In an especially unforgettable scene mid-way through Parasite – the savagely caustic 2019 hit movie directed and co-written by Bong Joon-ho – the middle-aged con woman Chung-sook Kim plaintively compares the evident differences in her personality to that of her family’s primary victim, the blithely trusting Mr. Park. “She’s nice because she’s rich,” says the grifter, “Hell, if I had all this money, I’d be nice too.”
It’s an especially resonant sentiment for our times, with the global economy paralysed by the worst inequalities recorded in the modern era, and the top 1% of the planet’s inhabitants securely in possession of more wealth than the remaining 99% combined . As his movie swept the Palme D’or at Cannes, and four Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director), Bong kept saying he wanted to represent the collective anxieties of those stranded in “society’s blind spots”.
Similar motivations underlie yet another superb South Korean cultural export, Yeoung-Shin Ma’s graphic novel Moms (Drawn & Quarterly), which was recently released in a deft, impactful English translation by Janet Hong. It illuminates subjects twice overlooked: the urban precariat that every country tends to ignore, and more specifically the interior lives of middle-aged working women trying to navigate the margins of late capitalism.
A good son
In an understated, rather moving afterword, 39-year-old Ma explains that – like an estimated 25% of his compatriots – he lived with his mother right through his 20s. It’s only after moving out that he “realised how difficult and frustrating household tasks are. Every time I’d carry out this menial work, I’d feel bad for my mom and it would make me think more deeply about her and her life.”
Then came breakthrough, “I presented my mom with a pen and notebook, with a note on the first page: “If you want your son to find success, write honestly about you and your friends, about your love life and theirs…I purposely gave her an expensive notebook. In less than a month, she produced a fair bit of writing.”
Ma says, “Her writing was at once a confession and letter to her son, with every entry concluding in regret or resolve, or in love for her children. Thanks to the melody and chorus she provided, I polished and revised her story, and brought it out into the world…I wonder if this is my first act of devotion to my mom, if, perhaps for the very first time in my life, I’m being a good son.”
Moms originally came out in 2015, and is the first of Ma’s 11 books to be republished in English. It’s easy to see why Janet Hong – its experienced and highly versatile Korean-Canadian translator – says she was “instantly drawn” to his style and subject matter. Over 368 painstakingly detailed and intensely atmospheric pages, the book draws us deep into the emotional landscape of Lee Soyeon (who stands in for Ma’s mother), and her friends-slash-rivals, as they strive to hold on to constantly fraying threads of their family, work and love lives.
There’s an uncanny verisimilitude to Ma’s work, which lifts this book to greatness. He’s both unflinching and empathetic to an unusual degree, so that readers become profoundly invested in the entrenched travails and minor triumphs of his characters. “I thought it would be more powerful to watch her make a mistake while reading about the regrets she had after making it,” the author explains. “We hear the truth about life in theory all the time, but we don’t always realize it in time to put it into action…My mom is a janitor, but she’s also a fighter for love.”
I emailed the translator Janet Hong to find out more about what singled this book out for her attention. “I haven’t really come across these types of stories about Korean women in their fifties, so I almost marvelled to think there was an entire world of people and relationships I knew nothing about,” she responded from her home in Vancouver. “I can’t imagine doing what Ma did. I have to applaud both Ma and his mother for their bravery.”
More than boy bands
Hong has done it all in her translation career: movie subtitles, picture books, plays, numerous different genres of fiction and non-fiction. Previously, she translated the highly acclaimed graphic novel Bad Friends by Ancco, which was awarded the Prix Révélation at the 2017 Angoulême International Comics Festival, only the second winner from Asia (the first was late Japanese manga master Shigeru Mizuki in 2007, for NonNonBa).
That highly prestigious prize is part of an unprecedented, and rather astonishing streak of international success for South Korean cultural exports. In recent years, besides Parasite, this country of roughly 51 million – for perspective, that population would rank 11th amongst Indian states, just above Odisha – has become a soft power superstar, gauged by both quantity (the boy band BTS alone generates over $5 billion for the country’s economy) and quality: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize in 2016.
