BTS & Bong Joon-Ho: The year of South Korean success

Picture credit @bts_bighit via Twitter.

In a year where tragedies and uncertainties have unfolded, the arts have nonetheless flourished. The South Korean entertainment industry, in specific, witnessed a year where both cinema and music triumphed through the global scene.

Parasite, directed by Bong Joon Ho became the first foreign-language film to win ‘Best Picture’ at the Oscars earlier this year. Most recently, BTS became the first Korean GRAMMY-nominated group for their hit single Dynamite in the ‘Best Pop Duo/Group Performance’ category.




And now, BTS scored their third No.1 hit on the US Billboard Hot 100 this year with Life Goes On following a successful 14-week run of Dynamite (peak #1) on the chart. The song also became their second Top 10 hit on the UK Official Singles Chart, debuting at #10. Alongside, their latest album ‘BE’ soared to the number one spot on the US Billboard 200 while making a top 10 entry on the official UK albums chart at #2.

The latest string of achievements made BTS the first group and second act overall, after Taylor Swift, to simultaneously debut a song and an album at No. 1 on the main Billboard singles and albums chart. Life Goes On is also the first No. 1 song in the US in a mostly non-English language since Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s Despacito featuring Justin Bieber. Earning five No. 1 albums within two years and six months (2018 – 2020), BTS’ Billboard chart presence parallels that of The Beatles — who were the last group to earn five No. 1s (1966 – 1968) in just under two years and five months.

From three number one singles (Dynamite, Life Goes On, Savage Love Remix) to a total of five career album number ones in the United States — the largest music market in the world — BTS once again cemented their global status in the music industry.

Historical breakthroughs of BTS | © Billboard, Official Charts | Voice of London

Though, none of this came easy. Neither BTS nor Bong Joon Ho received their well-earned recognition overnight. Bong, who took the Oscars stage to accept the grand prize for Parasite described to the audience the “1-inch tall barrier” of subtitles, and how once one overcomes it can be introduced to “so many more amazing films”. The reality, however, is far more than just a 1-inch tall barrier.

This very barrier, seemingly small and conquerable without any impediments encapsulates existing prejudices, internalised stereotypes and an overlooked ignorance within our society. To forge through the industry is a challenge in itself; but to hail from South Korea, deliver your art in your native tongue and transcend the make-believe barriers of language is a spectacle worth acknowledging. It is hardly just a matter of making sense to audiences, but a multitude of trials and tribulations that creatives like BTS and Bong confronted in an industry too unwilling to accept diversity.

Following their debut in 2013, BTS made their first appearance on the renowned US Billboard albums chart two years later (2015) with The Most Beautiful Moment In Life: Pt.2 — ranking at #171. In 2016, they shot up the chart with their follow-up The Most Beautiful Moment In Life: Young Forever — placing at #107. 2016 also witnessed BTS’ first entry on the official UK albums chart, with Wings earning a spot at #62 and becoming the highest album entry by a Korean act in the US (#26) at the time.

Ever since, the unfaltering firsts and historical footings of BTS in the global music landscape have been, without say, groundbreaking. Thrashing their records left and right to finally receiving a GRAMMY nomination, BTS established a league of their own as never seen before. Adjacent to their cutting-edge choreographies and bountiful music videos, they showcase a mixed-genre discography which incorporates philosophical elements such as romanticism, the human microcosm and Carl Jung’s psychological theories on the Persona, Shadow, and Ego — adding to the array of reasons as to why BTS are cherished by their loyal fan army. The seven members are also active contributors in their music production process; partaking in writing, choreographing and producing.

Blue & Grey, a track on BTS’ latest album ‘BE’ features a verse by j-hope, “a grey rhino is approaching, I’m just standing there without focus”. The ‘Grey Rhino’ — a term popularised by Michele Wucker, author of ‘The Grey Rhino: How To Recognize and Ace on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore’, is a “highly probable, high impact yet neglected threat” that is used as a metaphor for depression in the song.

Wucker took to Twitter, praising BTS on expressing the phrase “so beautifully” in Blue & Grey:



Besides the conscientious blend of literature within their songs, BTS also set out to esteem their fellow creatives across the globe earlier this year in an art-exhibit project titled CONNECT BTS — which involved commissioning 22 contemporary artists and displaying their work across London, New York, Buenos Aires, Berlin and Seoul.

Despite the drawbacks faced as a result of the on-going pandemic, BTS persisted in countless ways to preserve and produce their art. From hosting online concerts with a record-breaking live audience to releasing various solo and group projects, undeniably, they have made 2020 their year.

Listen to BTS’ latest album ‘BE’ below. Translations available on Genius

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Words: Zakia N | Subbing: Warshma Chughtai & Begum Kuruc

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