One of Netflix’s latest offerings from 2019, the “Persona” series, is a controversial Netflix ‘Original’ that has garnered almost global support. This is surprising, given its strong Asian cultural treatment of romance themes in which most Western tropes of this popular genre are clearly missing.
By providing such a strong platform and endorsement for Persona Netflix risks the honest response of its own subscribers who will ultimately decide whether this series makes the grade. Currently comprised of four short films, the anthology has been created by four different respected Korean directors. A clue to the popularity of the sometimes-disturbing mini-series is likely the acting debut of the wildly successful K-Pop artist UI (real name Lee Ji-eun). UI is cast as a different central character in every film of this eclectic series.
But is the idea of a collection of shorts like Persona, with its jarring departure from Western sensibilities, likely to carve out a permanent following, or is the fascination of the series nearly over, and tied only to IU’s personal popularity?
In fact, is the Persona series itself fatally limited by being only an expression of the ambition of the talent and media artistry of UI herself, or is it the definition of a newly accepted sub-genre in the film?
In the first place, the sponsorship of Netflix itself answers this question in a fairly solid way. The reach of this media giant includes using every nuance of internet market research and testing to uncover what its viewing public really responds to, whether the average viewer is aware of it or not. This technology has been a large factor of Netflix’s success, and with all the marketing analytical power of the internet in their hands, plus a hefty budget, they are unlikely to miss their guess.
Secondly, while UI’s popularity might be the irresistible vehicle of attraction in this series, today’s global-minded audiences are far more discerning in terms of ‘patronage by celebrity’ than say, their grandparents who would watch anything that starred Shirley Temple. Today, there is an almost infinite choice and, thanks to streaming platforms like Netflix, almost infinite access, so viewer loyalty is a highly competitive goal. There is evidence enough therefore, that viewer engagement with Persona Netflix is more than a passing infatuation.
And finally, while Western audiences might struggle to connect with the unconventional Asian interpretation of romance, the depth of the interwoven themes exposed throughout the series invites mental exploration of the human psyche and emotions register. This turn towards seriousness makes a timely impact on today’s world shaken as it is on every level by the 2019 coronavirus pandemic. Whether a viewer appreciates or recoils from the films’ treatment of dark issues such as suicide, the strange mixing of the macabre with UI’s iconic innocence means the audience does not have the option of remaining neutral or unaffected.
So, while ultimately time will tell whether the Korean Persona series has introduced a suite of tropes that are here to stay or not, the indications are, from the number of Netflix subscribers asking if there is a fifth installment yet, that Persona short film style is here to stay.