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 edition of Beats of the Month, we ask our writers: Among the many things vying for your attention this January, what won and made your heart beat?

Um Tae-hwa‘s Poetic Post-Apocalyptic Worlds [IU’s “Love Wins All” and Concrete Utopia]
— Sabrina

Over the past week, I ended up engrossed in IU’s “Love Wins All” music video and the film Concrete Utopia, which are both post-apocalyptic pieces directed by Um Tae-hwa.

The “Love Wins All” MV is an emotional viewing experience. IU and her co-star, V from BTS, are both impressive in conveying both the joys of their relationship and their struggles for survival. In the video, IU and V are a couple who flee from a giant, menacing cube. Viewers have already interpreted the cube in a variety of ways, with it possibly representing death, fear, oppression of the marginalized, and even hate of public figures in the media. Part of the MV’s power is that the symbolism is so open and many meanings are viable. The other reason is the heartbreaking ending: V futilely attempts to strike at the cube, and then IU covers V’s eye to shield him from seeing what happens next as the cube approaches them. Their final actions are to protect the other and remain together until the end.

Meanwhile, Concrete Utopia explores the limits of empathy. Following a catastrophic earthquake, the residents of Hwang Gung, the last standing apartment complex in Seoul, survive by evicting outsiders (often referred to as “cockroaches”). As one character declares, “Generosity comes from full stomachs. But the food’s running low.” The film depicts how dehumanization and violence stem from scarcity. It was often difficult to witness how characters make questionable choices, even killing others, for self-preservation. The real and perceived threats to survival split the community, aside from married couple Min-seong and Myung-hwa (played by Park Seo-joon and Park Bo-young). 

Um Tae-hwa may depict cruel worlds that bring out people’s darkest natures, but he is also interested in the redemptive possibilities of love and compassion. At the end of Concrete Utopia, Myung-hwa encounters other people who invite her into their settlement. She is shocked to find that they say, “If you’re alive, you can live.” Even in the most dire circumstances, one can still choose to love and choose to be human. 

A Plus (Riize) and a Minus (HyunA, sigh), to Start the New Year
— Siena

Let’s start with the bad: HyunA, oh HyunA. I’ve been a fan of HyunA’s cheeky, self-aware brand of sensuality for years, even if she’s hardly immune from problematic content (especially in the appropriation arena) and her recent music didn’t wow me. I admired the tenacity she’s shown throughout her decade-plus career, a tenacity which felt distinctly feminist given the often misogynistic criticism she’s received for both creative and personal choices. Which, of course, is why her recent public announcement of a relationship with former Beast/Highlight member Yong Jun-hyung (of Burning Sun infamy) was so shocking. 

It’s hard to reconcile HyunA’s public persona with the decision to closely associate with a person complicit in horrific acts of violence against women. I’ve seen much anger and betrayal in online reactions from fans, but I mostly feel weary (of yet another celebrity disappointment), sad (to be reminded of the lack of culpability many Burning Sun participants ultimately faced), and concerned (for the fate of HyunA’s cultural legacy, and frankly given this man’s history, for her literal safety). The whole thing is, to put it in-eloquently, a bummer…though potentially in a more constructive sense, also a stark reminder of the unreliability of the personas and parasocial assumptions often at the heart of fandom. 

Now onto something much nicer: Riize recapturing the plot! I’ve always been excited by Riize’s potential, but despite having a stellar predebut rollout, the group had a rough first few months. I found “Get a Guitar” underwhelming, the entire non-scandal scandal around Seunghan was a mess, and I will forever stand on my soapbox that the line “talk saxy to me” is an inexcusable crime against music and morality. 