I asked Hong what might explain South Korea’s transformation into cultural powerhouse. “Honestly, I don’t really know, because it’s not that Korea has gone through a sudden change,” she noted. “Maybe the world just wasn’t ready for Korea? It’s a strange time we’re living in. I was watching an episode of Ugly Delicious a while back where David Chang [who created the wildly popular Momofuku restaurant chain] talks about this exact thing. How, when he was growing up, Korean food was unpopular and considered “stinky”, something he was ashamed of when friends came over to his house. But who would have known that kimchi would one day be considered trendy, even sexy?”
“If I think about the particular ‘strengths’ of Korea, I think Korea is very good at identifying the top traits (= what people want) of any given thing, whether it’s pop music, TV shows, technology, etc., and good at synthesising these elements,” Hong said.
That conclusion fits very well with what we know about Hallyu (a Chinese term meaning “Korean wave”), the ongoing explosion in global popularity of South Korean music, film, television dramas, and fashion. Strategically seeded by the government (as of 2016, 1% of the national budget was devoted to “cultural industries”, besides another $1 billion fund “to nurture popular culture”), its impact is everywhere.
For just one example, when the music streaming app Spotify came to India last year, its startled Director of Product Growth, Owen Smith said, “My number one surprise was how big K-Pop was [with young Indians], I had absolutely no idea.”
The K Wave
In fact, although mostly invisible to what passes as the national cultural mainstream, with its incorrigibly single-minded focus on Hindi movies, it’s clear there are significant constituencies in India where the Korean Wave far outweighs Bollywood in reach, heft and impact. This is especially true amongst digital natives, the post-millennial demographic (sometimes called Generation Z) that has grown up with the cheapest internet bandwidth in the world, and its corollary capacity to tap in and consume anything from anywhere at any time.
“Here in India, the Korean Wave started in the North East states first,” said Mütsevelü “Mercy” Tetseo, of the soulful Tetseo Sisters singing group from Kohima. “Here in Nagaland, it started over 20 years ago with Arirang TV [the state-sponsored English language channel from Korea that began broadcasting in 1997], and pirated K-Pop and K-movies. We don’t have enough representation in the Indian media, which makes it easy for our people to identify with idols/stars who look closer to us. Shared values and aspirations also play a role.”
Tetseo said that Korean content is now even more easily accessible on Netflix and Youtube and “the wave is strong. It seems like it’s here to stay. Korean restaurants and grocery shops have popped all over Nagaland, and are doing great. Most people do admire the Korean culture – for me personally too – because the balance they seem to have found in letting the traditional and modern exist side by side is wonderful and worth emulating.”
Another of Nagaland’s outstanding musicians, Alobo Naga actively participates in promoting Hallyu by sponsoring Korean musicians to fly in and out of India and exclusively tour the North East. He told me, “as a business man and event company, getting K-Pop idols and groups to Nagaland has been very memorable and profitable too. Their professionalism is next level, and we have learnt a lot. They have locked in the winning combination for female teens and early adults: great fashion, very talented and cute boys and girls, awesome choreography, and kick-ass music videos.”
In all this cultural back and forth between India and Korea – which could date as far back as 2,000 years ago, as per the legend of Princess Suriratna of Ayodhya becoming Queen Heo Hwang-ok – one of the most interesting vantage points is that of Agnel Joseph, the Delhi-born Jawaharlal Nehru University graduate who has become an award-winning translator, the first-ever foreign staff member at Seoul’s government-sponsored Literature Translation Institute, and now edits its Korean Literature Now magazine.
Joseph told me Indians should pay heed to what’s happing in Korea: “I think the biggest value is that we can stop limiting ourselves to the western canon and learn about an Asian country with a rich cultural and literary history. Korean literature explores many themes that are of interest to us too, for example feminism and LGBTQ issues. There is a lot for the Indian government to learn from how South Korea promotes its literature, and actively subsidises its translation and publication.”
Added Joseph: “I think South Korea is a cultural powerhouse because of its highly educated, talented, and efficient people. Governmental support has played a major role in nurturing the writers and artists who are the wellspring of this culture. This country has experienced a lot of change in a short period of time, and even now change is constant here, and South Korea has fine-tuned the art of riding the wave to its people’s benefit. You only have to look at how well it has handled the Covid-19 pandemic to realise this.”
Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.