Over the centuries relations between neighbors Korea and China have often been strained, but the entertainment industry is putting history and politics behind them.
A sequel to Korean hit “My Sassy Girl,” which began lensing last week, is set to be the first official treaty co-production between South Korea and China. That follows the long-awaited signing of a bilateral trade agreement between the two countries in July.
But producers from both sides of the Yellow Sea have not waited for their governments to catch up with reality, and a steady trickle of Korean-Chinese movies over the past decade has already turned into a fast-flowing stream in the past two years.
Recent cross-border co-ventures have included “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” starring Zhang Ziyi and the original “Sassy Girl” Gianna Jun (previously known as Jun Ji-hyun); CGI-heavy family pic “Mr. Go,” which made money for the Chinese partner Huayi Bros., but incurred losses for South Korea’s Showbox; and, most prominently, 2013 Chinese smash hit “A Wedding Invitation.”
There are plenty of reasons for the Korean-Chinese cinematic relationship to flourish.
Korean pop culture is hugely popular in China. With Korean music and TV series attracting a lot of attention, producers are keen to find vehicles to showcase Korean talent and brands. Every K-pop group these days seems to have one member who is ethnically Chinese or has learned to speak Mandarin — “My New Sassy Girl’s” lead is Victoria, a Chinese member of girl group f(x). And soap “You Who Came From the Stars,” starring Jun, has sparked a K-drama buying frenzy among Chinese online video platforms.
Just as it did with Hong Kong filmmakers previously, the Chinese industry has found it useful to import skilled Korean technicians and, more recently, directors, into its own industry, as Chinese film makes a rapid transition from old-fashioned storytelling to more contemporary and commercial genres. Korean high-concept movies, such as “Miss Granny” and “My Sassy Girl,” lend themselves well to such treatment.
Korean effects houses have been used extensively for work on Chinese films, including Tsui Hark’s “Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame” and Feng Xiaogang’s “Assembly” and “Aftershock.”
Korean directors have also gotten behind the lens for Chinese films, including Hur Jin-ho (“Dangerous Liaisons”), Ahn Byung-ki (the Chinese remake of his own “Bunshinsaba”), Kwak Jae-yong (“My Girlfriend Is Sick”) and Chan Youn-hyun (“Peaceful Island”).
For the Korean majors, there is also pressing logic to the Korean-Chinese fan club. Large Korean companies such as CJ and Lotte, which are under anti-monopoly investigation at home, have little choice but to expand abroad. Aided by their conglomerate parents, they have already colonized the Vietnamese multiplex industry and are making inroads into China.
On the content side, however, Korean films find themselves shut out of the most lucrative part of the Chinese theatrical market. China’s revenue-sharing quota slots are almost entirely filled with Hollywood studio movies, leaving nearly all other foreign-language movies stuck with flat-fee deals. And while the number of Korean films imported into China with flat-fee deals has risen, the appeal of a co-production is that such films are considered local, and exempt from the quota.
Until now, most of the traffic has involved minority Korean investments into Chinese films (such as “Dangerous Liaisons”), or Korean-backed Chinese remakes of Korean properties (“Bunshinsaba,” “Miss Granny” and the long-mooted remake of 2006 hit “The Host”).
The big-budget “Mr. Go” went one step further and saw a minority Chinese investment in a Korean film conceived with Chinese elements. The “New Sassy Girl” deal is significant, too, as it represents a Chinese financial investment in a mainstream Korean movie.
But “A Wedding Invitation” marked a new high-water mark. Developed by CJ Entertainment’s Beijing office from 2001 Korean film “Last Present,” the picture was an entirely China-set romance, directed in Chinese by “Last Present” Korean helmer Oh Gi-hwan. It grossed $30.6 million at the Chinese box office.
Jonathan Kim, who was consulting producer on “A Wedding Invitation” and is now readying his own co-venture, “Making Family,” which shoots in Zhuhai, China, in November, says the Korean-Chinese connection is familiar.
“Chinese film these days resembles the Korean industry 10 or 15 years ago. That may be an unfashionable thing to say, but the opportunities are huge for anyone who has watched and learned,” Kim says.