K-dramas continue to drive Korean Wave
Although hip-hop and pop music have been receiving a fair amount of global attention lately, television shows continue to be at the core of the upswing in Korean cultural exports.
The recent soap opera sensation “My Love From the Star” (2013) has reignited the Korean Wave across East Asia, particularly in Chinese-speaking regions. Even though “Winter Sonata” (2002) and “Jewel in the Palace” (2004) first gained popularity abroad some 10 years ago, the impact of the new drama series seems to be far greater, and to be reaching farther, than past generations of Korean soap operas.
“My Love From the Star,” which ended on Feb. 27, catapulted actor Kim Soo-hyun to international stardom, with attention spilling over to other fields such as food, fashion and tourism.
The show’s written plot is inspired by a tale recorded in King Gwanghaegun’s journal during the Joseon era (1392– 1910). It depicts a mysterious UFO appearance in Gangwon-do. The series revolves around an alien who landed on Earth some 400 years ago, appearing as a human being named Do Min-joon, played by Kim Soo-hyun. He never aged, and now lives in modern Korea. He falls in love with a famous actress named Chun Song-yi, played by Jun Ji-hyun, who lives across the hall.
Some 15 countries have acquired the rights to the show, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, the Philippines, Israel, Belgium, Myanmar, Cambodia and Japan. TV stations in Mongolia, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia are also considering broadcasting the drama.
“My Love From the Star” isn’t the only show that has caught the attention of audiences. “The Heirs” (2013) has been winning over international viewers on many channels, expanding the influence of the show’s producers and opening the doors to future programs.
K-dramas Take China by Storm
The U.S. media has been quick to pick up on the intense interest that “My Love From the Star” is evoking among Chinese fans, media outlets and even in political circles.
The Washington Post recently published a front-page article about the drama, titled, “Could a Korean soap opera be China’s guiding light?” available in its March 8 print edition. It focused on how influential the Korean show has been in China. According to the newspaper, “After the show’s female lead mentioned ‘beer and fried chicken’ in one episode, it became one of the most invoked phrases online. Restaurants cashed in and started selling beer-and-fried-chicken meals.”
This followed a similar article posted on the newspaper’s website on March 7 titled, “Chinese officials debate why China can’t make a soap opera as good as South Korea’s.” The newspaper reported that during the recent Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Wang Qishan, secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Communist Parity of China, said, “Korean drama is ahead of us … The core and soul of the Korean opera is a distillation of traditional Chinese culture. It just propagates traditional Chinese culture in the form of a TV drama.”
Elsewhere in the United States, The Wall Street Journal reported on Feb. 26 that Korean TV series have long been popular in China, and “My Love From the Star” is one of the most-discussed topics on Sina’s Weibo microblogging platform. The most notable result is the creation of a chimaek (a neologism from the Korean for eating fried chicken and drinking beer) craze in China. The newspaper said that more than 3.7 million posts related to the Mandarin term for chimaek have appeared since the drama depicted character Chun Song-yi indulging in the delicious pastime.
Spilling Over Cultural, Social Spheres
The meteoric success of “My Love From the Star” has also impacted other facets of Korean cuisine and tourism. Almost everything the fictional couple wears, eats and reads has become a sought-after item, inspiring numerous business models in China.
The chimaek example above, which has spurred an avalanche of interest in Chinese restaurants that offer beer and fried chicken, is only one example. According to recent data released by the Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corporation (aT), sales of Korean agricultural products have sharply risen due to the popularity of the drama.
In addition to a 30 percent growth in sales at fried chicken restaurants, sales of Korean instant noodles have skyrocketed by 60 percent after Kim Soo-hyun’s character was shown eating a bowl of noodles.
Locations featured in the popular soap opera are now attracting more tourists, particularly Chinese visitors. Typical sites like Seoul and Incheon are experiencing more interest, as well as sites in Gapyeong, Gyeonggi-do, and Gangwon-do.
Petite France, a theme park in Gapyeong, Gyeonggi-do, has been receiving many more Chinese visitors since the characters kissed there in the 15th episode.
At Incheon National University, Chinese tourists are coming en masse to take photos in the classroom where Do taught and Chun was a student.
Kim Soo-hyun has become a household name and also one of the most sought-after foreign celebrities in China. Jiangsu Satellite TV’s entertainment show, “Super Brain,” cast Kim in March and raked in a record high viewership, hitting 2.65 percent across 48 cities. The satellite broadcaster reportedly offered KRW 400 million to Kim for a one-off appearance on the program. Chinese media reported that expensive, illegal tickets for the show’s taping were circulated for those who couldn’t buy one legitimately.
