HomeFeaturesYAK Films, Hip Hop, And Public Space in South Korea
YAK Films, Hip Hop, And Public Space in South Korea
10 May, 2013
When I finally went to South Korea in 2005 to attend the Pusan International Film Festival, (when the festival still spelled the city with a ‘P’), I was struck by the public culture. As a kid who grew up in the poorly thought out public infrastructure idea that was and is the American suburbs, I was born into car dependency. If you wanted to get anywhere in my suburb southwest of Cleveland, Ohio, you had to drive or have someone drive you. The place to hang out was at one of the closest malls that were difficult, if not impossible, to access by walking or biking. And eventually you got tired of hanging out there since teenagers were often seen as nuisances. It was presumed they only came to loiter, not buy anything.
At PIFF (now BIFF), the Busan shopping/restaurant districts I witnessed were accessible by subway and were filled with people of all walking walks of life, young and old, male and female. These streets were for pedestrians. You could be a part of the scene of being seen without making any purchase at all, or through a small purchase of food or drink. Trucks and emergency vehicles were occasionally present, but for the most part, private cars had limited access to the spaces people wanted to be merely because they were obstructed by the tight, circuitous design of the streets/alleys. This obstruction of private car use, along with what I would discover in visiting Japan, where there isn’t much side street parking allowed, is a simple measure that can create a vibrant public culture. If you want to create a booming district that lasts, design it for pedestrians, not cars.
In later trips to Seoul, and then Tokyo and Hiroshima, Japan, I would find the same vibrant public street culture I found in Busan. These trips helped me realize I had a desire for such a public culture, a desire dormant inside me for so long, thanks to the soul-crushing isolation encouraged by the suburban standard of my youth. I live in San Francisco now. It’s better than the average U.S. city in having vibrant neighborhoods that are fairly accessible without a car. Plus, pedestrians have a right of way here that regularly calms the entitlement private car users impose on other places. By rethinking parking policies and transit, San Francisco and other cities are slowly considering factors that promote private car use and, by extension, prohibit the creation of vibrant public spaces. But cities like Seoul, Busan, Tokyo, or Hiroshima already have in place what it takes to enable bustling public spaces.
I was reminded of how much I missed such vibrant public culture when Yak Films uploaded its Seoul series on YouTube. Yak Films is a hip hop collective of film-makers documenting hip hop dancers throughout the globe. From the YouTube sensation American known as Nonstop (Marquese Scott) to French dancers Les Twins (identical twin brothers Laurent and Larry Bourgeois) and Dey Dey (Delphine Nguyen), Yak Films documents dancers in organized battles along with placing the dancers in public spaces to dazzle us with their ‘kinesthetic capital’, the physical resources afforded by their dedication to their craft as dancers.
The dancers Yak Films features in their Seoul series are Funky Lia, Locking Khan, and Poppin’ J.* Locking Khan’s video has him play a character who is in the middle of his work day and finds himself drawn to the music he hears. He eventually discards his task and walks through the alleys to perform further for the YubTube audience. The phrase ‘lock-step’ might need to be re-worked to define its opposite as experienced through Locking Khan’s choreography. As if to hand matters off to Poppin’ J, Poppin’ J appears at the end of Locking Khan’s video. Poppin’ J’s video begins at an apex of where two narrow alleys meet outside one of the preponderance of al fresco eating establishments available in South Korea. Poppin’ J will later take his craft to an alley outlined by various beauty product establishments. As for Funky Lia, she dances in the rain, eventually heading underground to dance in an underground mall and a subway train. Each of these videos have the presence of unsuspecting bystanders witnessing an impromptu dance session. (There’s a non-Yak Film where Funky Lia is in an abandoned subway pedestrian passageway all alone until an ajumma walks by paying no attention to Funky Lia’s popping. It’s a wonderful demonstration of the public power of the ajumma who doesn’t give a crap if you’re filming a video. It’s her public space too, dammit! Ajumma hwa-i-t’ing!) Each video shows the dancers from behind walking through the alleys from one spot to the next, adding a linear narrative to the spectacle, plus showing the strut/stroll is just as much a part of the performance of hip hop culture.