Things started to look up during the 2023-2024 end-of-year awards show cycle with nice styling and many chances for the group to show off their performance abilities. Now with their latest single “Love 119,” I’m delighted to say Riize are firmly back on track. Like their blockbuster predebut track “Memories,” “Love 119” strikes a distinctive balance of being youthful but not immature, nostalgic but not dated. It’s got a strangely catchy shout-chorus and great melodies, and builds on the relaxed yet athletic dance style they’ve been crafting since day one. What’s not to love? But please Riize: let’s stick to the game plan this time…no more cringey NSYNC-channelling in future!

Bookending a Corporate Work Week with the Help of Youra and TXT‘s Taehyun
— Chelsea

There is nothing more stressful than being crammed onto an over-packed subway car during rush hour in Seoul and navigating transfers in a sea of slow walkers. At the same time, I’ve managed to make my commute peaceful with the help of a favorite artist, Youra. Corporate life is daunting, and bills have to be paid, but man can a good playlist put me in the right mood to start my day. Lately, I’ve been turning to Youra to start my day on the right note: beautiful vocals, playful cadence, and a touch of whimsey I need to make my morning feel more enjoyable than stressful. “Rawww” is by far my favorite track to half-awake vibe to, but “Happy Escape,” and “Swim” are close seconds. Thanks to the beat and the vocals, the movement of the subway feels tolerable; it feels like I’m starting my day on the right note. A shout out should also go to Lim Kim‘s “All Right” and “Awoo,” both of which have been on replay these days. 

And for my evenings? TXT‘s Taehyun has recently taken on a new YouTube series, Academy Reincarnation. The premise, as the channel writes it, makes itself more convoluted than it actually is by trying to make it into a webtoon drama. But, essentially, Taehyun attends various academies (magicsalsa, etc), and pretends to know nothing, thus charming the people around him with his skills. I suppose this kind of variety show is more suited towards existing fans, but I happen to be one, and it’s fun to tune into every Friday evening after an early solo shift at the office to watch him be cute and learn things. Taehyun is charming — in the sometimes cringey acting like he doesn’t know what’s going on kind of way — and the episodes are a quick twenty minutes of entertainment to celebrate the end of my work week. It’s also interesting to see the variety of academies that exist and the people that teach in them. The show takes care to give the regular attendees a spotlight, and that gives more insight into the world of Korean academies and what they offer for both young students that want to get into a top university and adults with hobbies they want to refine their skills in. Hagwon isn’t just prepping for Suneung, and the web series showcases that. 

Between TXT’s group web variety To Do on Monday evening, Taehyun’s web variety on Friday, and my Youra-inspired commute playlist, my week has enough little highlights to make it enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong — I love my job — but, sometimes it’s just about bookending your days and weeks with small moments of happiness that have nothing to do with reading wire news stories until your eyes bleed. 

EXchange Stands Out Amidst the Crowded Dating Reality Show Field 
— Eileen

At the beginning of 2023, I remember being quite fascinated by dating reality shows with EXchange 2 spearheading my interest. Now, I have to admit that the soft and delicate charms that initially captivated me aren’t as refreshing to me anymore. Heart Signal came back last year after three years of absence, but season four ended up being a huge disappointment. Season three of Single’s Inferno also wrapped up not so long ago and seems to be their most successful installment yet with a fourth season already in the works. Though the series continues to be wildly popular, I find it difficult to get immersed in the show and always find myself dropping it before the final episode.

After checking out so many other programs, I’m a bit surprised that the very first one I came across remains my favorite. EXchange is by far the most heartfelt and emotional among all the dating shows I’ve watched so when the third season started airing last December, I was incredibly excited. Even though I had some worries with Kim In-ha, PD of Pink Lie, taking over instead of Lee Jin-joo, PD of seasons one and two, EXchange 3 has been really fun so far. The participants are likable (with an unexpected appearance from former Bestie member Dahye), and I’m very intrigued with all of the cast members’ relationships. I’m not sure if it’ll top EXchange 2 for me, but I’m looking forward to seeing how the stories get unraveled either way.

(Korea Herald, Korea JoongAng Daily, YouTube[1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8]. Image via Edam Entertainment.)