In late February 2021, the hearts of thousands of fans from every corner of the world were won over by the newly released Korean drama “Vincenzo”, which soon became a media phenomenon thanks to its “refreshing
” and innovative elements, allowing it to become one of the most viewed tv productions of all times both domestically
. The TV show, in fact, does not limit itself to a story about a gorgeous young man navigating corruption and romance, but also includes an intriguing plot device that had yet to be seen in a South Korean production: the Mafia.
After all, it was about time that the Mafia was restyled and got a K-twist—Hollywood productions like “The Godfather”, “The GoodFellas” and “The Sopranos” were definitely not enough. And thanks to this K-drama, we finally got the chance to enjoy the story of Vincenzo Cassano, an Italo-Korean man that returns to his native Korea following the death of his foster father, the mafia boss Don Fabio. The protagonist had, in fact, lived most of his life in Italy after he was tragically abandoned by his mother and later adopted by the powerful Cassanos, a criminal family that taught him the ropes and raised him to be a ruthless mafioso feared by the others.
At this point, nothing too new—the K-drama genre is crawling with heroes of this kind: charismatic, money-driven, selfish, and generally characterised by bad qualities which are, however, rendered wholly forgivable by virtue of their hidden golden heart—and not at all because of their swoon-worthy good looks. However, the description of Vincenzo as an Italian mafia man apparently made the K-drama stand out from the usual “corruption show sprinkled with romance”, thanks to this ‘unusual’ element. But much as it pains me to announce, that same “plot device” that made Vincenzo so loved by both the domestic and the international audience is exactly what makes the South Korean show problematic.
This problematicness all boils down to an extremely common yet disregarded subject: the so-called romanticization of the Mafia. Often ignored even by academia—to the extent that it is nearly impossible to offer a referenced definition of the issue—the romanticization of the Mafia can be broadly described as the idealised media representation of the utmost Italian criminal phenomenon in sentimental, nostalgic and aesthetical terms
. More specifically, mafiosi are commonly depicted as gentlemen gangsters, men of honour
, whose criminal actions are displayed in a spectacular and glamorised way. And therein lies the contention made against these media productions: the real problem is not talking about the Mafia but is the distorted way these criminals are represented on screen. Their crimes are never critically assessed, nor explicitly condemned. The viewer who has no knowledge of the subject thereby perceives the Mafia as something glamourous, or even as a simple cinematographic creation
, when in reality it is a contemporary criminal phenomenon heavily affecting Italian politics and society.
With the release of Vincenzo and its inaccurate representation of Italy and the Mafia, merely reduced to a cool and fun trait of the protagonist, the South Korean industry is thus found guilty of romanticization.
And then there is the case of ITZY.
ITZY is a Kpop girl group composed of five members, which first debuted in February 2019 under JYP Entertainment—one of the three largest record labels in South Korea
—and quickly became one of the most loved and followed groups among both national and international fans of Korean pop music.
The Kpop group was recently swallowed by the eye of the storm and became protagonists of a heated Twitter debate following the April 11 release of the tracklist
of their new upcoming mini-album “Guess Who”. Triggering the online revolt was the title of the main song, “마.피.아”, which reads as “Mafia”. The explicit reference to the Italian criminal organisation in the title raised concerns among the Italian K-pop stans, who attempted to draw attention to the problematic nature of this titling by writing threads
to educate the community over the tragic real-life political and social issues of the Mafia and condemning its romanticization.
However, the conversation was soon taken over by the online International K-pop community, which opposed the criticisms by appealing to the possibility that the song might refer to the “Werewolf” party game
(which, in South Korea, is commonly known as “Mafia”). They also appealed to the difficulty in determining whether ITZY is really going to have a mafia aesthetic as the album and the song’s music video will not be released until April 30.