South Korea is Having a Moment

One of my new year’s resolutions was to read more foreign books and watch more foreign movies. (In translation of course, I’m your typical uni-lingual North American.) I have found some wonderful writers, such as Leonardo Padura from Cuba and Spain’s Arturo Perez Reverte. But lately I’ve been watching and reading more from South Korea. They are definitely having a moment.

Besides winning the Best Picture Oscar for Parasite, Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer has become a TV series on TNT–although the jury is still out on how good it is, and why it’s so Asian-free is something of a mystery. He’s one of those directors that, while I don’t love everything he’s done, is always worth a watch. (Seriously, The Host is an under-rated blast, Okja is too earnest for its own good.) And, although he didn’t direct it, Train to Busan is the best Zombie movie I’ve seen in a very long time, and I’m not a big fan of the brain-eating undead.

A month or so ago I shared with you my love of the historical fiction/zombie series, The Kingdom. Netflix has a bunch of Korean films and series (Black is creepy AF), and wherever (and whenever) they’re set, they have this air of being just different enough to be intriguing. Not Chinese, not Japanese, and definitely not what I’m used to.

There have also been two books recently that I really enjoyed. The first, is The Plotters, by Un-Su Kim. It’s an easy-reading oddball take on a political plot and the assassin hired to make it all work. Again, it feels like a standard political thriller but the world it portrays is just slightly… different.

The other book, and the one that’s getting all the international buzz, is Kyung-sook Shin’s, “Please Look After Mom.” It’s the tale of a family forced to deal with the changes in family dynamics, class and how little we know our parents and each other. It won the Man Asian Literary Prize, and is a staple of book clubs. While it’s not quite perfect (the changing POVs have no logic to them) it is an engaging, dramatic and heart-tugging story.

I know next to nothing about South Korea, and know very few people from that background, I suspect that will change as I go down the rabbit hole like I did with Hong Kong gangster films and all things Toshiro Mifune.

And I’m not alone. A colleague of mine in Northern California is hooked on the Korean version of Telenovelas. BTS is jump-starting puberty for a whole generation of tweens. Like, I said, the country is having a moment of pop culture relevance it’s never had.

What movies or books from other cultures and languages are you taking in? Maybe more importantly, why not?