Past perils become memories and the keys to the future. The adversities that our ancestors have overcome, their culture and lifestyles that have formed the present Korea are occupying today’s movie screens, computer monitors, and TVs. Indeed, the Korean media has been sounding nostalgic echo over the past few years, becoming an essential medium of communication between the younger and older generations. Will this retro media trend end, or will it serve as a foundation of our future media?
The long-lasting Korean entertainment program Infinite Challenge once again proved that no challenge is undefeatable. The program’s special episode, “Saturday! Saturday is a Singer,” also known as Totoga, which was broadcast early this year, successfully realized social integration. By casting legendary Korean singers of the 1990s, the popular TV program swamped Koreans with their memories and verified the power of retro culture in the media.
So did the movie Ode to My Father (2014). Depicting the lives of courageous Korean fathers who overcame diverse hardships, this retro film of recent Korean history stimulated the tear glands of many movie goers. This recent trend shows that retro is more than mere imitation of the styles and attitudes of the past. It instead reveals that retro is closely linked to the bittersweet desire for past situations and a sense of emptiness and discontentment with the present.
Since these retro style works contain more than the historical and political facts of the past—they shed new light on the overall social culture, life styles and even the fashions of the time—the retro boom takes a step forward from mere historical drama. Depending on what era the retro media is paying attention to, it reflects deficiencies of the present.
The Palette of the Parents
It is difficult to clearly distinguish the 1960s from the previous decade, since most of the changes that occurred were an aftermath of the Korean War that ended in 1953. People still had low living standards, a situation aggravated as the United States (U.S.) reduced its aid to Korea. People were politically suppressed, too, as corruption was rampant, and they did not have the full freedom to speak out. In other words, the darkness of the society that was covered by the chaos of war started to be revealed.
Nevertheless, even for such a dark time, the 1960s were also an era of new buds starting to sprout. Beginning with the April Revolution, students and citizens united to fight against the dictatorship, to accomplish democracy and create a better life for their sons and daughters. They took part in the Vietnam War, in which the U.S. used Korea as a base of operations, for the economic development of the country. Under the common goal for economic independence and democracy, the citizens were more united than ever, which became the foundation of modern Korea.
Accordingly, the 1960s were rather unstable. Yet what grew firmer in this period was the unconditional devotion of parents. Their cohesion and conviction to achieve a national shift, while holding on to the importance of family are what make the 1960s worthy of revisiting. In modern society, which is equally swarming with political corruption and oppressing the freedom to speak, the 1960s acts as a consolidation—to unite and act under the value of family and country.
“Rather than the historical facts, the retro movies of the 1960s show the typical atmosphere and hardship of the period,” says Lee Je Seok, a producer in the Korean Broadcasting System’s (KBS). Along with Ode to My Father(2014), the film Chronicle of a Blood Merchant(2015), also known as Heosamkwan, deals with fathers of that time who had to sacrifice to make something out of nothing. They won the sympathy of older generations who could recall such pains as priceless memories. At the same time, they give energy to the younger generations who are repressed by the suppressive reality. Therefore, the 1960s, which is like a palette that contains all colors from bright to dark, paints the hearts of modern people with some hope.
The Immutable Essences of Life
The 1970s was an extension of the previous decade, but with even more vigor and liveliness. With consecutive five-year plans of former South Korean President Park Chung Hee, the country grew economically active in a noticeable way. Exports prospered, and Korea was escaping from its reputation as a country of war and colonization. Koreans stayed diligent and cooperative under the New Community Movement, which aimed to reduce social disparity by improving basic living conditions and rural infrastructure.
On the one hand, such development allowed the people to retain their identity as Koreans. On the other hand, it intensified individual ambitions for wealth. The movie Gangnam 1970(2015) unveils the hidden side of the expensive Gangnam district, which then and now, is a symbol of authority and status. By seeing the district as a desolate wasteland, though, the retro film forces people to compare and contrast the present with the past.
