Dr Soh Kai Ruo, Lecturer | 5-min read
25 October 2022 — Cultural Diplomacy happens all around us. Like invisible elves working behind the scenes, cultural diplomacy is churning in action behind many cultural products we consume. From festivals to art exhibitions to film and music, you may not notice how, but they play a role in influencing our opinions on individuals, groups, issues and countries. Cultural diplomacy is generally viewed as the exchange of cultural ideas. Individuals or organisations from different nations work together to cultivate a mutual understanding to build a positive image of their countries to the international public.1
What does this mean and how does it work?
I am sure you have heard of BTS. Whether you are a fan, or not, the impact of BTS is an example of cultural diplomacy in action. From their visit to the White House to their performance and speech at the United Nations, BTS is using their popularity to influence the reputation of South Korea (hereafter Korea) to non-Koreans while amplifying issues that are important to their hosts.
BTS has been credited to have placed Korea and its cultural creative industries on the global map, but they are not the only Korean cultural product to have made waves internationally.
If you are a K-Pop fan, you may have heard of EXO. Though still popular today, the group’s origins and intentions have shifted over the years.
Formed in 2011 by Korean entertainment company SM Entertainment, EXO’s 12 original members were brought together as a strategy to enter China’s market while maintaining their K-Pop fan base in Korea and beyond. Originally, the group was separated into two sub-units:
- EXO-K (K for Korean) with Korean members Suho, Baekhyun, Chanyeol, D.O, Kai and Sehun
- EXO-M (M for Mandarin) with Korean members Chen and Xiumin and Chinese members, Lay, Kris, Tao and Luhan
SM Entertainment’s cultural diplomacy efforts between Korea and China saw EXO’s popularity grow across both markets. This is partly due to the various strategies placed by SM Entertainment to showcase the cultural intelligence of EXO members by giving them the opportunity to use their knowledge to interpret and adapt to multicultural environments during public appearances2. For instance, during the group’s training period, EXO Korean members were given Mandarin lessons (amongst many other languages) while the Chinese members were trained in Korea to present EXO as a made-in-Korea cultural product3. EXO members used the knowledge that they gained through their training and presented their ability to converse in the respective languages, albeit at varying levels, in their public interactions with fans and colleagues.
Unfortunately, there were disagreements between SM Entertainment and Chinese members Kris, Luhan and Tao, leading them to leave the group. Although Kris, Luhan and Tao ended their EXO journey, they continued to apply the knowledge they gained during their EXO careers. Focusing on Luhan, his intention of becoming an actor led him to be cast in two film co-productions between Korea and China.
Film co-productions are viewed as an approach to build cultural diplomacy. They are produced with a signed treaty between the governments of two or more nations with the intention of building the participating countries’ national cinemas. Production companies use this treaty to co-produce films across national borders for a range of financial and location incentives agreed by the participating governments. In return, co-productions facilitate the exchange of cultural ideas and aim to build the economic and creative capital of all participating nations4
Luhan, well-known for his star power in China and his Korean and Chinese language skills, was cast in 20 Once Again (2015), a remake of the Korean film Miss Granny (2014), and The Witness (2015), a remake of the Korean film Blind (2011). Both remakes were shot in Mandarin with a Chinese cast.
20 Once Again (2015) was directed by Taiwanese director Leste Chen. However, The Witness (2015) was directed by the film’s original director Ahn Sang-hoon. Ahn is not fluent in Mandarin and was dependent on an interpreter on set except when conversing with Luhan. An example of their conversation is seen in this behind-the-scenes video.
In this clip, Luhan is playing the ukulele in front of the crew and his co-star Yang Mi as he prepares for his shoot.
He turns to Ahn (the director) and asks in Korean: “I should only play this front bit, right?”.
Ahn responds in Korean: “Yes”.
Luhan immediately turns to Yang and says in Mandarin: “It is better if I only play this part”.
Lu applied cultural intelligence to the conversation by seamlessly conversing in Korean and Mandarin. Not only did he reduce the language barrier but he kept the conversation in context to the environment by bringing Yang in, building a meaningful interaction for all parties involved in the scene.
Film co-productions, such as The Witness (2015), are a multicultural workplace as cultural diplomacy efforts generally require practitioners across different nationalities to collaborate. This applies to most cultural creative industries, especially when funding of the programmes or productions are supported by governments and/or institutions. For instance, if you were the producer of an international arts festival and your team invites foreign artists to showcase their work, what questions or preparations would you need to consider? Perhaps exploring potential cultural complexities that may be present during the communication and development process? Or preparing resources and gathering information that will assist in negotiations? How would you present the exhibition to respectfully represent the artists and their work while building a positive image for the host country and funders to the domestic and international public?
We may not have immediate answers to all these questions. However, it is valuable when we start understanding and observing patterns that can help us navigate the complexities that may appear when we work in a similar multicultural environment.
1 Ang, I , Isar, Y.R. & Mar, P. (2015). Cultural diplomacy: beyond the national interest?. International Journal of Cultural Policy, 21(4), 365 381.
2 Livermore, D.A. (2009). Cultural intelligence: improving your CQ to engage our multicultural world. Baker Academic: Michigan.
3 An example of them discussing their language abilities can be found in this clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9XoFOGUVAWI
4 Hoskins, C., McFadyen, S., & Finn, A. (1998). The effects of cultural differences on the international co-production of television programs and feature films. Canadian Journal of Communication, 23(4), 523-538.
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