A month or so ago, I was helping a friend of mine pack their things up to move out of their apartment. As we folded clothes, discussed Pasolini, and talked about moving to LA, she excused herself to call their dad. As she uttered “appa…” and continued to speak with their father, I was immensely shocked – her Korean sounded eerily similar to Tamil, almost like a conversation I would have with my parents or friends. I shared this with them after the call ended, and I pointed out how I understood half of the sentences she spoke. For both of us, nal meant “day”, onnu nal meant “one day”, na meant “I”, ni meant “you”, and Appa and Amma meant father and mother. I even understood the intonation of their dad’s affirming grunts! While this is just a shared vocabulary, the foundation of the now-abandoned Dravido-Korean language family theory, our exchange is part of a broader cultural intimacy between Koreans and Dravidians, growing through cinema, music, and globalization. Beyond the similarities in language and the two cultures’ love for spicy cuisine, and World K-Pop festivals in Chennai, there are growing connections between the two film industries.
Like all of world cinema, the Tamil film industry (Kollywood) did not develop in a vacuum. While much of early film took inspiration from local theater, it also began to show considerable Hollywood influence. Many of the movies of the 1970’s possessed shades of Italian neorealism, and the more recent works of the 2010’s and 2020’s have been considerably shaped by East Asian cinema. While Tamil remakes of popular movies have been around for a while, be it Telugu or French, the 2010’s saw a boom in South Indian remakes of Korean films. Some of the most notable examples include Nalan Kumarasamy’s 2016 Vijay Sethupathi starrer Kadhalum Kadantha Pogum, a remake of Kim Kwang-Sik’s My Dear Desperado (2010), and B.V. Nandini Reddy’s Oh! Baby (2019), based on Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Miss Granny (2014) and starring Samantha.
Even outside of direct remakes, directors have been open about expressing their inspiration from Korean film. Trailblazing Tamil director Pa. Ranjith praised Bong Joon-Ho’s work, pointing out Parasite (2019) and its emphasis on social inequality. This comes as no surprise, as Pa. Ranjith’s art often revolves around political commentary and messaging. Notably, he also praises Memories of Murder (2003), calling it a “gory movie… made in a very artistic manner”. This is interesting given the growth in gory-but-not-masala films, such as Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Vikram (2022). This is also seen in what I believe to be one of, if not the most, influential Tamil films of the last decade, Karthik Subbaraj’s Jigarthanda (2014), which is loosely based on Yoo Ha’s A Dirty Carnival (2006). The violent black comedy genre that has found immense critical and commercial success, sparked by Jigarthanda, takes considerable inspiration from Korean cinema. The action and gore loved by South Indian audiences combined with the general shift towards more “artistic” mainstream cinema in Kollywood is established via an imitation of Korean films and industry. With pioneering directors Pa. Ranjith and Vetrimaaran being open about the growth of the Korean film industry into the international stage as a goal for Tamil cinema, it is not surprising that Korean films are models for Tamil productions. In the context of globalization and the expansion of streaming, this is a form of South-South cooperation that is developing in ways that were not as common before.
Additionally, the K-Drama, filled with the melodrama and family feuds ever-present in Tamil serials, has found popularity amongst Tamil audiences. This is seen in Cibi Chakravarthy’s Don (2022), where a comedy scene spoofed the stereotypical emotional scenes found in K-Dramas. The scene went viral, with Instagram reels, TikToks, and other social media recreations having millions of views. In an interview with the cast of the film, lead Sivakarthikeyan discusses how the scene was formulated. He explains that it was a mix of Korean and Madurai dialects and slang, as well as poking fun at both K-Dramas and Tamil serials. Many scenes and promotions of the film involved characters doing “heartu”, popularized by K-Pop and the internationalization of Korean pop culture. In fact, adding -u to English words is also done in Tamil. While remakes of films may merely be imitations of another industry, films such as Don show that the relationship between Kollywood and Korea have developed into more of a cultural kinship, with audience taste, senses of humor, and cultures converging.