Actress Jun Ji-hyun, Kim’s love interest in the drama, held a meeting with fans at a five-star hotel in Shanghai in March. The fans were willing to wait for six hours to attend the event, and some 300 police officers and 50 private security crews guarded the venue to control the massive crowds. In addition, nearly 100 journalists from 60 media outlets competed to cover the affair.
Before the sensational popularity of Kim and Jun, however, Lee Min-ho had already swept China.
According to music and entertainment site Kugou.com, Lee Min-ho, deemed to be Kim’s rival, was selected as the most popular Korean actor in a March survey ranking the most beloved stars of the Korean Wave appearing in Korean dramas in China. Lee won 510,764 votes (37 percent) among a total of 1.35 million votes cast for his performance as Kim Tan in the show “The Heirs,” which ended this past December. Kim Soo-hyun landed in second place with 469,948 votes.
Birth of Korean Wave Soap Operas
Although the popularity of the 1997 drama “Star in My Heart” was not as big as later programs, the TV show began making waves in overseas markets. The soap opera brought the main cast—Ahn Jae-wook and Choi Jin-sil—to superstardom, equivalent to today’s top Korean Wave stars. The show drew popularity from the Chinese audience, paving the way for the growth of Hallyu, or the Korean Wave. Since the drama’s success, Korean actors and singers have begun turning their eyes toward Chinese-speaking regions of the world.
The term Hallyu became a part of the lexicon in 2003 when “Winter Sonata,” starring iconic Bae Yong-joon, affectionately called “Yonsama” by his Japanese fans, became a true hit after the show aired on Japanese television. The drama boom quickly reshaped the pop culture landscape, evoking both awe and concern from the Japanese media.
While “Winter Sonata” was a classic tearjerker, “Jewel in the Palace,” starring popular actress Lee Young-ae, which aired the year before, is a period drama set during the Joseon era (1392–1910).
The drama revolves around an orphaned kitchen cook who, against all odds, becomes the king’s first female physician. The story resonated in different cultures for a variety of reasons.
In some countries, where female oppression and firmly entrenched gender roles are an inevitable part of the social fabric, many viewers empathized with the female protagonist’s courage and strength. In others, traditional cultural iconography such as architecture, music, attire, food and medicine invoked an exotic feel.
Not only did “Jewel in the Palace” immediately sweep Asian countries such as Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore and Brunei, but North America and Europe also took notice, along with countries like Russia, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran, where Hallyu had previously remained under the pop culture radar.
“Jewel in the Palace” has been broadcast in more than 60 countries worldwide, accelerating the globalization of Korean soap operas far beyond Asia, to the Middle East and Africa.
After “Jewel in the Palace” created massive interest in Iran, “Jumong” (2006–2007) enjoyed high ratings as well, and Korean actors became the most sought-after stars by Iranian advertisers and broadcasters.
Since then, the Hallyu dramas have steadily reached a wide range of viewers, becoming one of the country’s hottest export items. There is high demand for Korean soap operas, even in countries where the Korean television networks haven’t yet been able to provide content.
Over the past three to four years in particular, the number of Korean dramas which have been aired in Central and South American countries has been rising, according to the Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA).
“Stairway to Heaven” (2003–2004), an SBS television drama starring Kwon Sang-woo and Choi Ji-woo as lovers, became popular among viewers in Central and South America after it aired on Mundo Fox, a Spanish-language network that also shows Korean dramas on its YouTube channel.
“My Fair Lady” (2009), another SBS drama, was well received by audiences in Paraguay after it was broadcast on local channel Red Guarani in 2012. The show finished as the country’s second most watched show that year. Since 2006, Red Guarani has been enjoying high audience numbers with its imported Korean shows such as “Autumn in My Heart” (2000), “Winter Sonata,” “Jewel in the Palace,” “Coffee Prince” (2007) and “Princess Hours” (2006).
Actress Lee Young-ae from “Jewel in the Palace” © MBC
“Autumn in My Heart” was also a beloved Korean soap opera in Peru after TV Peru first aired it in 2007, prompting the station to recently re-air the series. In Peru, the average viewership of Korea dramas broadcast in recent years was measured at around 6 percent, compared to locally produced dramas that manage 2 percent. TV Peru also broadcast “Jewel in the Palace” between late 2008 and 2009.
K-Dramas Go Global via Internet
During the earlier period of the Hallyu drama boom that started some 10 years ago, the majority of the overseas viewers resorted to scouring their local DVD shops to see if they carried their favorite Korean dramas.
The digital age, however, has transformed viewer habits with regard to watching TV shows, enabling them to have access to nearly any program regardless of time zone or country of origin.
Korean soap operas have tapped into the widespread use of video-streaming websites and social media, such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter, since the 2000s. In addition, due to the rapid development of online video services like YouTube, the consumption of traditional television is becoming a social experience that is immediately shared without the limitations of time, geography or language.
