was not the first Korean content thrust into the global spotlight in 2021. It was actually an independent film from American director Lee Isaac Chung, who is of Korean descent, that first drew praise.
“Minari,” starring Korean-American actor Steven Yeun and Korean actors Han Ye-ri and Youn Yuh-jung, is based on Lee’s own life and tells the story of the Yi family who immigrate to the U.S. to chase the American dream, settling in rural Arkansas in the 1980s.
Youn, who is a veteran actor in Korea with some 50 years of experience, received staggering attention for her performance as Soon-ja, the grandmother of the family who flies all the way from Korea to help take care of the Yi’s young children. After the film’s world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020, Youn won over 30 supporting role awards including from the Screen Actors Guild Awards and British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards.
Most notably, Youn became the first Korean actor to be nominated and ultimately win the Oscar for best supporting actress at the awards ceremony held in April. She is only the second Asian actor to win the award after Japanese-American actor Miyoshi Umeki took home the accolade in 1958 for her role in “Sayonara” (1957).
“Minari” was also nominated for Oscars in the categories of best picture, best director, best original screenplay, best original score and best actor for Yeun.
Youn, director Chung, Yeun and Han were all invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in July.
Youn was also included on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of 2021.
A donation like no other
The hottest topic in the art world this year was what would happen to the vast art collection of late Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Kun-hee (1942-2020), as the deadline for his family to file their inheritance tax returns quickly approached.
Finally, on April 28, Lee’s family announced they would donate 23,000 artworks and artifacts from Lee’s collection including National Treasures such as the 18th-century painting “Inwangjesaekdo (Scene of Mount Inwang After Rain)” and paintings by modern art masters such as Kim Whanki and Salvador Dalí, to Korea’s national and municipal museums.
The unprecedented scale of the donation quickly caught the interest of the general public with tickets for a special show of the older art pieces of the donated collection at the National Museum of Korea quickly snapped up over the summer.
The ongoing exhibition focusing on the modern art of the collection at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) remains booked out until early January.
More than 30 local governments expressed hopes that they could become home to the so-called Lee Kun-hee Museum and display part of the donated collection. They cited a new museum’s economic and cultural effect on their areas, while complaining about the concentration of cultural facilities in Seoul. However, the culture ministry announced on Nov. 9 the museum will be built on a Songhyeon-dong site in central Seoul, near the MMCA, citing easier access for the public and easier collaborations with workforces at nearby museums.
Meanwhile, Leeum Museum of Art, which is operated by the Samsung Foundation and is the nation’s biggest private museum but had been virtually dormant since 2017, reopened its doors to the public in October.
BTS continues making history
BTS continued making history in 2021. The boy band dropped its second English-lyric megahit “Butter” in May, which topped the Billboard Hot 100 a total of 10 times and became this year's longest-reigning No.1 song on the chart. "Butter" also recorded the most No. 1s by an Asian artist in Billboard history.
In November, BTS won three awards at the 2021 American Music Awards (AMAs): Artist of the Year, Favorite Pop Duo or Group and Favorite Pop Song for "Butter" — becoming the first Asian artist to win Artist of the Year, the top honor at the AMAs.
Later that month, BTS was nominated for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for the upcoming 64th Annual Grammy Awards for "Butter.” BTS was nominated for the same category last year but did not win. Fans of the seven-member group are holding their breath to see whether BTS will become the first K-pop artist to receive a Grammy. The ceremony is scheduled for Jan. 31, 2022.
The band also took home four awards including Top Duo/Group from May’s Billboard Music Awards, collaborated with British rock band Coldplay to release their hit “My Universe” and saw some 214,000 audience members during its four live concerts in Los Angeles held from Nov. 27 to Dec. 2.
5. A rare discovery
In June, a rare discovery in the heart of Seoul had the hearts of historians racing.
The Cultural Heritage Administration announced that a pot was unearthed at an excavation site of the “Urban Environment Maintenance Project” in Insa-dong next to the Tapgol Park in Jongno District. In it, there were about 1,600 pieces of metal movable type. About 1,000 of them were Chinese characters and 600 hangul, or Korean alphabet.
It marked the first time in Korea’s history that various metal movable type from the early Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) were unearthed from one site in such numbers, not to mention that it included the earliest hangul metal movable type.
The type also included Chinese characters likely to have been created in 1434, known as the Gapinja type, during King Sejong’s reign. Though more research needs to be done, experts are positive that some of the metal movable type are indeed Gapinja, which would make them the oldest existing metal type in the world with an identified production date. As the excavated spot was a non-royal site, questions still remain as to why such treasures were buried there.
NFTs in the culture sector
In July, limited edition NFTs, or nonfungible tokens, of “Hunminjeongeum,” a book of the Korean alphabet created by King Sejong (1397-1450) in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) were sold to 100 buyers, each priced at 100 million won ($83,800).
Later in October, webtoon artist Lee Jong-beom released NFTs of some of the most memorable scenes and the main characters of his psychological drama webtoon series, “Dr. Frost” (2011-21), marking the first time for NFTs of webtoons to ever be sold in Korea.
NFTs have emerged in the K-pop industry as well, with acts like Kang Daniel, Leenalchi, Ateez, Jo Yu-ri and The Boyz all releasing NFTs of their songs or merchandise.
