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‘Korea No. 1’ shows even the least exciting heritage can be interesting

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Yoo Jae-suk mends equipment for making cultural heritage objects in "Korea No. 1." [NETFLIX]
Yoo Jae-suk mends equipment for making cultural heritage objects in “Korea No. 1.” [NETFLIX]

Shows like “Korea No. 1” are receiving much attention as cultural experience entertainment, in which broadcasters Yoo Jae-suk, Lee Kwang-soo, and volleyball player Kim Yeon-koung visit Korea’s intangible cultural heritage sites and objects and learn the process of cultural heritage production directly from artisans.

In “Korea No. 1,” eight types of intangible cultural properties registered as a Unesco World Heritage and national intangible cultural properties, such as roof tiles, making traditional sauces, ramie weaving, and Korea’s tidal flats, are visited or touched upon, and experts on the properties are interviewed to explain the process of making the cultural heritage objects.

After moving roof tiles and weighing the tiles themselves, Yoo, Lee and Kim make fun of each other as they struggle to form anything remotely resembling the tiles with lumps of clay, and they listen intently to craftspersons’ explanations on how to make the tiles. They also learn about the process of making other cultural assets, and as the work gets tougher, their conversations become more and more ridiculous and riddled with laughter — all revealed in the show that aired on Netflix on Nov. 25.


Yoo Jae-suk, Kim Yeon-koung and Lee Kwang-soo make traditional Korean tiles in "Korea No. 1." [NETFLIX]
Yoo Jae-suk, Kim Yeon-koung and Lee Kwang-soo make traditional Korean tiles in “Korea No. 1.” [NETFLIX]

The program, which is based on cultural heritage objects that are generally presumed to be not very entertaining, ranked fourth on Netflix Korea. It ranked number one for Netflix Kids on Dec. 9.

On “My Drama List,” a television program rating site, various comments were posted praising the show, including one that read “This kind of show is easy to get bored of, but I really enjoyed it.”

“Korea No. 1” is similar to “Laborhood on Hire” (2019), created by producer Jung Hyo-min, in that Yoo has conversations and interactions with colleagues as they work together on a task. But the element of traditional culture was a new choice for a reality television series. Scenes like an artisan tearing the grain of ramie with their teeth to make fine fibers, bending over hundreds of times to make a roof tile, and drying tiles in the sun are not common scenes in conventional entertainment shows.

A dyeing master destroying all the roof tiles made by the main cast members because the quality was not good enough was highlighted as one of the more humorous scenes.

“You can’t stir this like you stir the coffee mix,” says Jeong Gwan-chae, the roof tile dyeing master, in the show. “It’s like rowing a boat.”

Kim Yeon-koung in "Korea No. 1" [NETFLIX]
Kim Yeon-koung in “Korea No. 1” [NETFLIX]

“I went on a trip to see the masters myself,” producer Jung said, “and decided that the artisans were so entertaining themselves that I could make a show just by filming them. Since the audiences wouldn’t really have many expectations for a show about cultural heritage objects, the impact would be stronger if it was simply funny.”

Since it is an entertainment program targeting the general public, the explanations were simplified more than they would be in a documentary. Scenes talking about specifics are sometimes accompanied by graphics to aid in viewers’ understanding.

“If it was a documentary, only the callout graphics would explain the saltwater microorganisms, but Yoo explained the content himself in the show,” said Ko Gyeong-nam, head of the World Heritage Division at Sinan-gun Office, who has worked for nearly 20 years to get Korean tidal flats inscribed as Unesco World Heritage sites. “The show has a unique way of explaining these cultural heritages.”

The production team also eliminated most of the said callout graphics, which are normally central to Korean reality television. It was an attempt to reduce the language barrier so that the program could be viewed more widely across the globe. Overall, because the shots did not need space for the graphics, more content could fit onto the screen, and switching between cuts was more liberal.

Above all, the conversations between cast members of “Korea No. 1” brought laughter and entertainment to many viewers. The production team had waited for star volleyball player Kim Yeon-kyung’s off-season so that she could join in on the filming.

“I was sure of my choice for casting Kim when she asked jokingly whether she could butter up the artisans,” said producer Jung.

“Korea No. 1” is possibly the “most Korean” program among entertainment shows produced by Netflix Korea. The music takes a traditional style and the graphics are also styled of folklore and traditional drawings. “Korea No. 1” offered a ray of hope for Netflix Korea, which was sluggish after the success of “Squid Game” waned off.

“It is entertainment, but it also has elements of documentaries,” said critic Jung Duk-hyun. “It is meaningful in that it captures unique national traits but is also enjoyable, and will establish itself as a program that will hold onto viewership for Netflix Korea.”

BY KIM JEONG-YEON, LIM JEONG-WON [lim.jeongwon@joongang.co.kr]