On the other side of Seoul were the passionate and naive youngsters enjoying the springtime of their lives. With the influx of western culture, openhearted youngsters were easily taken by foreign folk music, acoustic guitars, and long hair. While the country was oppressed by a military regime and ongoing corruption, music was the only haven for many university students to express themselves. Such essences of life—music, love, and youth—which were intact in the chaotic 1970s fill up the broken hearts of modern people who are confused by commercial K-Pop music, temporary love, and youth lost by overheated competition.
The music of the 1970s has had a big influence several times in the past. This year’s C’est Si Bon(2015) played a big role in linking the 1970s to the present. “Along with music and first love, the movie reproduced the whole living culture of that time,” said the culture critic Kim Heun Shik. Retro fashion, such as miniskirts and bowl haircuts, and the now-gone music halls that once vibrated with youth depicted in the film do not seem obsolete. Instead, they arouse the curiosity of today’s youth, instill a sense of nostalgia in older generations, and ultimately create a bridge of communication.
Nostalgia for Innocence
The 1980s was a decade of political strife against the government of Jeon Du-hwan, the 11th and 12th president of Korea. Autocratic power, molded by fraudulent elections and military regimes, had by then reached its peak, and university students spilled out into the streets to speak out against injustice. The period was marked as an era of youth who fought for equality and freedom.
The reason for the popularity of 1980s retro media culture lies within the categorization of the generation as the culmination of student movements. Unlike today, when people are flung into a Möbius strip of mammonism, an endless cycle of competition based on materialistic values, the social resistance held higher passions. “The protesters have grown to trample over others’ success for their own profits,” said Kim. He continued, “To them, the 1980s have become a modern myth of unadorned honesty, when they could express sincere thoughts to the society and the public.”
This nostalgic longing is well tackled by the retro media through movies and songs, and it has satiated people’s thirst for unpretentious love and courage towards the world. For instance, the movie Sunny (2011) works as an exact prototype for their nostalgia as the story focuses on a middle-aged woman recollecting the 1980s when she was a high school student. The movie was a big hit because it succeeded in projecting today’s desire to escape from the present hardships by indirectly experiencing the past. Watching the protagonist, audiences found the vicarious satisfaction of returning to the untainted past, experiencing genuine friendship and the sincere emotions of first love.
Social Loopholes and Pop Culture
By the 1980s, Korea had achieved a prodigious success, leading to the “Miracle on the Han,” the culmination of economic development within less than a century. Yet an ominous specter lingered behind the hasty accumulation of wealth, and the illusion of Korea’s infinite growth was shattered in 1994 and 1995 through the following accidents: the serial murders of the Chijon family and the collapses of the Seongsu Bridge and Sampoong Department Store.
If the retro media of the 1980s has gained popularity by satisfying people’s longing for the remembered innocence of their youth, the media also uncovers contemporary social problems. For instance, the movie Traces of Love (2006) exposes the excruciating pain the victims’ family suffers after the Sampoong Department incident. This is in the same vein as the massive protests regarding the sinking of the Sewol ferry, and through the movie the audiences sympathize and identify with the suffering the families of those who perished on the ship are going through.
The 1990s indeed had social troubles; nonetheless, they are also remembered as the birth of K-pop. An unwavering trust in wealth encouraged people to turn their attention from their labor to entertainments, leading to an increase in cultural development and the birth of X-generation, who became the foundation of present-day trends. Watching the TV programs or concerts of today, people witness sentimental sympathy shared between the 1990s and the present as famed X-generations are still acknowledged as nationally beloved celebrities.
For example, Park Jin Young and Yang Hyun-suk, who stirred 1990s listeners with songs such as “Honey,” are still taking the lead in today’s music industry. The singing competition series Superstar K, where teenagers mostly sing old songs and Park and Yang act as judges shows that 1990s culture is still felt by today’s generation and that Korean popular culture ripening through the process of reproduction. “The past itself is only fragmentary pieces of memories,” said Lee. He added, “The past becomes meaningful only when it shares a bond of sympathy with the present and is enthusiastically recreated, reflecting today’s values.”
