Loud, colourful, nutty – Hallyu! The Korean Wave is an exhibition to revel in. It traces two things: South Korea’s rapid postwar transformation from colony to cultural trendsetter, and how its music, film and television, fashion and way of life have lately seduced imaginations worldwide.
The phenomenon is less a case of South Korean culture finally “making it”, more that the West has at long last taken notice. And notice it you almost certainly have, via Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 film Parasite, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and four Academy Awards, Netflix series such as Squid Game and Kingdom, or Psy’s 2012 hit viral single Gangnam Style, which at its peak had 14.8 million YouTube views a day and is still among the top 10 most viewed videos on the platform.
It’s a huge subject – too huge to be explored in orderly fashion, but that’s part of the show’s scattershot charm. Subdivided into music, or K-pop, television, or K-drama, films, and also cosmetics and fashion, each section has its own look and feel, which adds some clarity.
We begin with music and a wall of screens – Psy and his many parodists performing Gangnam Style – beside a case housing his iconic suit. Gangnam, a district of Seoul near the Han river, is today chic and affluent, but a grainy photo nearby reveals how, only 40 years ago, it was mostly rice paddies.
Sound – music, dialogue, more – is crucial to this show and the competing snatches can feel intensely distracting. Certainly that’s true of the early, scene-setting section, where a whistle-stop precis leaps from Japanese rule (1910-45) through the ravages of the Korean War (1950-53) and its aftermath (there’s some wonderful propaganda material here from the foreign powers then squeezing Korea), to the reemergence of Korean identity in the 1960s and 70s.
Throat-clearing over with, the exhibition coalesces beautifully. Hallyu (which means, exactly, “Korean wave”) proper began in the late 1990s, when the Asian Financial Crisis diverted thousands of suddenly unemployed, juicy young brains into digital start-ups. In candy-coloured cabinets, inspired by the architecture and signage of South Korea old and new, are “webtoons” – hand-drawn cartoons read vertically on a phone – plus some of the K-dramas they inspired, and those series’ props and costumes, including tracksuits from Squid Game. In a curtained-off booth, you can watch the famous fight scene (a continuous single shot, requiring 17 takes over three days) from the 2003 film Oldboy, or enjoy – and it is amazing – a meticulous recreation of the bathroom set from Parasite.
The heart of the show is K-pop, its catchy, upbeat tunes and choreography blitzing you on all sides. The room resembles a huge quilted leather karaoke booth – though covered in flashing light sticks, used at concerts by K-fans to interact with their favourite “idols”. A gorgeous 1966 painting of a young woman playing records in a traditionally decorated living room conveys the happy coexistence of ancient and modern culture in Korea. Ditto a case of jabara cymbals, gongs, even a seashell horn, which still feature in K-pop today. If you’re game, there’s also an interactive dance challenge. The show is full of these participatory moments – headphones dot most walls – and all of them a pleasure.
The final rooms, which cover beauty and fashion, are much calmer. Beside sweet pots and portable vanity boxes used by both men and women in the 1800s is an explanation of the 10-step skincare routine that routinely engulfs social media, and several contemporary reimaginings of traditional Korean garments such as the hanbok, both the elegant (Lee Young-hee’s jewel-coloured gowns from 1996) and the bold (transparent organza cargo pants). The variety of it all occasionally feels like an onslaught, but relax into it and the rewards are infinitely bewitching, not to mention enormous fun.
From Saturday to June 25 2023. Tickets: vam.ac.uk