Against the Disneyfication of Korea

#HappySeoul is the tag for a cover of Pharrell William’s Happy. In the video, expats and locals dance through a sun-kissed, verdant Seoul. Watch it because everyone in it is happy:

Thematically, shots of happy kids follow on from writhing girls in short-shorts. In the last shot, what appears to be a pregnant woman gets Happy Seoul written across her belly. Even her fetus will be happy. Seoul is hot… it’s cute… it’s heart-warming and family-oriented. Through jarring juxtaposition, #HappySeoul is all things to all people. What’s wrong with this picture?

1: this is not Seoul.

The video lacks smokers around every corner, people spitting on the sidewalk, and constant traffic, as Korea’s full-sized sedans perform their own dance of the machines along tiny sidestreets. Seoul is not this quiet and does not have this much public space: the city has 8% green space, the lowest of any big city in the developed world. Seoul is mainly huge roads and blocks of indistinguishable apartments that go on for miles.

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Dance in this traffic – the street next to #HappySeoul’s BMX riders.

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Dance in this smog – the spring dust storms from China combine with Seoul’s choking fumes to block visibility.

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Dance in these crowds – Friday night in Hongdae.

The video’s lithe, expat dancers unintentionally reflect the pressures of the western labour markets: many ESL teachers have a fine arts background and can’t find work in their own countries. But if you come to Seoul, you will not find midriff-baring subway dancers or bikini-clad young women hanging out in the reclaimed river. Korea is conservative. There are many beautiful and sexy people in Seoul, but as I’ve pointed out, this is largely due to the brutal, unrelenting quest for status. The dancers posing in front of the Han, or in the Haebangchon underpass, could only strike those poses due to years of hard work and practice. Their apparent leisure is a product of Korea’s punishing work ethic.

In short, Korean society is not happy. There are many good social indicators of this fact. In the OECD, Korea has:

– the highest suicide rate
– the highest elderly poverty rate (and, relatedly, suicide rate among the elderly)
– the second-longest working hours and the lowest productivity
– the highest per capita rate of plastic surgery in Asia

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If you visit the neighbourhoods featured in the video (I live in one of them), you will see happy people. But you’ll also see evidence of the above statistics. So what is this video actually saying?

2. Just because you say something doesn’t make it so

The response by the filmmakers and commentators to these points has been instructive. For example:

-Wow! You witnessed all that beauty and “Happy” and THAT is what you come up with??? That actually says more about YOU than the Korean people… Just watch the video again & have a “Happy” day.

-whatever the reason is, they made this video to share happiness, so don’t fight over records and such, be happy for whatever there is to be happy about right now.

-Actually this is seoul to the fullest. A few of my friends were in this video (worked on it too) and it was all done on a volunteer basis. Peopled turned up and just danced around on camera for free. Unless you were there during the shooting of this project please have several seats because you know nothing about Seoul.

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Han on display – art in Hongdae

Pointing out #HappySeoul’s inaccuracy means succumbing to pessimism, projecting your own jaundiced perspective on the dancing masses. And even if there are some statistics suggesting otherwise, why point it out and make it worse? Be part of the solution rather than the problem.

But this isn’t the correct way to pose the question. It’s not about how optimistic or pessimistic you are, it’s whether the image you create has any relationship to reality. And if the city in #HappySeoul has a tenuous link to the real Seoul, what purpose does making a video like this serve?

The video captures one truth: Korean people are friendly and gregarious. You can’t sit in a cafe without at least one group of young women nearby, clapping and laughing. It’s common for Korean women to playfully slap their boyfriends. Korean social norms are expressive. But this video is all jeong and no han; as I argued in my last post, Korean society is equal parts solidarity and sorrow. This is not just an abstract statement: it’s constantly on display in the shouting, shoving and arguments that are part of pedestrian traffic here. The middle-aged men spewing complex colour palettes on the sidewalk after a night of company-enforced drinking are neither happy nor dancing.

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There are bikini-clad women in Seoul, inexplicably advertising drumming lessons.