Connecting the Dots
Retro culture has now become a cliché with dramas and concerts bombarding the media every minute, but the public does not seem tired of the trend. The TV program Infinite Challenge, “Saturday Saturday is a Singer,” pushed aside other Saturday cybercasts, recording the highest viewer rate, 22.2 percent. Songs of the 1990s such as “Poison” by Uhm Jung-hwa or the remake of “All for You” still rank high on the music charts.
The most basic reason why the retro media culture never cools down is because of people’s sympathetic recognition of the past. The present is always overwhelming—many people feel like a modern Sisyphus, suffering a never-ending fatigue from academic burnout or employment stress. To such people, the retro media becomes a window to bygone days by bringing up memories of the robust, reliable shoulders of ones’ fathers and the innocence of youth.
More importantly, the retro media connects the dots of the past and the present as it suggests sympathetic introspection towards Korea’s economic vulnerability and provides chances for a diversification of genres. “The past is always with us. It sometimes becomes an exit from this world of pretense, but often inspires breakthroughs from heart-warming memories,” said Kim.
Perspective on the Retro Trend
In this sense, the movies, TV programs, and music that recall the past 50 years of Korean history serve as a cultural bridge that integrates all Koreans. On an individual level, such sentiments comfort modern people suffering from daily turmoil, the unpredictable future, and the constant inflow of information. Familiar media content reduces their resistance to the unfamiliar present and future so that they can slowly accept and become part of them.
However, as the saying dwelling on the past only blinds you to the future, the retro media has also been the target of criticism, that it is too hackneyed. In fact, after the Totoga boom, the singers of the 1990s dominated the radio and entertainment programs of the three major Korean public TV networks. They also appeared in magazines and newspapers, repetitively explaining about their heydays 20 years ago, their career breaks, and their current lives. The Totoga fame did bond Koreans, but the media eventually found itself tied up in the 1990s.
It is true that from a social perspective, as the number of such individuals increases, the retro media forms its own cultural identity. In other words, it is no longer a temporary phenomenon that satisfies specific people, but a permanent one that can affect all of society. As people watch and listen to the stories of the past, they take time for introspection, form new bonds of sympathy, and create a new social consensus. Nonetheless, this social effect will remain as an ideal hypothesis unless the media makes a breakthrough from its retro boom.
“The problem with the retro craze in Korea,” confessed Kim,“is that it is solely led by the one-way media.”Considering that the power of the unilateral TVs and cinemas overshadow the more interactive radio and performances in Korea, the retro boom is not yet generalized and habituated in people’s daily lives. Korean TV and cinema are mostly monopolized by certain broadcasting companies and film producers, which means that viewers do not have much of a choice about what they get to watch. With TV and movie screens filled with stories of the past, people are somewhat forced to watch them.
Rather than showing what viewers want, the present media is playing its own game. It is chasing high viewing rates and the 10-million-viewer mark, and once it achieves its goal, it calls the retro fever “the trend,” one that people are fanatical about. However, a trend is unworthy of the name until people are actively seeking it on a daily basis. The retro trend led by the media is indeed a good start, but it now needs to hand over the baton to other cultural areasin order to become a true part of Korean society.
The Past Is Never Dead
“You’d think retro media culture has naturally occurred due to people’s interest towards the past,” said Kim. In a cafe, the song “As Time Goes By” by Choi Hosub was playing on the radio. He wearily smiled and added, “But the media is not that naïve.”
Behind retro media culture’s glorious role in unifying generations, the uncomfortable truth lingers—the media, no matter how beneficial it seems, is still a profit seeking industry. “Personally I don’t like watching I am the Singer,” confessed Kim. He continued, “What’s the point of making the washed-up singers compete? The media is not trying to recommend retro music to people; it’s just trying to earn money.”
To prevent retro media culture from being degraded into a commercialized product, an effort to expand it is necessary. According to Kim, the first step is to provide independent spaces for past singers. “In Liverpool, people restored the Cavern Club, which is the birthplace of the Beatles, and still remains a nightclub for old pop groups,” said Kim.
