The woman who single-handedly turned Korea into a global film and TV powerhouse

Using a mix of research, in-depth reports, and over 100 full-color data visualizations, Walt Hickey’s new book What You Watch: How Movies and TV Affect Everything? explores how movies, TV, and pop culture affect… well, everything, from what we buy to how we live. It is an excerpt from the following book, which is now available.

Japan and Britain have invested the greatest modern mythologies in soft power through cultural exports, finding ways to bolster their cultural needs and desires through those exports. Korea followed, and with little success.

South Korea has cleverly used the power of soft culture over the years. When movies or television showed South Korean or American travel to North Korea, they were more powerful motivators for those who called the stories and the level of affluence and lifestyle, encouraging them to flee the country.

After the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung lifted a ban on cultural imports from Japan. Later, in 1999, the Government allocated $148 million to cultural production after the passage of the law to fund it.

For the industry, the pop culture of one company, CJ Group, was operated by the founder and the queen of all Korean cultural production, Miky Lee, which basically built the film industry in Korea. Heir to the founder of Samsung, Lee has long been a patron and champion of film and culture at home and abroad.

CJ, the vehicle that Lee directs to the top of the cultural pile, is a form of Korean industry and globalization. The CJ Company came out as a sugar milling company. He later moved into food and beverage production, and then Lee Byung-chul founded Samsung, which went on to make up a very substantial chunk of the South Korean economy.

Lee, Lee Byung-chul’s niece, grew up watching American films. When he came into his inheritance, he decided to invest a small amount of money in a profitable company in the film business. At the same time, other Asian companies were already getting their feet wet in Hollywood: Japan’s Sony bought Columbia Pictures, and Matsushita was owned by Universal for a while, although they eventually sold it to Seagram.

Lee was intrigued by the potential of the company, which was formed by a number of experienced producers, to try something that had not been done by the established era of film-making by the film studio VULNUS. The founders had talent and skill, but they needed money. This company ended up being called DreamWorks and along with David Geffen, Steven Spielberg, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, Miky Lee put up $300 million in exchange for 10.8 percent of the company and all distribution rights for DreamWorks films in Asia outside of Japan.

Yeong-ae Lee is dressed in leather and has a frightened face as Lord Vengeance

2005’s Mrs. VindictaDirected by Park Chan-wook and executive produced by Miky Lee.
Photo: Tartan Films/Everett Collection

With his wealth, access to film distribution and importation, Lee was able to build a Korean film industry. CJ GCV, the company’s main subsidiary, owns 50 percent of the movie theaters in Korea. Partly because when it was built, the people came: In 1998, the average Korean saw 0.8 movies per year at the cinema, a figure that now stands at 4.0, one of the highest levels in the world.

And although it started as an importer to bring DreamWorks films into the country, the company has become a huge producer in its own right, producing films from Korean stations such as directors Bong Joon Ho and Park Chan-wook as well as local blockbusters. As a result, Korean domestic films now account for up to half of the market. As Korea’s only studio with foreign distribution, CJ is now trying to make three English-language movies a year.

Lee’s accomplishments are inspiring, taking the company from a flour baker to a food distributor to a film importer to a film producer to a film exporter, all over the course of mere decades. In addition to 4,187 shelves in 189 countries, CJ also owns sixteen television stations and has released 940 music albums.

And it’s not just CJ: South Korea’s national plan to transfer and export entertainment is collecting some bona fide hits. By 2002, Korea had its first international successes, including domestically popular soap operas Winter Sonatawhich had been translated into Iraq and Egypt and exported.

Korean music was one of the first of Korean culture to penetrate internationally, both with regional rivals-EXO, the combined Korean-Chinese pop band, and globally, whether with Psy and “Gangnam Style” became a YouTube juggernaut or BTS, unstoppable pop. Internally, there has been a global adoption of Korean pop culture—first in some other countries in their country, then in countries in the Middle East and Africa, and finally in technology in the United States and other rich, developed Western countries. it is called Hallyu or “Korean wave.”

And over the years, that wave has grown massively, and the success has gone from mainstream to mainstream. BTS has become one of the best-selling acts on the planet, and accounted for $4.65 billion of Korea’s GDP in 2019.

Korea also influences American culture in more subtle ways. Daniel Dae Kim – an actor best known for his roles in Lost and operates Hawaii Five-0-3AD, a production company that repackages television concepts that were hits in Korea for export to the United States. South Korea has developed and tested—and later imported Kim’s ideas for—such as Masked Singer, a competitive singing competition about masked celebrities, and The Good Doctor, a story about an autistic doctor.

The North Korean exile poll infographic is yours to watch

Graphic: Heather Jones (es) and Walt Hickey (info)

The insatiable appeal of South Korean cultural exports does not stop at the North’s borders, although the North Korean leader is trying to do just that. In January 2021, sources in South Korea reported a crackdown on people performing dramas and musicals in North Korea, with Kim Jong-un calling it a “vicious cancer” that, if left unharmed, would cause the North to rot like a damp wall. “The state media regularly press down against South Korean media traveling to their country. One reason seems to be that it is a kind of tool for reporting the situation in the North compared to the relative luxury in the South.”

A 2018 study that interviewed 127 North Korean defectors puts it a bit more precisely. Defectors have long achieved rapid anonymity in the South, but when one admitted in 2011 that K-drama was the reason for the flight, researchers wondered how much influence South Korean pop culture had on the North’s DMZ.

Of the 127 people interviewed who fled North Korea, 89 percent had seen South Korean media at least twice, despite the fact that only 40 percent of them had private access to the Internet. Seventy-two percent of them said they liked South Korean television dramas and movies, with fully 26 percent citing their enjoyment of K-pop. Fifty-seven percent said the impression of the South Korean media was “very” disappointing, while only 12 percent said it was of no importance. The follow-up questions revealed why: dramas showed a more free-spirited way of life, introduced fashion and hairstyles in the North, and raised expectations of what life in South Korea was really like versus what the state was told. Some noted that women could drive South Koreans; others noted that the randomness of the character never came out in K-drama.

As of the early 2020s, South Korean culture is at the center stage of global pop culture. Success Squid Game Netflix’s South Korean programming has been the most watched thing on the planet for several weeks. Even the slip-on Vans album, featuring characters worn in death matches, saw sales spike 7,800 percent in the weeks after the show premiered. According to Netflix, the show added $1.9 billion to the Korean economy.

In 2020, Korean content exports will hit $10.8 billion, beating domestic appliance and computer exports, which totaled $13.4 billion. Entertainment is one of the fastest growing industries in Korea, with the number of workers employed in performing arts services rising 27 percent between 2009 and 2019. In 2021, the song “Dynamite” generated $1.43 billion on its own.

CJ Entertainment & Media said in August 2006, “Everybody will watch at least two to three Korean movies a year, eat Korean food one to two times a month, watch one to two Korean dramas a week, and listen to one to two Korean songs a day.” , that Korean culture will be a part of everyday life.

Even in Quisque it, it was different, it was said to be funny. A decade and a half later it seems completely reasonable. After Best Picture and Best Director wins for Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite at the 2019 Academy Awards, Korean productions experienced the next halo effect. Post Parasite won the award, Bong and his producing partner spoke, thanking and appreciating the Korean movie industry and the woman who produced it, which of course was Miky Lee.

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What You Watch: How Movies and TV Affect Everything?

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