At best, a video full of happy people in an unhappy city is an attempt at reframing. There’s some truth to the cognitive therapy adage that if you find positive aspects of a bad situation, you can feel more hopeful and gain the strength to change it. But that only works if your circumstances are amenable to changing. The fatal flaw of cognitive therapy is that for those people in circumstances or structures well beyond your control, the reframing collapses in on itself and becomes a new way of self-blame. And that’s the conclusion commentators have drawn: if you can watch this video and not be happy, there must be something wrong with you. Which is a message that fits very well with neoliberal ideology: bootstrap yourself into a career, security and happiness. If you can’t do it, try harder. Those who have ‘made it’ have no responsibility to explain their rose-tintedness. They are free to blame the losers – and because there are winners, there must be losers.

At worst, this video is an active, if unwitting, obfuscation of social reality. What is a denial of very real social problems, from state repression to inequality, but a kind of sociopathy, an unwillingness to see the suffering on display on the streets of Seoul? It becomes propaganda, disturbing because of its very banality. The everyday of Seoul is dancing and smiling, it says. Come spend your money to experience it. Those who don’t fit don’t exist. They are the cracks in the pavement that our happy dancing will stomp on.

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Yeonnam-dong’s own grumpy cat – if you’re pure-bred, you’re valuable enough to be kept on a leash.

Suffering is not motivational. Ripping the veil from people’s eyes doesn’t make them want to change it. This video resonates because it fills a need: people want to be happy, and to imagine a place where happy exists. This is fine in a Disney film, or in one of the giant theme parks that are so popular here. There’s no illusion about the escapism on offer in a theme park. But I think extending that narrative to an entire city is a form of violence. It denies the complex reality of 24 million people struggling to sell themselves in order to survive. #HappySeoul is not a story of redemption, of people facing challenges and learning to overcome them, or – god forbid – failing and learning about themselves. It’s an erasure of those struggles, an aestheticization of politics, like Benjamin warned us about. Given that it was made largely by foreigners, for foreign consumption, it even flirts with orientalist notions of happy Koreans, echoing similar images produced under Japanese occupation.

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Not the Paris Commune – the ‘commune of radicals’ stripped of meaning and used to sell designer clothing.

For that reason, #HappySeoul accomplishes what it sets out to do: display a metropolis of smiling, carefree extroverts. And it accomplishes a darker purpose its makers may be unaware of: it disappears the conflicts and pain that make Seoul a real, vibrant, difficult place to live. #HappySeoul is propaganda that Koreans themselves have disavowed. Even mayor Park Won-soon doesn’t want Seoul portrayed this way: as he explained upon commissioning the video Bitter Sweet Seoul,

“Seoul has a sad history. If we try to project only the good side, it’s not the real thing,” Mr. Park said.

“Seoul is not a place in monotone; It has so many different colors… Having it depicted through this film will ultimately help attract more tourists,” the mayor said.

What does depicting Seoul with only one colour accomplish?

13 thoughts on “Against the Disneyfication of Korea

  1. It’s a good thing you’re not a major popular blogger, or this would have been set ablaze within seconds of posting it. It’s one of the most inane articles I’ve ever read, and I don’t like to be a troll about this stuff.

    It’s a music video. You get it? I mean, sorry if I’m wrong but music is a means of escape, not a means of getting the most up to date statistics on the well being of a nation.

    What is it that you wanted from a music video exactly, full statistical accuracy that covers all corners of life and culture in 3-4 minutes?

    What is your next post going to be about, maybe how Utada Hikaru doesn’t accurately depict Japan in her video for ‘Keep tryin”. – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0p4V5DLxKU

    Maybe you’re going to tell us that the stores in her video almost never have such thick, black outlines and it deludes us into thinking japan is an artistic, anime-designed wonderland when the reality is that people commit suicide and work too hard?

    Maybe you could write a letter to SONY music and tell them to start accurately portraying house parties in their dance videos, because that’s damaging the expectations of the entirety of youth?

    I just question why. Are you just trying to be different because it’s such a positive video? You want to be the devil’s advocate? Are you trying to be an intellect?

    It just boggles my mind. You could have argued that it sucks in so many respectable ways but this is like… I’m out of words. It’s nonsensical.

    It’s like writing a huge article about how ridiculous the movie UP is because those balloons would never have initially fit inside his home before floating off, and gives children a dangerous representation of how helium can be utilised. Is it so difficult for you to just watch the video and enjoy it? Without creating a bunch of nitwit nonsense that doesn’t even belong in the realm of music, video, media, literature art or journalism, and at best belongs to one of those miserable Korea forums where miserable expats who can’t adjust to life in Asia go to vent their solitude.

