While the landscape of Korean entertainment can be vast and wondrous, it’s often the little things that make us fall in love, inspire awe, evoke secondhand embarrassment, or sometimes… break our hearts.

In this segment, we ask our writers: Among the many things vying for your attention this month, what won and made your heart beat?

The Unexpected Hopefulness of Broker
— Sarah

I’m definitely one of those people who goes through phases with things I like. For example, I can watch films voraciously, and then stop, for months. I have a big Korean cinema habit, but in the last 6 months, it’s massively slowed down. So I was very happy to break that funk with the wonderful family drama Broker. It’s old news in Korea now, given that it was released there in the summer of 2022. But here in Europe, it only came out last month, a curious fact given that it won the Jury and Best Actor awards at the Cannes Film Festival. 

The best actor nod is not surprising when you see that the actor in question is Song Kang-ho, the first South Korean man to win this award and the face of South Korean cinema. He’s joined by fellow icon (as well as co-star of The Host and Sympathy for Mr VengeanceBae DoonaPeninsula’s Gang Dong-won, and Lee Ji-eun, maybe better known by her stage name, IU. It’s an absolutely stellar line up of Korean talent, with the master of the subtle family portrait, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, directing. 

The subject matter of Broker might seem bleak: a young mother gives up her baby to a Busan church’s ‘baby box,’ an incubator for abandoned babies. The baby is then, err, not super legally taken by two men running a scheme to sell babies on for adoption. The men (Song and Gang) are kind and caring however, and when the mother (IU) comes back to see what became of her baby, she becomes entangled with these two men in an unexpected way. 

With themes like this, this film kind of sounds too bleak to bear. However, in actual fact, it quickly becomes a tender meditation on atypical set-ups, a gentle look into what makes a family. IU is impressively convincing in this thoroughly un-glamourous role, and Song shines as yet another uncle/father figure. Is it mind-blowing like Parasite? No. But it is a layered and subtle film that adds yet more dimension to South Korea’s amazing cinema scene.

Subtle Title Tracks from Onew, tripleS, NewJeans, and Fifty Fifty
— Qing

After Siena noted the trend of softer, mid-tempo promotional tracks in her review of Purple Kiss’ “Sweet Juice” MV, I started noticing it everywhere. Given that I’m still neck-deep in work stuff, I find myself gravitating towards such mellow styles more than ever.

After a brief, satisfying foray into city pop on 2022’s DiceOnew returns to ballad homebase for his first full album, Circle. The tracks all centre his vocals with pared-down instrumentals, but a range of genre influences–gospel (“O [Circle”]), acoustic (“Cough”), jazz pop (“Caramel”), to name a few–ensure that each song has a distinct character, even while remaining sonically cohesive. It’s a fun, at times pensive, and mostly soothing record.

Other tracks I’ve been enjoying include “Beam”, rookie group tripleS’ take on Y2K R&B. NewJeans popularised the resurgence of this sound, so other artists definitely need to do more work to differentiate themselves. But for now, I’m just appreciating the shift towards more light-handed, but still intentional, production that allows vocals to shine. Fellow rookie group Fifty Fifty caught my attention with “Lovin’ Me”. The group’s mature, bell-like vocals reminded me of After School on their more pensive b-sides (“Make Up and Tears”), but the synths and light vocal distortions give the song a markedly contemporary feel.

SM Male Soloists Onew and Kai Start Spring Strong
— Siena

Qing, I’m delighted you’ve fallen for the unusual title tracks trend too! Like you as well, I’ve had Onew’s Circle on repeat all month. It’s never been a secret that his voice is something truly special, but I have found that in his most recent solo releases he’s hit an incredible artistic stride, finding a perfect balance between classical musical elements that play to his strengths and unexpected touches that keep things unpredictable and modern. Dice was one of my most-played EPs in 2022, and Circle is quickly becoming a 2023 favorite as well.

Another SM male soloist who continues to delight is Kai. While Rover as a mini album hasn’t captured me quite like KAI and Peaches did, it’s still a winner, and his performance quality is as spectacular as ever. Kai’s solo career has been something of an unexpected gem for me; I remember when he first announced his solo debut, because of the dominance of his dancer-role in Exo, there wasn’t a clear picture of the kind of music he could or would put out by himself. But several years later and he’s the owner of a truly sterling discography and seems to be having the time of his life, particularly with his recent “Rover” TikTok challenge with literally every person who is in K-pop. His solo career is a boatload of fun with some great music to boot. What’s not to love?!?

Both Bitter and Hopeful News on B.A.P and TRCNG
— Eileen

As a fan who once had B.A.P as their favorite K-pop act, I don’t think I’ll ever stop feeling bitter whenever I see someone mention the group. It’s no secret that TS Entertainment managed their artists horrendously with the company having legal issues with every single one of the groups they produced. And having seen all the mistreatment of B.A.P get disclosed during their lawsuit, my time as a B.A.B.Y from 2014 to 2015 is not one I like to look back on.

While I haven’t actively followed the members since they went their separate ways in 2019, the group still holds a special place in my heart. So when I learned that their 2012 MAMA trophy—the first major award they received after their debut— was found at a second-hand shop in the Philippines for a mere 4,000 won, I was infuriated. Even after officially closing down, TS Entertainment still continues to make my blood boil.

On a more positive note, Jongup has been an absolute star on JTBC’s competition program Peak Time and even earned the title of Dance MVP in the second round. Additionally, his former labelmates Jihun, HyunwooSiwoo, and Hamin (who were a part of TRCNG) also got to showcase their talent on the show as members of BXB.

Another former TRCNG member Taeseon (who interestingly also auditioned for Peak Time) caught my eye this month with his appearance on MBC‘s survival show Fantasy Boys. Though I’m not sure if I’ll be tuning in regularly, considering Boys Planet is already giving me more than enough stress, I truly wish he finds success on the show and is able to put his past at TS Entertainment behind for a hopefully much brighter future.

(Korea Times, NME. YouTube[1][2][3][4][5]. Image via SM Entertainment.)