Providing television shows, movies, music and other entertainment products overseas has become much simpler and easier than in the pre-YouTube era. Television studios and distributors merely need to look for the right local broadcasting channel that can deliver their content to audiences.
The unprecedented success of “My Love From the Star” has been attributed to its online distribution in China, as it immediately went viral after its first release. The drama has received more than 600 million views on IQIYI, a Chinese video site. According to HB Entertainment, which produced the drama, because of the complicated process of censoring the drama for Chinese TV stations, the company chose online broadcasting ahead of official station-based broadcasting.
As of January 2014, “The Heirs” has garnered more than one billion views on Youku, China’s biggest video streaming site. These dramas don’t have to wait for the broadcasters’ censors, which often take more time. China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television sets the rules for the portion of foreign dramas in a channel’s daily broadcasting and also bans the airing of foreign dramas during the prime slot between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.
The recent dramas have overcome the strict censoring of shows in Chinese markets through the Internet. One of the consequences of this shift is that overseas fans can now view their favorite dramas almost simultaneously with Korean viewers. Jung Duk-hyun, a critic, said that the tremendous success of “My Love From the Star” and “The Heirs” has accelerated online circulations, rather than station-based broadcasting. “The internet has a strong power which rapidly spreads content and which is relatively free from the government’s regulations,” Jung said.
The growing acceptance of TV shows beyond continental Asia, which shares a certain amount of similarity with Korea, and their embrace in North America, Europe and the Middle East, indicates there is some sort of universal appeal that is capable of transcending cultural differences.
What has propelled the success of these dramas is their strength in creating safe, middle-of- the-road entertainment that incorporates enough syrupy and romantic plot twists to keep the viewers emotionally attached. When identifying the most appealing part of their favorite dramas, many loyal fans cite the fuzzy and sweet romance stories of “Korean-style” programming.
Soap operas also often stay true to the core elements of their home country’s respect for familial relationships, which strikes a chord with viewers who share some cultural affinity with Korea, while also constituting family entertainment in many parts of the world.
According to Fan Hong, a professor at Tsinghua University’s School of Journalism and Communication, jeong, a Korean word for human affection, is one of the central themes that permeate Korean dramas.
“Korean dramas deal with everyday life and familiar subjects,” she explained in a past seminar, “and thus many Chinese people favor Korean dramas for their human codes. Particularly, their main themes are mostly friendship, family values and love, which are the most universal senses appealing to the wider audiences. This factor can be an important connection with people in other parts of the world as well as China.”
Korean dramas also include less sex and violence than some shows produced elsewhere. This means they can be shared by a wider range of generations, especially in more conservative areas of the world.
In many countries, Korean TV shows have turned into benchmarks for a trendy lifestyle and consumer behavior, as seen in the response to “My Love From the Star” in China. Some fans have taken to emulating the fashion choices of their stylish fictional icons, and also imitate the way they spend and consume.
Unlike the season format that is conventional in some markets, where networks determine the plot of a series before shooting, Korean dramas are typically produced based on a daily script delivered on the shooting date. The result is that stories are developed fluidly, based on viewers’ reactions.
The China Daily pointed out that the Korean production team’s interaction with viewers is the unusual element that contributes to their success. “Many popular productions have their own websites, where scriptwriters post part of the finished scripts, inviting viewers to leave messages, discuss the plot and come up with suggestions for future episodes. This not only keeps viewers’ interest in the TV dramas alive, but also helps scriptwriters and directors make changes to the storyline to suit the audience’s demand,” the newspaper said.
The China Daily argued that, starting in the late 1990s, Korean TV dramas have flourished due to joint efforts between the country’s government and the TV series makers. Before the millennium, the Korean government issued regulations that at least 80 percent of the TV programs had to be produced at home, and set a quota for homemade TV shows for local broadcasters. “That not only helped South Korean TV productions gain a firm foothold in the domestic market, but also laid the foundation for their successful foray into overseas markets,” the paper said.
Responding to the soaring demand for soap operas, the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism is stepping up its efforts to improve the drama production environment.
The government plans to establish an “HD drama complex” at Daejeon’s Expo Park by 2016. The complex will house five drama studios for films, soap operas and sitcoms, along with indoor court and jail sets, outdoor filming sites and an arts center.
The ministry will also operate a drama production school and an online broadcasting academy to nurture the talented workforce needed to support professional TV productions.
The government has also announced plans to raise KRW 150 billion to support the soap opera production industry and expand financial support for the Broadcasting Development Fund, a program sponsored by the Korea Communications Agency.
* Article from Korea Magazine (May 2014)