2017, HD video, color, sound, 29’51”
In 1948, the Korean peninsula was divided into North and South Korea at the 38th parallel. Jiwon Choi introduces viewers to modern Korean history and culture by contrasting the story of her grandfather, who served in the Korean War, with the rise of K-POP.
Danielle Wu: Let’s start with what inspired you to make Parallel — what events, public or personal?
Jiwon Choi: I thought about interviewing my grandfather ever since I came to the United States in 2006 and became aware of the reputation of North Korea within the world. It was 2015 when I finally decided to interview him. At the time, there was a conflict at the border between North and South Korea. The South Korean military set up loudspeakers and broadcasted the radio station “Sound of Freedom,” which included Kpop songs, current events, and audio boasting South Korea’s wealth. This caused a severe response from the North. South Korea played Girls Generation’s “Tell Me Your Wish (Genie),” and Big Bang’s “Bang Bang Bang.” Both songs function through the objectification of women, presenting young talents in military uniforms. In the music video for "Bang Bang Bang,” the bandmates point their fingers to make guns and tanks as props, and you can hear gunshots. I began to think about the influence of Korean war in South Korean pop culture and saw the parallel of ideology that prevails across all levels, between generations, between individuals and spectators, and between illusion and reality.
DW: The juxtaposition of the real violence of your grandfather’s experiences in the Korean War versus the glossy spectacle of Korean entertainment is quite disorienting. But as you said, there are many parallels between both. The military and music industries impose conformity by invoking great emotion within mass audiences. Did these connections surprise you?
JC: Any musical group that fits into the category of Kpop is referred to as an ‘idol band.’ The performers are the idols. I never questioned the use of word ‘idol’ before I started working on Parallel. My research became a rediscovery of my culture. I saw the Kpop industry's corresponding values with the military one: the synchronization of movement, how many boys and girls want to be an 'idol', consolatory visit of Kpop girl bands, homogenized fan base, an even literal appeal of violence and war, using gun-like sounds and motions.
Sexuality and violence are vehicles that successfully provoke masses in both popular culture and war. Korean war and Kpop has an influence on South Korean people's subconscious on different levels as we are living in different times, although, their ideology remains the most powerful spectacle that constructed modern Korean culture.
DW: The film opens with an explanation that Kpop is South Korea’s largest export, close-ups of great wealth, and synchronized dancing. How do you think Kpop influences foreign perspectives of South Korea?
JC: The most popular Kpop song worldwide is “Gangnam Style,” and I think that’s how most foreigners think of South Korea: kitsch, Americanized, misogynist, materialistic. The more Kpop wants to be westernized, it ends up as an uncanny, hypocritical symbol. Kpop promotes a great life of celebrities, vivid fashion, and other seductive spectacles. It encourages a competition based on beauty and following a hollow goal that doesn’t exist. Under the cover of this desired illusion, participants of the industry suffer from horrible working conditions. Kpop’s largest audiences are in Asia and South America. Depending on where you are looking from, this mixture of nonsense could be seen as part of the appeal or relatable.
DW: It’s also clear from Parallel that Korean entertainment socializes women and encourages very narrow standards of beauty. How do you remain critical of this while finding humor and levity within it?
JC: I am presenting what has already been done in its most extreme sense. Reality can be far more ridiculous than what I can imagine. In a society that objectifies women on daily basis, pervasive misogyny gets a pass without a problem. My video won’t be a problem for some people, because they are so used to living in it. All I did was present a slice of absurd reality in a different context.
DW: How did you choose the six different boyband characters that you impersonate?
JC: K-POP’s ideology makes use of the star system; the more dehumanized this system’s methods of operation and produced content, the more diligently and successfully the idols materialize themselves to a star identity, and the more likely they become heart-throbs. Running by a formula, members are categorized into roles, their skills, and characteristics. It consists of roles such as: the leader, the charming face, the youngest, the rapper, the dancer, the good singer, and so on. Individual idol members are represented through an identity that they perform within the group, constructing images that everyone can easily identify. I created six characters based on a common combination of a boy band.
Grandfather: Byun Su Gil
Grandmother: Young Ja Jeong
Mother: Seoung Eun Byun
Aunt 1: Seo Hyun Byun
Aunt 2: Seoung Won Byun
Cousin: Jun Young Choi
Jiwon: Jiwon Choi
Red Dress: Jiwon Choi
Staff: Jiwon Choi
Boys on Top
Kimchi: Jiwon Choi
Pedo: Jiwon Choi
Young Man: Jiwon Choi
Gilvert: Jiwon Choi
Image: Jiwon Choi
Pesudomeo: Jiwon Choi
Director of Photography: Jemma Koo, Eunice Kim, Wednesday Kim, Jisu Choi, Kelsey Lynn
Photographer: Jihyun Seo
Video Editor: Jiwon Choi
Production Assistant: Kijin Jang, Jisun Lee
Graphic Design: Juwan Lim
Young Man & Gilbert wardrobe: Jihyeon Seo
Image wardrobe: Naomi Butterfield, Eunice Kim
Master Critic: Laura Parnes, Grahame Weinbren
Thesis Form: Ed Bowes
Thesis Advisor: Erica Magrey
Script advisor: Bonnie Yochelson, Daniel Riccuito
Translation: Chris Janaro
Thesis paper advisor: Lily Yi Yi Chen, Anna Park
Special Thanks to: