Retro Boom in South Korea

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I learned a lot as an exchange student in South Korea. Being so far from home certainly managed to make everything fascinating, but without a doubt, one of the topics that stayed with me was the retro trend. Surely, this is something that you have noticed, as its popularity skyrocketed exponentially all over the world, but what does the Retro Boom look like in Korea, a country that experienced such rapid economic and social change? What is the reason behind the love that Koreans have for this trend? In addition to answering these questions, I will illustrate the topic through a movie recommendation that will help to understand why retro is not only thriving, but also serves as a bridge that connects generations.

Illustration 1. Made by Millán, N (2023). [Collage]

To start talking about the Retro Boom in South Korea, we must take into account the way it is presented. On one hand, not only does it seek to be a faithful representation of past decades (e.g the 90s), but it is also being taken as a reference point so that, as described by Choi Ji-hye, who is part of the Consumer Trend Research Institute of SNU, elements from the past are taken to create something new (2021). Because of this, it is possible to find it in a variety of versions, such as movies and dramas like Architecture 101, Reply 1988 and 1994, or the famous ones from Netflix and Disney+, 2521, and SnowDrop, whose common goal is, not only to narrate a story but also adventuring the viewer to the old days.

Retro is also visible through the use of a more commercial aesthetic led by Y2K fashion, vinyl, and interior items that are full of personality, colorful and extravagant (Park, 2020), even in the food industry, as is the case of the relaunch of the Pokemon Bread, and of course, in the music industry, being Dynamite, BTS’s successful disco-pop, the example that many of us immediately think of, opening new doors on the K-Pop scene, where synth-pop has also gained popularity with songs like Cupid by Fifty Fifty and Like Crazy by Jimin (Synth Pop Regains Popularity in K-pop, Riding Retro Boom, 2023). This modernized retro is known as a Newtro, a portmanteau of the words “new” and “retro.”

Still, what makes it so famous in South Korea? The answer is divided into two parts. First, in the Korean Entertainment course I took, my professor, Kim Chang-Rae (김창래), explained that the key factor is the feeling of nostalgia that awakens in those who grew up in that era; with the Retro Boom, these people would find themselves reminiscing about the good old days, commemorating the euphoric moments of their youth despite the circumstances the country was going through. Take for example the financial crisis of 1997, when poverty and unemployment levels rose, and young people had to give up on their dreams in order to secure a future. To further illustrate, the drama 2521 achieved huge popularity in Korea, being “greatly loved by the public for its warm melting of retro sensibilities against the backdrop of the 90s” according to K-UNIV (2022).

Indeed, that association created between happiness and the past times in contrast with the present, knowing how deeply rooted Korean society is in the Ppalli ppalli (빨리빨리) culture, is what enchants both old and new generations. Therefore, the second reason behind the popularity of retro is that it is a new experience for young people, which is why many of them find this concept refreshing, and in the same way, feel longing for times different from their own. The girl group NewJeans is a good representation of the use of Newtro with their concept, and Ditto‘s music video is proof of the good reception of retro by younger audiences: from the way it was recorded, the vibes, the interaction between the girls, the portrait of freedom and innocence, all this is just what the Korean public is looking for (Han, 2022). In other words, the Retro Boom is essentially justified by the feelings that surround it.

Illustration 2. Taken from Pinterest (@carlaaev, n.d.) [Picture]

If you have also fallen for the Korean Retro Boom, I would like to finish this blog recommending Sunny (2011), a Korean movie that you will undoubtedly enjoy to the fullest. It perfectly captures the retro per se, since one of its timelines is set in the 80s. The movie introduces us to Im Na-mi (임나미), a middle age woman who tries to fulfill her teenage best friend’s last wish, which is to reunite “Sunny”, as her group of school friends called themselves. This film takes place in two timelines: the present and the past, both full of incredibly funny, but also painful moments. It shows us the fashion, music, ideology, economic, political, and social situation of the time, but from the perspective of a young girl who does not understand the magnitude of what is happening around her, and therefore maintains a positive attitude, hence the name; all events alternate simultaneously with the present, where everything has changed, and the members of “Sunny” have taken different paths. Personally, I found myself completely fascinated by this film that took me from a laugh to the verge of tears, understanding why it is loved by many, because despite not having grown up at that time, there is something that I definitely shared when I watched it: a feeling of nostalgia.

Illustration 3. Taken from Pinterest (@justforyeri, n.d.) [Picture]

In short, my experience as an exchange student gave me a deeper understanding of the reason behind the Retro Boom in South Korea. From the presence of this in various areas of daily life; through the background by which this trend has been so accepted and has received so much love from Koreans; until having the opportunity to know about the existence of Sunny (2011), which helped me connect and learn more about the appreciation for what is retro. In the end, that is what it is all about: retro is connecting people from different generations, allowing them to understand each other despite differences. 

Written by: Nathalia Millán Rincón

Reviewed by: Luisa Quintero

References:

Choi, J.-h. (April 24, 2021). “Minari’ Showcases Today’s South Korean Fashion”. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/24/style/minari-fashion-vintage.html.

Han, S. (December 21, 2022). [뉴트랙 쿨리뷰] 뉴진스 ‘1위’가 의미하는 것. daum. https://v.daum.net/v/20221221091526409

K-UNIV. (June 24, 2022). “Retro culture captivates Korea”. Korea Herald Business. http://heraldk.com/en/2022/06/24/retro-culture-captivates-korea/.

Park, S.-j. (September 2, 2020). S. Korean consumers immerse in nostalgia at home using retro-style products. Aju Business Daily. https://www.ajudaily.com/view/20200902103621530.

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