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‘Hallyu! The Korean Wave’ Review: A Captivating Glimpse into the Rise of South Korean Popular Culture

"Hallyu! The Korean Wave" installed in the Ann and Graham Mund Gallery, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
"Hallyu! The Korean Wave" installed in the Ann and Graham Mund Gallery, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. By Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
By Allison S. Park, Crimson Staff Writer

Celebrating the tremendous growth of the South Korean entertainment industry, “Hallyu! The Korean Wave” recently opened its doors at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston on March 24. This special exhibition touches on a variety of aspects of South Korean culture and history, including the Korean War in the 1950s and the global spread of Korean popular music and media. Composed of approximately 250 objects ranging from posters of the 1988 Seoul Olympics to costumes of K-pop idols, “Hallyu! The Korean Wave” does not fail to captivate viewers with its wide array of displayed memorabilia.

Before entering the main exhibit galleries, visitors are first greeted by 17 unique screens displaying a combination of the exhibition’s name and clips from Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” This choice is fitting, as this song’s release is considered one of the defining moments of the globalization of Korean pop culture. A light pink suit from the “Gangnam Style” music video is also featured, giving viewers a brief glimpse of the clothes on view deeper within the galleries.

The first room of the exhibition is dedicated to sharing the history of South Korea. An assortment of photographs from the Korean War and objects — such as a map showing the division of the Korean peninsula along the 38th parallel — illustrates the familiar divide that today separates North and South Korea. The room also has several panels of text detailing the significant role Major General Park Chung-hee played in growing South Korea’s economy after the Korean War, particularly by supporting technology chaebols — or family-owned conglomerates — like Samsung, LG, and Hyundai. While this information is helpful in understanding the history of South Korea’s commercialization, these text-heavy panels distract from the experience of simply enjoying the historical and technological artifacts on display, such as an early radio. Moreover, the room details over 40 years of South Korean history, slightly overwhelming visitors with information.

The next room, which forgoes the continuity of chaebol narrative, leaps about 30 years in time to showcase a collection of outfits worn by K-pop idols in their music videos. Most notable are the costumes from the music video “Next Level” by aespa — a prominent, futuristic Korean girl group that focuses on the integration of technology in their music videos with virtual avatars. An assortment of music videos by K-pop artists are projected in the background, enhancing the experience of viewers who are mesmerized by the costumes’ extravagance.

Several smaller exhibits are attached to the larger room full of K-pop outfits. Two of these are also filled with more clothes. One room displays hanboks — traditional Korean attire — while the other presents the ways in which Korean fashion today has incorporated aspects of traditional clothing. For instance, the exhibition features a tracksuit made in a 2019 collaboration between Adidas and Ji Won Choi — a Seoul-born, Oklahoma-raised, and London-based fashion designer.

The exhibit dedicated to the rise of Korean beauty through skincare and makeup is a necessary added touch, contributing to the overall narrative of South Korea as a global and cultural superpower. A 10-step guide to a Korean skincare routine with accompanying products is also on display, allowing viewers to understand not merely the process of a skincare routine, but also the popularization of certain Korean skincare products abroad. It is particularly interesting that very recent products from brands such as Sulwhasoo and Innisfree are exhibited, as one would imagine that museums would not showcase items that are readily available for purchase.

Perhaps the most intriguing room is dedicated to Korean cinema. Since many films, such as “Minari,” pay homage to the Korean diaspora, it was refreshing to move away from the glitz and glam of South Korean culture to highlight film stills of Korean families immigrating to the U.S. from the 1970s to 1990s. This portion of the exhibit also includes a recreation of the bathroom set from the Oscar award-winning film “Parasite,” a powerful movie that comments on the dichotomy between the rich and poor in modern-day South Korea.

While “Hallyu! The Korean Wave” features a myriad of aspects of Korean culture — including K-pop, Korean beauty, fashion, cinema, and K-drama — one facet is noticeably absent: Korean video games. The gaming industry in Korea is the fourth largest market in the world for video games, so it is surprising that there is no mention of popular video games developed by Koreans — or even PC bangs, businesses also known as Korean internet cafés.

Overall, “Hallyu! The Korean Wave” at the MFA Boston is still a great entry point into illuminating the growth of the South Korean entertainment industry. With technology at its center, viewers of this exhibition are sure to walk away with a greater understanding of the unique aspects of contemporary Korean culture that have been popularized all over the globe.

“Hallyu! The Korean Wave” is on view at the MFA Boston until July 28.

—Staff writer Allison S. Park can be reached at Follow her on X @allisonskypark.

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