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At the MFA, South Korean pop culture in full effect

‘Hallyu!: The Korean Wave’ layers fun and flash with a powerful narrative about the country’s triumph over oppression

"Hallyu: The Korean Wave" layers all the fun and flash with meaningful narrative about the country’s triumph over oppression.Photos MFA Boston, Jason Decow/Ap. Illustration Ally Rzesa/Globe Staff

Remember Psy? “Gangnam Style,” his 2012 megahit, made him an instant global phenomenon, spawning a dance craze, fashion copycats, and the true mark of 21st-century cultural iconhood — at least one addictively absurd app. It’s surreal to feel nostalgic for a decade ago, but that’s how fast all this has moved. The entrance to “Hallyu! The Korean Wave,” the MFA’s jaunty, superfun blockbuster of South Korean pop-cultural supremacy that opens to the public this week, is all Psy, all the time. In his rainbow of satiny dinner jackets, bouncing gleefully along as if riding an invisible horse, he reminded me of how new this is. Just a dozen years ago, the video for “Gangnam Style” was the first ever to hit a billion views (yes, with a ‘b’) on YouTube. By now, 5 billion views later, the video feels deeply foundational, a breakthrough “Birth of Venus” of the Korean pop cultural renaissance from which all else flows.

Such is the deluge of Korean popular culture in recent years, where even a decade ago can seem like ages. Pop supergroups like BTS and BlackPink play to packed stadiums all over the world; TV series like “Squid Gameand “Hellbound” set streaming records in the US and beyond. “Hallyu!,” an import from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, could have been no more than a blithe romp through the universe of edgy cinema and supremely packaged pop stars that dominate South Korean youth culture (and have no small presence here, either). And fear not — it’s a blast: The exhibition is laid out like a wheel, with spokes extending from a central hub that reads like a grand high temple of K-pop orthodoxy: Costumes worn by supergroups and artists like G-Dragon and ATEEZ populate a double-height scaffold structure, while a great big screen blares frantically-choreographed music videos on a perpetual loop.


"Hallyu! The Korean Wave" exhibition is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, March 24-July 28, 2024MFA Boston

But underneath its infectiously poppy sheen, the core strength of the exhibition, and I think its very point, is that it’s all much more than confection. “Hallyu!” cares as much about social and cultural history as it does the au courant; it weaves deep, sometimes ancient context into the current blossoming of the nation’s creative soul. It does this with equal parts dazzle and a somber national narrative that connects South Korea’s rise to its triumph over decades of oppression.


I suspect that an awful lot of viewers — maybe too many — will glide right past the underpinnings of South Korea’s cultural flowering and go straight for the sparkle. Like any exhibition, “Hallyu!” is a take it or leave it experience, but leaving out the how-we-got-here narrative is also to elide the richness of the current moment.

aespa "Next Level" MV, 2021.SM Entertainment/ Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

“Hallyu!” offers learning; I doubt I’m alone as a North American with little knowledge of the fall of the Josean dynasty in 1897, which had ruled the Korean peninsula for five centuries, or the short-lived, forward-thinking Korean Empire that replaced it but was crushed by Japanese occupation in 1910. Early non-violent protests were quelled, and viciously; the exhibition humanizes the political brutality with the prisoner identity card of Yu Gwan Sun, a 17-year-old high school student and independence activist who was tortured to death by Japanese forces.


In 1945, Korea was liberated when Japan surrendered to the Allies, ending World War II, but the peninsula was still controlled by outsiders. Russia and the United States agreed to sever it at the 38th parallel, with Russia taking control of the north and the US the south. On June 25, 1950, North Koreans marched on the south with the intention of reuniting the country under communist rule and touched off the Korean War, the first proxy battle of the new Cold War era.