Surprisingly, in Korea, there is a place similar to the Cavern Club. It is Whasarang, which means “a house with pictures.” The cafe, located in Baengma,was once a mecca of culture. Especially in the 1980s, students would gather there to write poems, sing songs, and debate social issues. The cafe remains open, yet unlike the Cavern Club, not many people know about the place, with only a few customers from older generation dropping in from time to time. By publicizing Whasarang, the retro media culture could give people an opportunity to embrace and modify the culture into their own.
TV programs could use strategic improvement as well. “When making retro style movies or dramas, directors mostly insert romance so that the plot has independent characteristics without turning it into a historical documentary,” said Kim. He added, “But the first kiss, acoustic guitars, and love letters—it’s now all just a cliché.” From the movie Architecture 101 (2012) to the drama Reply 1994 (2013), stories of first love are too dominant, and this trend leads to a stereotypical approach where people regard retro styles movies as romances.
The latest movie Gangnam 1970 (2015) indeed has taken an unconventional step as the plot stylishly weaves together the retro culture of the 1970s and people’s desire for power. Yet the effort to create novel stories is still minimal and needs to be encouraged so that the plots provide diverse perspectives towards the past..
Retro media culture is not a recent trend. It has always survived as the public found consolation and encouragement from past memories. But the media today is stuck in clichés and wrung out strategies. Already, the singers in Infinite Challenge, “Saturday Saturday is a Singer” are confronting the harsh criticism that their programs are becoming boring. The media, especially the TV programs, needs to diversify the plots so that audiences can look back at the past from different angles. Furthermore, the public themselves should not stop at watching concerts or singing competition series. They should delve further and create musical venues so that retro culture could expand and be reshaped into novel genres that define today’s society..
More importantly, people should not try to define the past; rather they should try to find meanings by continuously comparing it with the present. “Personally I almost laughed when President Park Geun-hye referred to the movie Ode to My Father (2014) as a portrayal of patriotism,” confessed Lee. According to the president, the mandatory pledge of allegiance to the flag in the1960s illustrated in the movie was an act of nationalism. Yet as for Lee, this unique definition of the past is nonsensical. “The past is always interpreted differently. As for the pledge of allegiance, to most of the people, it was considered a waste of time,” commented Lee.
The past has slipped away. Rather than trying to interpret bygone years, people should apply and merge those nostalgic memories into today’s trend, cultivating an original culture cherished by a wide spectrum of generations.
▲ 1. Ode to My Father (2014) recalls the hardships of the 1960s. Provided by biznewdaily.co.kr
2. The palette of the parents in the 1960s is painted in Heosamkwan (2015). Provided by ccdailynews.com
3. The Gangnam district in the 1970s was a place of ambition, but also of youngster’s untainted love and music. Provided by news.naver.com
▲ 4. Park Jin Young and Yang Hyun-suk who stirred 1990s listeners are still taking the lead in today’s music industry. Provided by i.ytimg.com
5. The movie Sunny (2011) gives vicarious satisfaction of returning to the untainted past. Provided by movie.phinf.naver.net
6. The 1990s artist Turbo performing in the TV program “Saturday! Saturday is a Singer.” Provided by www.ipnomics.co.kr
▲ 7. The fathers of the 1960s worked in German mines and fought in Vietnam for their predecessors. Provided by terms.naver.com and blog.naver.com
▲8. The mothers of the 1960s left to Germany to work as nurses.
▲ 9. The songs of the 1970s form a bridge of communication. Provided by blog.joins.com and star.ohmynews.com
▲ 10. Youngsters who innocently fought for freedom blow a sense of nostalgia. Provided by blog.naver.com
▲ 11. The KBS producer Lee Je Seok stresses the importance of communication between the old and the young generation. Photographed by Lee Dawoon.
▲ 12. The critic culture Kim Heun Shik actively explains about the retro media in Korea. Photographed by Kim Yoonji.
▲ 13. The cafe Whasarang was once a mecca of the 1980s culture. Provided by www.whasarang.co.kr
▲14. Romance in retro style movies is now just a cliché. Provided by www.hancinema.net