HYBE, the entertainment powerhouse behind boy bands BTS and Tomorrow X Together, announced its upcoming plans during an online briefing in early November, to develop an NFT business based on collectible photo cards, set for early next year.
The price of NFTs ranges from as little as a couple of thousand won to as much as hundreds of millions of won. Their uses also vary from a means of investment to a simple, meaningful souvenir.
One NFT that made headlines this year came from MBC’s popular variety show “Infinite Challenge.”
The NFT of a viral clip from the show sold for 9.5 million won, the most expensive NFT the broadcaster has sold since first entering the NFT market in July.
K-pop in the metaverse
“Metaverse” was a buzzword throughout 2021 and several K-pop artists stepped into the virtual online space.
Perhaps the hottest rookie of the year, girl group aespa’s entire concept centers around the metaverse. Members appear for performances and on entertainment shows with their respective “ae” — alter egos in the virtual world — which take the form of computer-generated avatars. aespa’s hits “Next Level” (2021) and “Savage” (2021) are known for their cryptic lyrics depicting the group’s journey to unite with their digital alter egos.
K-pop powerhouses are also eager to hop on the trend.
In November, YG Entertainment recreated its cafe “the SameE” on Naver Z’s metaverse app Zepeto. The cafe really exists in the agency’s Seoul headquarters, but a metaverse version made it easier for fans, especially those abroad, to pay virtual visits amid the pandemic. Virtual visitors can also enjoy watching girl group Blackpink’s music videos in the metaverse cafe.
Also in November, singer AleXa took her fan meet and greet to the metaverse in collaboration with a British video game start-up. Her virtual fan meet attracted some 24,000 attendees.
Another nod from Unesco
Korea’s tidal flats, which are common along the coastline on the west and south of the peninsula have enjoyed unprecedented spotlight this year.
In July, four of Korea’s tidal flats, known as getbol, were designated as Unesco’s World Natural Heritage, becoming Korea’s second natural heritage to make it on the list. The four getbol are: South Jeolla’s Sinan, North Jeolla’s Gochang and South Chungcheong’s Seocheon, which are along the coastline in the West Sea, and South Jeolla’s Boseong and Suncheon, which are by the South Sea.
The biodiversity of the tidal flats was highly valued. They are home to so many migratory birds, seaweeds and underwater creatures. The getbol in Boseong and Suncheon, in particular, are home to the most Hooded Cranes in the world, some 4,500.
Korea now has 15 Unesco World Heritage Sites.
To promote Korea’s new Unesco designated natural heritage, the Korea Tourism Organization has created a hit promotional video on the getbol. The video is nicknamed “Mud Max,” and it features a group of tractors speeding in the mud fields of one of the inscribed getbol, reminiscent of scenes from the 2015 film “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
On Dec. 20, the Cultural Heritage Administration also designated the traditional practice of tidal flat harvesting, known as getbol eoro, as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage.
A wave of accusations
Allegations of school bullying against celebrities this year proved fatal to the careers and reputations of stars across the entertainment industry.
Public figures ranging from athletes, actors and singers were exposed or accused of having been bullies.
Allegations of this kind came to the forefront in February, when twin volleyball players Lee Jae-young and Lee Da-young were accused of bullying their classmates in middle school. After admitting to the accusations, the pair were suspended from the national volleyball team and banned from ever holding coaching positions.
Actors Jisoo, Park Hye-soo, Jo Byung-gyu as well as K-pop singers Soojin (a former member of (G)I-DLE), Hyunjin of boy band Stray Kids and Mingyu of Seventeen were also accused of school violence. Hyunjin made an official apology and temporarily suspended all his activities for four months. Soojin on the other hand, after months of denying the accusations, ended up leaving (G)I-DLE for good.
Although stars like Naeun of girl group April never directly addressed the allegations against her, advertisements that she featured in were halted immediately.
Jisoo took responsibility for his actions when a series of accusations were posted online in March, alleging the actor was a bully. Jisoo immediately responded, admitting to his past misdeeds. He was dropped from the KBS series “River Where the Moon Rises” in which he was starring as the lead role and was replaced by Na In-woo.
From fried chicken to fine dining
Korean fine dining restaurants operating in Seoul are now expanding to global gastronomic cities to show a more refined side to Korean food.
Mosu, Seoul’s two-Michelin-starred restaurant, announced in October that a new branch of the same name will open in Hong Kong early next year, at the recently opened M+, Museum of Visual Culture. The move by chef Sung Anh of Mosu Seoul, who originally started his brand in San Francisco and moved to the capital city in 2017, signals rising demand for finer-style Korean food in the global market.
Seoul’s one-Michelin-starred restaurant Onjium also made its way to New York in November, joining hands with Hyundai Motor to open the automobile company’s Genesis House to better promote its luxury brand, Genesis.
Onjium is an institute for research into traditional Korean culture, and has three studios that specialize in food, clothing and housing.
This growing interest in Korean food is also evident from this year’s list of World’s 50 Best Restaurants, which gave a nod to New York restaurant Atomix, run by Korean husband and wife, chef Park Jung-hyun, more commonly known as JP, and manager Ellia Park. It landed at 43rd place, the highest rank a Korean chef has reached by cooking dishes inspired by Korean flavors.