    I watched the video and it brought good memories of locations I’m entirely familiar with, places I lived and socialised. I did not sit there thinking ‘There was no dancer there when I was there… she was probably coerced by the economic pressure of society in Korea to become a dancer in the first place, and takes it out on her cat by tying it on a leash’ – are you starting to see how ridiculous your article is?

    I’ve written a lot of crap too, and the most crappy stuff I tend to delete. I’d suggest you do the same, sorry. All you can possibly achieve here is at best lower somebody’s mood and ruin the enjoyment of the video that many people worked hard on. A video that could encourage tourism, boost morale and just generally be enjoyed for the quality it is.

    Is this how you look at every music video?

  2. Uhm.. someone was a grumpy cat when they watched this video. haha. I love your opinion, but I think you’ve taken it bit too serious. You’re a realist and that gives you the ability to see things as they are. But if this video did achieve one thing for me, was to put a smile on my face and I’m sure many others. Never once did I believe that this is the “reality”, because there are many things, like with every other place on earth that I’ve been, that I hate. Choosing to hold onto that “reality” or “hate” will only make one more bitter. So well done with your well written opinion. Hope you feel “happy” about it. “)

  3. Thanks everyone for your impassioned responses. I haven’t edited or censored them because I welcome debate on the topic. Obviously this post touched a nerve, and with apologies to Disney, the language and imagery is provocative in places. But since my purpose was not trolling (believe it or not!), I’d like to clarify some things.

    1) Perception vs reality

    Is it OK to say happy things about a place that contains sadness? Yes. Are artists responsible for considering the context of their art, and how their message will be received? For me, also yes, and I suspect that’s the crux of why some people find this post unreasonable. But that’s what I’m criticizing: the construction of a message that erases the complexity of life in Seoul. I don’t consider it an individual artist’s statement, or just a music video, because it claims to be a portrayal of a city, and not one I know.

    2) You say happy, I say sad

    This video can make you smile because of the talents on display, the sunshine, the neighbourhood tours, and that’s fine with me. Really. A commentator asked if this is how I view every video, and I promise it’s not: I’ve blogged before about liking Kyari Pamyu Pamyu, and that’s about as far from reality or social criticism imaginable. Again, fine. But I consider something that purports to show a city needs to show what it’s actually like for people who live here. Personally, it makes me sadder to see that reality go unportrayed in favour of an urban fantasy.

    3) Consider the context

    The Korean Wave is rolling everywhere. People who have never been to Seoul will see this video. That gives artists and media workers a tremendous amount of power. Korea is equal parts han and jeong. How can we reflect this in our work? The metropolitan government, and Psy for that matter, can portray and promote the city with this complexity intact, so I know it’s possible. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: Kingston Rudieska & Dr. Ring Ding’s “Discovery of Life” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=azZ2aEp48lo

    This is Hongdae, it’s sunny, upbeat, happy… and it reflects, sympathetically through gentle satire, the aggressiveness of some Korean middle aged women on the sidewalk. Anyone who visits Seoul for a weekend will experience this. I would argue there’s no contradiction between being positive and accurately portraying what’s around us. If anything, that link to reality makes it happier and more positive, because we can recognize our experiences in it.

    So, in short, if you feel that a video is just a video, then we probably don’t have much common ground, and I apologize for the negativity: as the commentator above pointed out, life is hard enough. But if, like me, you feel context matters, then there are a lot of interesting questions to ask, and some historical and social background that’s worth considering.

    • ^Is that your reality in Seoul? Do you still live in Seoul? Or is it just your perception of Seoulites? I’ve lived in Seoul for almost 5 years. Has it been happy every moment and every day? No. But overall would I say it has been a happy experience? Yes. Why must every facet of life be placed into every music video? Should a joyous marriage be placed in a heartbreak video? The death of a grandmother placed in a music video about a boy’s college graduation? No! So why can’t you accept that although Seoul(and every other place on this planet) has happy and sad and confusing and angry and whatever else moments but if all of those things were placed in every music video, then music and entertainment wouldn’t be the release that it is! The song’s title and meaning is happy but it must include people spitting on sidewalks and domestic abuse, huh? Say what you want but first class trolling here, buddy.

      • I wonder if anyone can count the amount of songs/videos released about ‘murica! and how joyous and free it is, that also mention the growing wage gap, unemployment and increasing police state.