One of the other aspects of Yak Film’s Seoul series that I appreciate is how Yak Films challenges the U.S. mainstream media’s penchant to shorthand Hip Hop as some monolithic entity, particularly around issues of sexism/misogyny. Funky Lia’s performances, along with the French dancer Dey Dey, highlight an aspect of hip hop where women performers are not sexualized. None of Funky Lia’s movements are meant to mimic sexual congress. They are all performed to demonstrate the expert control she has of her body to perform illusions of fluidity, floating, and flux. The dance forms of popping and locking and robot-ing and tut-ing work better when ones clothing is loose. It just doesn’t work when your clothes are tight or when you are dressed in the scantily ways demanded of most KPop girl groups. There’s another video of Funky Lia (not Yak Films) where she totally rocks a jacket with excellent effect. Back to Yak, there are moments in the performance where Funky Lia’s eyes focus away from the viewer into the distance, often when mimicking robot moves. Such refusal to return the viewer’s gaze is a form of control while still choosing to be on display as a dancer. It’s a female dancer’s way of maintaining agency, maintaining ownership of her body by deflecting the male objectifying gaze. If hip hop truly won’t stop, it’s dance genres like this that enable women more control of their own representation that will propel hip hop further forward.
Funky Lia’s performance in public spaces also highlights changes in South Korean public culture since the late 1990’s. I have had a few Korean-American female friends tell me about being accosted on the streets of Seoul when smoking in the early 90’s. This was one sign of the patriarchal control of women in South Korean publics. Rachael Miyung Joo argues that the major breakthrough for Korean women in public spaces was the 2002 World Cup, where the waves of crimson red throughout South Korean public squares was dominated and heavily organized by young women. As Kang Okhae, a university administrator interviewed as part of Joo’s wonderful book Transnational Sport: Gender, Media, and Global Korea (Duke University Press, 2012), said at the time of the 2002 World Cup,
“Our country’s women are finally breaking out of the Confucian tradition and screaming freely. I see it as a liberating experience for women. We were always told to be very quiet and to stay inside when we were young, and now have the opportunity to move our bodies and to be loud in public” (p 191).
Although Joo details the complex progressive/not-so-progressive aspects of this shift in South Korean public culture, Funky Lia’s survival in this public space, (in the making-of video, she herself mentions feeling ‘ambivalent’ about the anger she might experience from passersby in the subway segment), tells a great deal of how things have changed in South Korea since the 1990’s. Funky Lia’s non-sexual bodily display is being ‘loud in public’. And perhaps this is partly why one of the female clothing store associates steps out and applauds her Seoul sister’s performance.
Funky Lia elaborates in the making-of video, “I really hope my dancing is strong enough to represent my country.” Along with resonating with Joo’s commentary on the nationalism of sport in South Korea**, Funky Lia, along with her compatriots Locking Khan and Poppin J, definitely have the skills to represent. But these Yak Films, by putting their participants in public spaces, represent a respected South Korea as well.
* I have been unable to find the non-stage names of each of these South Korean dancers. If anyone knows their names so I can properly credit them as I did Scott, the Bourgeois brothers, and Nguyen, please let me know.
** I consider dance a ‘sport’, which, to truly explain, requires its own essay. Let me just say here that I look at sport partly as displays of kinesthetic capital. Each sport enables certain displays of physical performance – speed, gymnastics, acrobatics, dexterity, endurance, etc. American grid iron football has the interception and the kick-off return; Australian Rules Football has the mark and the occasional contorted shots for goal; various dance genres highlight difference aspects of physical control; and so on and so forth with other sports. As a result, I include dance and certain circus performances under the wider rubric of sport. I am not alone in this, for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, California included dance documentaries in its second ‘Sports Films’ series a few years back.
Adam Hartzell began focusing his writing on South Korean cinema after seeing retrospectives on the works of Im Kwon-taek and Jang Sun-woo at San Francisco film festivals in the late 1990’s. In 2000, he became a contributing writer to the premier English-language website on South Korean cinema, Koreanfilm.org. He has written for Kyoto Journal quarterly, online for GreenCine and fANDOR, and was a contributing writer for the San Francisco Film Society’s webzine sf360.org. He has written often about Hong Sang-soo, including the main essay for the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival’s retrospective on Hong’s work in 2007 and a chapter on The Power of Kangwon Province for The Cinema of Japan and Korea (Wallflower Press).