Asian market finds its Seoul

Entertainment sector reportedly up 11% year-on-year

From Tokyo to Manila to Honolulu, there is nothing these days sexier than South Korean culture.

Korean star appearances are causing stampedes across Asia, while film rights to Korean films are selling for unprecedented sums. It’s hard to point to a single reason for the phenom, but observers say it’s a combination of the intensity of Korean culture combined with the non-threatening nature of its people.

Take the turnabout in Japan, where things Korean were anathema for decades.

In August some 200 Japanese journalists made their way to Seoul for the press launch of “April Snow,” a mediocre meller that is only the second movie to star Bae Yong-joon (nicknamed Yongsama in Japan). He had earned his rep in KBC’s TV drama “Winter Sonata.” A horde of Japanese housewives swelled the press corps to a crushing 700.

Three weeks later, in scenes that have not been seen since 1960s Beatlemania, thousands of “office ladies” turned up at Narita airport to welcome Yongsama to Tokyo.

With Korean content such big business, crowds show up in unusual places.

Some 300-plus investment bankers turned out in Hong Kong last month when Credit Lyonnais Securities Asia put on a roadshow promoting investment opportunities in Korea.

The presentations did not focus on electronics or the heavy-goods industries but on the entertainment sector, which, according to Korea’s Office of National Statistics, is up 11% year-on-year.

Nowhere is the demand for things Korean stronger than in Japan, still the region’s trendsetting territory.

“April Snow” was acquired by the Korean branch of Universal for $7 million back in February when not a single frame had been shot.

The film, produced by local producer ShowEast, cost $4 million to make and is the first local movie to have received a near-simultaneous release covering most of Asia including Japan. Despite humdrum B.O. in most territories, Universal’s gamble looks set to pay off with a $14 million gross in just two weeks.

Such is the strength of the Hallyu (Korean Wave) today it is easy to forget that until five years ago Korea and Japan were still at war culturally, with each other’s textbooks banned from schools and libraries.

The Korean film industry has come from nowhere to replace Hong Kong as the commercial leader in Asia; Korean TV shows have become the standard by which others in the region measure themselves; and Korean technology firms Samsung, LG and Hyundai have ditched their shoddy images to become leading brands.

“Korean-ness” is a turn-on for other Asians, too.

“The unique intensity of Korean emotion plays well to the more restrained cultures around the region. And national division gives us some great storylines. Some modern Chinese find neo-Confucian social concepts embedded in Korean films are awakening a respect for traditional values lost under Communism,” says Jonathan Kim, producer of blockbuster “Silmido” and head of the Korean Producers’ Assn.

Intriguingly, he pointed to Korea’s historical victimhood as a source of today’s success.

“For centuries Korea has been occupied by China, Japan or the U.S. We are not seen as a threat to anybody.”

In Hong Kong, Chinese New Year celebrations were cut short by many families returning home early in order to catch the final installment of Korean show “Jewel in the Palace” on local broadcaster TVB.

The show was watched by 3.2 million of Hong Kong’s 6.9 million population.

Home entertainment stores from Singapore’s Orchard Road to Tokyo’s Shibuya now have rack after rack of Korean shows on DVD and music on CD that keep Canto-, Mando- and J-pop down to scale. Korean travel firms like KCL Tour take Japanese tourists to the Samcheok locations where “April Snow” was shot.

Industry analysts and Japanese “office ladies” alike are clear about why auds are attracted to Korean soaps and thesps like Yongsama: old-fashioned good looks and strong, simplistic storylines often containing love triangles and untimely cancer scares.

Think of an Asian “Dallas” or “Dynasty.”

Korea’s unflinchingly commercial TV sector is now providing significant underpinning for the country’s film industry, producing a crop of bankable stars.

It is perfectly possible nowadays to finance a movie on the name of one or two Korean actors.

Yongsama, almost a living deity, is way ahead, but he is far from alone. In February Japanese distrib Comstock paid $4 million for “Duelist” with “Phone” star Ha Ji-won.

And in August, Pony Canyon paid $3.5 million plus revenue shares for Japanese rights to Taewon Entertainment’s “Yeonriji,” which is shooting now as a vehicle for another “Winter Sonata” alum, Choi Ji-woo.

Top filmmakers from other countries now routinely include Korean TV stars in their pics: Donnie Yen’s love interest in Tsui Hark’s “Seven Swords” is Korean actress Kim So-yeon, while Kim Hee-seon gets a star turn in Stanley Tong’s “The Myth” opposite Jackie Chan.

And Chen Kaige’s “The Promise” features Jang Dong-kun, a former TV actor who has appeared in two of Korea’s three biggest movies ever: “Tae Guk Gi” and “Friend.”

But is it possible the Korean bubble could burst anytime soon?

Korean filmmakers worry there are such big bucks to be made from producing commercial films that diversity is already suffering and production costs are soaring.

Colossal Japanese deals have accounted for nearly all the movie industry’s export growth in the last two years. The artier titles preferred in Europe sell for much smaller sums, and the soaps don’t sell at all.

And elsewhere in Asia, Korea’s success is beginning to raise hackles.

“It used to be that Korea was part of the Hong Kong industry’s ‘home territories’; now its local films are so strong that Korea is one of the hardest places to sell to,” say Media Asia’s Jeffrey Chan.

“Korean producers have such a strong position that it is becoming really difficult to co-produce a film with them,” says Chieko Murata, manager of NHK Enterprises’ Asian Festival investment program.

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