  4. I think you’re either missing something or you’ve searched so deep that it’s taken you to a place that’s disconnected with what’s going on here. Sure context matters and message matters, but I think what you’re missing is that this, more than anything else is about community, diversity, and self-expression. This is not a documentary. It’s not meant to comment on social dysfunction or historical background. The context here is about human connection and the happiness that comes from expressing who we are. In other videos I’ve seen people express their joy in similar ways – smiles, laughter, dancing, goofing off…
    What you call “urban fantasy” is the filmmakers’ creativity and artistry. You may say it’s not an accurate depiction of the city you know, but for that one moment in time at least, these people were happy. They were smiling and laughing and dancing with joy. In what way has that not captured reality? Even if it’s momentary reality? These videos reflect our basic human need for joy and the similar ways in which everyone around the world expresses it. You’re making it way more complicated than it is. It’s so simple that I feel you’ve completely missed the point.

  5. Thanks once more for your comments; to the Seoulite who named this the stupidest blog entry ever, I’m touched but it’s already been said. At the risk of doubling down further, two things.

    1) “Why must every facet of life be placed into every music video?” Not what’s being claimed. What I’m saying is that, when a video makes a claim on a particular place as HappySeoul does, I think it has a responsibility to its subject matter to portray aspects of it accurately, in its complexity and contradictions. I’ve named videos that do this with style, humor and pathos without descending into misery.

    2) ‘Going too deep.’ Clearly, many feel that a music video vs social reality is apples vs oranges. As I pointed out, if you feel a celebration of a space like this can exist on its own terms – the art object as discrete entity – then you’re right, this is irrelevant.

    If you don’t, then the social details this blog entry points out are not historical errata. Koreans are deeply proud of their society and have every reason to be, having shaken off war, occupation (not entirely of course) and imperialism, and having built a mid-sized capitalist power in a couple of generations. The after-effects of that are trauma, both past and ongoing: the isms matter, and it’s when we ignore them that they matter most. I think we do more for Korea by being cognizant of these issues and incorporating them into our art, than making Seoul look like Hooray For Everything.

    You probably already have your Korean history readings, but I think Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die, on the misuses of a positive attitude, adds some context: http://vimeo.com/13676989.

    Gonna move on from this, but if you have something new to bring to the discussion, feel free to comment.

  6. I think it all boils down to one universal question, would you rather the girl on the cover of the magazine be Photoshoped or real? The people who were slamming this blog obviously prefer artificial and I think i can side with the writer when I say a prefer authentic.

    • I fail to see what artifical and natural women have to do with anything. Are you sure you’re reading the right blog? We’re slamming it because it’s basically attempting to destroy the fun of a video. It’s trying to sap the life out of something that was done in good fun.

      The guy claims that the video claims to be an accurate portrayal. I don’t see where it says that in the video. He is damaging the reputation of Korea, and I guess he doesn’t bother with the patriotic American videos because that should be done by someone else who is there now.

      It’s such a disconnected topic to force into a music video that people feel slamming it is well deserved. I doubt anyone here was even thinking of women aside from you.

  7. Damaging Korea… sigh. Portraying the life of Seoul in its complexity is not damaging. That honours the real experiences of the people here. Portraying it as a photoshopped, sun-kissed tourist destination does not reflect this reality. As a music video, HappySeoul is great. As a statement on Seoul, it’s a missed opportunity. As artists, I believe we have a responsibility to our subject matter. Social context matters. I think a stronger optimism and love for a place derives from a clearer understanding and portrayal of it.

    I am totally for bashing American pop videos that whitewash a particular place. That goes for how Notting Hill portrayed Notting Hill in London, how Amelie portrayed Montmartre…. the list is endless. Let’s be against American cultural imperialism and its shockwave, the Disneyfication of all places.

    Paul, I can honestly say that, moments of homesickness and the social problems mention above aside, I like it here. The reason Korea is wonderful is the tremendous legacy of democratic struggle the Korean workers’ movement gave to the nation and the world. That is a terrible, beautiful story which needs to be shouted from the rooftops, since it’s one the government would rather have people forget. It’s a legacy that continues today in the migrant workers’ movement, the justice for Sewol movement, the Ssangyong workers’ movement… for me, these are what’s worth celebrating.

    I think we’re done here. Last word to the minjung activists:

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