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Barbenheimer nonexistent in Korea


On July 21, two blockbuster movies, “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” were released simultaneously in the US and other countries. This was a result of counterprogramming, a marketing strategy in which two movies with starkly contrasting tones and target audiences release on the same day. 

“Barbie,” directed by Greta Gerwig, is a bright and colorful fantasy comedy based on the fashion doll Barbie. On the other hand, “Oppenheimer” directed by Christopher Nolan, is a thriller biopic of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project, who developed the nuclear bombs used in WWII. 

As a result, “Barbenheimer,” a name delegated by the internet to the phenomenon, became an online sensation as memes about the stark differences between the two movies went viral. This resulted in the films becoming a double feature in the cinemas rather than generating a rivalry, leading to both films exceeding box-office expectations. 

In Korea, the release of “Oppenheimer” carried additional weight. The film released on Aug 15, Liberation Day,  a significant date in Korean history commemorating the nation’s hard-won independence after 35 years of Japanese colonial rule. This was a three-week delay from the international release date of the movie.

During the years portrayed in “Oppenheimer,” Korea suffered under Japanese cultural assimilation policies. The annexation of Korea has even been mentioned as a “cultural genocide”  by Yuji Ishida, the director of the “Comparative Genocide Studies” Project held at the University of Tokyo. This includes the many Korean women who were forcibly taken and subjected to sexual exploitation by Japanese officials.

Oppenheimer’s bomb can be credited for Liberation Day in Korea. After Japan surrendered after Little Boy and Fat Man hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Korea regained its freedom. Fittingly, “Oppenheimer” blew up the Korean box office debuting on more than 500 screens, raking in 4.3 million dollars, 44 percent of the market sales that day. The success of the film on such an emotional date underscores the relevance of history in shaping our understanding of the present. 

Despite this success, there has been controversy about Korea’s seemingly intentional release date of Oppenheimer. Some argue that the theater companies were just taking advantage of the Liberation Day holiday to reap the economic benefits and to avoid competition with other movies, such as the popular “Mission Impossible.” However, others believe that “Oppenheimer” was released, specifically on Liberation Day, to evoke patriotistic ideas amid conflicts with Japan by commemorating Japan’s surrender in World War II.

In stark contrast to “Oppenheimer,” “Barbie” encountered a different reception in Korea. While the former resonated deeply with audiences due to its historical significance and was widely watched due to director Christopher Nolan’s popularity, “Barbie” struggled to find a similar foothold. “Barbie” only controlled 8 percent of the market sales during the debut weekend. 

Despite Margot Robbie attending the Seoul premiere of Barbie, many Koreans avoided watching “Barbie.” Raphael Rashid, a journalist from the Guardian, argued that this was due to “the fear of being labeled feminist.” The societal norms in Korea place the word “feminism” in a very negative connotation. According to Haein Shim, a South Korean women’s rights activist, she believes that the film’s feminist humor and the fact that it is a very women-centered film made it a taboo subject and turned off cinema-goers.

“Barbenheimer” shows the power of cultural context and societal norms in shaping cinematic reception. While “Oppenheimer” naturally found resonance in Korea given its historical connection to Liberation Day, its overwhelming success serves as a poignant reminder of the indelible marks left by past events on the collective psyche of a nation. On the contrary, “Barbie’s” weak reception reflects the struggles societies face in embracing feminist narratives, emphasizing how far we are from challenging traditional norms and beliefs. Ultimately, these contrasting receptions remind us of the profound influence that culture and history have in determining how art is perceived and consumed.

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About the Contributor
Eric Hyunseung Cho
Eric Hyunseung Cho, Copy Editor
Eric is a junior reporter for Tiger Times. He has a voracious appetite for more than just food. His love for thinking about mathematics and space is matched only by his passion for playing the French horn and swimming. Don't hesitate to engage him in conversations ranging from the latest hot takes in current news to theoretical musings on the universe.

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