A view of Gangnam in the 1970s, with new Hyundai apartment blocks in the background.Jun Min Cho/ Courtesy Museum of Contemporary History of Korea/ Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Korea lurched from one outside force to another for decades. Some crushed its very culture; others overwhelmed it (American military bases all over the south in the 1950s brought a flood of American movies, music, and products; a bright color photo shows Marilyn Monroe entertaining US troops in 1953). The war ended in 1953, leaving North and South divided. In the ensuing void, Major General Park Chung-hee led a military coup to seize control of the South. It was agrarian and deeply impoverished, and reeling from decades of occupation and war (Gangnam, the “it” neighborhood on the south side of Seoul now packed full with louche boutiques and stylish cafes, was as recently as the 1970s a rice paddy. A photograph here shows a farmer plowing a field in Gangnam with a stand of new apartment blocks looming over him). Park mandated a program of rapid modernization, empowering a small cadre of companies to become industrial juggernauts, or chaebols; those companies seeded the South’s economic rebirth, and are still pillars of its prosperity: Samsung, LG, and Hyundai.


But Park’s economic policies were also wound tightly to a nationalist cultural agenda. Foreign culture like music and movies was banned; at the height of the rising hippie movement of youth-cultural liberation, Park banned long hair for men and short skirts for women. His government also mandated what it believed to be traditional Korean cultural values; historic sites and practices were revered and protected.

A replica set from Hwang Dong-Hyuk’s Netflix TV series "Squid Game" is on display at "Hallyu! The Korean Wave" exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The two pink guard uniforms are originals from the show.Jack Kaplan for the Boston Globe

All of this matters: In the South, successive military dictatorships — Park was assassinated in 1979 by the head of his central intelligence agency, Kim Jae Kyu, who replaced him worked to foster cultural isolation alongside an accelerated modernization agenda. That weird dichotomy created an insular society deeply aware of its historical roots, but with remarkable technological savvy. When the last military junta fell in 1987, South Koreans emerged into the world both with a deep sense of self and poised to embrace the tidal wave of technology to come. As early as the 1990s, it had pioneered widespread broadband internet; when the Asian financial crisis hit in 1997, it had legions of wired early adopters breaking ground in soon-to-be-explosive fields like online gaming.

“Hallyu!” tells these stories in a densely packed gallery of minutiae, like historical photographs and odd artifacts (did you know LG started life as a maker of face cream? There’s a jar of it here, under glass). If I have a quibble, it’s that the show can be a bit of a visual jumble that at times feels like a national pavilion at a world’s fair. But its narrative is so densely fascinating that it hardly matters; I left that expository space feeling like I’d just finished the best undergraduate elective history course ever.


Hanbok, a style of hand-cut and sewn garments introduced in the late 19th century to help differentiate Koreans' everyday dress from an influx of Western-style clothing, is on display. © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The show does strain at times to create visual experience. There’s only so much you can do with movie posters, costumes, fan magazines, and video kiosks, though a sealed space unfurls the balletic one-shot fight scene from the 2003 film “Old Boy.” The costume tower is surrounded by perfunctory listening stations and old album covers behind glass, and the looping music video screen repeats itself quickly. The MFA cannily augments the display with artworks from its collection. A 19th-century ink painting of a tiger pairs nicely with a poster from the Seoul 1988 Summer Olympics — the global coming-out party for a newly free and forward thinking South Korea — and its mascot, a tiger named Hodori, a symbol of strength and a protector from evil spirits.

But the split between the show’s book-learning and flash leaves space to forge a poetic connection between past and present in “Hallyu!”’s spaces reserved for unvarnished beauty. A pair of serene galleries away from the spectacle contain an array of hanbok, traditional clothing — gowns for women, robes for men — made of fine silk; their grace of form survived both Japanese erasure and postwar austerity. More to the point, they thrived, and continue to: Traditional hanbok share space here with aggressively contemporary versions — one, deconstructed into long, layered strips, was worn by Wooyoung from South Korean boy group ATEEZ. The deep past and immediate present collide here, gently but clearly, and quietly capture a cultural lineage alive in the moment. In the Korean wave, there’s nothing to be nostalgic for. It’s all here, right now.


Through July 28. Museum of Fine Arts, 425 Huntington Ave. 617-267-9300, mfa.org.

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him @TheMurrayWhyte.