Hello Hallyuwood

Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Tuesday 27 Feb 2024


On our gilded march to Oscar glitter, it is no surprise that Oppenheimer is gathering the gold of the award season.

It is also no surprise that competing in the Best Picture category is a little-known, little-seen, much appraised little film, Past Lives from Korea.

Film buffs may remember that in 2021, the film world was stunned when another South Korean film, Parasite, became the first Foreign Language Film to win Best Picture Award in Oscar history. Needless to say, this is the jewel in the crown that every filmmaker longs for.

Since then, all eyes have turned towards the Film Industry of South Korea — fondly known as Hallyuwood.

One hardly knew that Hollywood and Bollywood, along with Hallyuwood constitute the three major pillars of the contemporary World Entertainment Industry. Now, that is a surprise.

The word Hallyu in Korean means “wave, or flow”, referring to the popularity and success of the South Korean culture around the world. The borrowed “wood” alludes to the oldest and largest film industry in the world — hence the compound term Hallyuwood.

The credit goes to Parasite, a dark comedy that delves into the intricate layers of social inequality. Premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019, it garnered the highest honour, the Palme d’Or, followed by its triumph of six nominations for Oscar gold, winning four awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for young Korean director Bong Joon-Ho.

Critics had already discovered what stimulates the imagination in Korean films; that sense of intellectual happiness which comes from the contemplation of the finished work of art. Audiences started to recognise the qualities and subtleties that set apart the substance of Korean films from any other race.

Delving beyond the conventional genres by exploring new territories gave rise to the emergence of their popular romantic and comedic films.

With government funding, the industry experienced a rapid expansion, but undoubtedly the Parasite grand slam underscored the global resonance and evolving recognition of Korean cinema.

However, it is not past movies but Past Lives that we are reviewing. The film is nominated for two Oscars only, Original Screenplay and Best Picture categories, no mean feat.

First time director Celine Young is a Korean-Canadian playwright hoping to follow in Bong Joon-Ho’s footsteps and win Best Picture for her debut effort. While it is not likely with the given competition, one never knows with academy voters.

The high praise of 99 per cent of 156 critics cannot be ignored. With plaudits like, “undoubtedly, one of the best films of the past decade,” it is worth our focus.

The story is not new, the handling is. Two childhood sweethearts are separated when the girl’s family migrates to Canada. As young adults they yearn for that childhood connection, but Skype love soon gets weary and they pursue different lives. Na Young (Greta Lee) becomes Nora Moon, now in her 30s, is married to Arthur (John Magoro) and lives in New York, when Hae Sung (Tee Yoo) comes to visit. Nora is torn between two men, two cultures, and two versions of herself, as she wrestles with her present and her past.

It is the melancholy story of displaced American-bred children of immigrant parents, but strikes a nerve in all of us. The film asks questions about love and how it is affected by the passage of time and the geographic barriers.

This bittersweet romance of childhood sweethearts, reuniting as adults may not be an original theme, but the tender treatment, the inner struggle, the silent suffering is deeply profound, gentle, and sad.

The final scene, almost wordless, is shattering as Nora views the loss of her past life as Hae Sung drives away. The acting is so believable, the chemistry between the two adults, the confrontation of love and destiny brings a tear to every eye.

Director Song, like Nora, immigrated as an adolescent to Canada, then to New York, married to writer Justin Kuritskes, received an Oscar nomination for her semi- autobiographical Original Screen play. That leaves no doubt that her debut effort has secured her future in the film world.

This eclectic blend of influences in Korean films inspired them to craft numerous blockbusters around the world.

Korean directors have successfully made the transition from Hallyuwood to Hollywood with films such as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The Last Stand and Nicole Kidman’s, Stoker. Both met with critical acclaim and box-office success.  

Apart from the astounding success of Parasite, the South Korean movie industry is gaining audiences around the world. While Hollywood is the leading industry, it is not the most productive. Bollywood produces over a 1,000 films annually and surprisingly Hallyuwood comes second with 817 productions in 2021. Hollywood does not exceed 600 English language movies, but the revenues are double that of any other industry. Hence, the glory of Oscar gold.

The appeal of Korean movies has been an integral part of the hallyu movement, the rave of the 21st century.

The destiny, fate, kismet theme of Past Lives is Inyeon in Korean, referring to the ties between people over the course of their lives.     

In Korean, Buddhism, In, is the direct cause and effect, while yeon is the indirect cause and effect, or the conditions that make an outcome possible.

Will it be the inyeon of Celine Song’s debut movie to bring more gold to Hallyuwood?

What is certain is that more Hallyuwood pictures are our inyeon.


“Must it be? It must be.”

Ludwig van Beethoven, (1770-1827)

* A version of this article appears in print in the 29 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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