Upon welcoming guests to the preview of Hallyu! The Korean Wave, the director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, Tristram Hunt, acknowledged how the late Queen Elizabeth II said on a state visit to South Korea in 1999 that both the UK and South Korea were "firm friends now and in the years to come".
It is both this British and global appreciation of Korean culture alongside a yearning to have the Hallyu Wave truly understood and recognised that runs throughout this new exhibition in London. Led in its curation by Rosalie Kim and assisted by curator Yoojin Choi, the team behind the exhibition have done a fantastic job ensuring that skeptics of the true depth of impact the Hallyu Wave has had learn not just about some of the country's biggest cultural exports, such as Korean films, dramas, music, beauty and fashion, but also the history behind the unique socio-economic situation of South Korea that lead to the creative explosion that is now beloved by so many around the world.
The story told throughout the exhibition allows the audience to fully appreciate not just different aspects of the Hallyu Wave, but connects every element of the Wave to one another. Starting at the turn of the 20th Century, viewers are invited to learn about the precarious position that Korean culture and language held during the peninsula's occupation by the Japanese and the struggles of the Korean people to gain their independence. Yet the young country still faced many tumultuous years up until the June Democracy Movement in 1987, which ultimately led Korea to democracy and seeing an end to military rule.
Artefacts are used well to highlight the emotional impact such hardship had upon the population, but also how such hardship forged a population that was determined to create and look forward towards a new Korea and new opportunities no matter what. The influence of Euro-American culture is also recognised in the exhibition, starting from the country's early years through not just music and clothing, but even through the design of the famous Hyundai Pony, the automobile that helped turn the Korean car manufacturer into the motor giant it is today.
Colour is utilised to great effect throughout the exhibition, with the different colours of each section helping to both pace the viewer between the main aspects of the Hallyu Wave whilst also tying in the tradition Korean meanings of said colours to these aspects themselves. Blue for creativity and hope, a perfect choice for the early years of South Korea where we see the first buds of the Wave develop. Green for the establishment of K-Dramas and the flourishing of K-Cinema. With green representing a fresh start, vitality and energy, it ties well with the concept of K-Drama and K-Cinema being driving forces behind modern Korean storytelling. By the time the viewer hits the K-Pop section, they find themselves doused in orange and red, interspersed with hints of futuristic chrome. The passion of both idols and their fans are well known, with prosperity, love and passion represented by red, the perfect choice. Finally, the exhibition rounds off with K-Beauty and Fashion underpinned with white; the cleanliness and simplicity behind white further emphasising how the Korean beauty industry still pushes the towards natural make-up looks, with a lack of ostentation or excess, and purity in ones appearance and presentation.
Such is clear: every little detail has been thought over when it comes to the experience of the viewer and how deeply they are immersed in Korean culture as they walk amongst the exhibits. Fans of Korean dramas, movies and music will enjoy seeing props from some of the biggest productions from the Korean entertainment industry. Significant names like Squid Game (2021), Parasite (2020), Oldboy (2004), BTS, BLACKPINK and EXO all make an appearance, via costumes and props directly used, but smaller and much older names also make an appearance to highlight their importance in the landscape of Korean entertainment. A prop from the 'Queen of K-Pop' BoA makes an appearance, as does a a nod to perhaps K-Pop's most famous openly gay idol, Holland, and a clip from the K-Drama Full House (2004) that helped launch the career of Korean household name Rain.
Throughout the exhibition there are many reminders of the long heritage behind the all perfect artistic and media output we see in the Hallyu Wave today. Pre-20th Century objects can be seen throughout, and the technology, beauty and fashion sections in particular show how Korean innovators have and still continue to trust in what came before to help them see how they can keep riffing and playing with whatever tomorrow might bring. In some manner it feels almost as if the Hallyu Wave's continual move towards seeking new horizons or points of innovation is so that new ways can be found to keep unique Korean values alive today.
Hallyu! The Korean Wave is an exciting and enjoyable experience due to the strong cultural narrative that the curators have established, which, whilst celebrating the international reach of Korean culture, makes sure to emphasise that it is not a fad, fetish or point of amusement, but is instead a product of generations of talented Koreans who have striven to use their hardships and national hopes to create a formidable and ever-evolving artistic industry.