What Thais can learn from Korean culture
Despite their huge popularity, I've always held off from watching Korean TV series. But being forced into home hiatus during the Covid-19 pandemic, I found myself glued to the set watching Hospital Playlist and Live Up To Your Name -- two Korean TV hits.
Both series feature stories of doctors who, for me, are entertaining and so well made. The scripts, settings and other cinematographic elements are so well executed that the series become convincing stories of real people and emotions that viewers can connect with. Sadly, these elements can hardly ever be found in many Thai TV series, no matter how popular and entertaining they are.
I started to question how Korean cultural products -- like TV series, films, and even food -- became big global hits, while our cultural products -- except for Thai food -- have not risen to the occasion.
What impresses me even more is how K-pop culture and Korean products have been incorporated in these Korean TV series. Cultural elements, from Korean food to tourist destinations are subtly tied to invite viewers to try them firsthand.
After watching a few Korean TV series, one can gain advanced knowledge of Korean culture. I've learned about what they eat and drink and what they do. Much to my own surprise, I have been able to visualise how Koreans commute in cities and between towns.
I have also learned more about Korean national dishes. Apart from the popular kimchi, Koreans also eat tokpokki noodle and jjapaghetti (inky black sauce noodles) and drink soju and makgeolli (alcoholic beverages). Korean TV series provide a platform to showcase modern consumer lifestyles and brands such as Laneige, Hyundai and Genesis. They also showcase places such as Busan, Jeju and the Nami islands.
We all know TV series are products of make-believe. But Korean TV series are convincing enough for countless Thais to crave more K-pop culture, try new Korean food, learn its language, fly to South Korea -- or even date an oppa.
The success of the commodification of Korean culture didn't come naturally; it is a dividend of government investments in promoting cultural products as a national agenda item. The Korean government has poured support into this area.
The success of the South Korean film industry is a case study. Last week, the Thai Film Archive featured an article on the "Perspectives on Contemporary Korean Film Industry", based on an online conference by the University of Michigan Nam Center for Korean Studies.
Interestingly enough, Cho Juhyoung of the Korean Film Archive was quoted as saying that the Korean film industry fell to its darkest decade in the 1970s when filmmakers faced heavy censorship. The industry started to pick up in the next decade and enjoyed a renaissance in the 1990s simply because then-president Kim Young-sam saw the importance of the "culture industry".
Liberated from censorship, the culture industry has made a great leap of artistic creativity. Their achievements at the international level speak for themselves. The movie Parasite won an Oscar, while BTS -- a globally famous boy band -- was on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in May.
Turning to the Land of Smiles, I can't summon the names of locally made films and TV series that have succeeded in terms of cultural product commodification, except for the hit TV series Buppe San Nivas (Love Destiny), which revived interest in Thai history. Yet its achievements are limited to Thailand. Other than that, Thai food, products or tourist destinations are heavily promoted through the same old medium -- scripted, photogenic advertisements and VDO clips at so-called cultural fairs, supervised by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).
That does not mean that the government has not realised the power of media and cultural products. Its policies and support are just not conducive if it wants to sell Thai cultural products on the global stage.
A glaring example of this came in January when 30 million baht was forked out under the Thai Media Fund to award films that boost patriotism. Needless to say, we can anticipate seeing a parade of "patriotic" films urging us to give love, respect and devotion to our country.
And if the government is still using the media just to stoke nationalistic sentiment, instead of boosting creativity, Thailand will always stick to the same old marketing tools. The TAT will use cultural fairs and tourism expos to "sell" dances and cooking demonstrations. As South Korean TV series and films help subtly and efficiently to sell products, Thailand will keep relying on VDO clips featuring beautiful beaches, temples and smiling faces to persuade people to come to Thailand.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.