Royal production values for ‘Princess’

Aesthetics often cited as key draw for younger viewers

Korea’s royal line was severed when the country was colonized by Japan in the early 20th century, but in MBC’s hit drama “Princess Hours” (aka “The Palace”), the line has remained unbroken to the present day, and the heir to the throne is an unhappy prince who would rather be a film director.

Adapted from a well-known local comicbook by Park So-hee, the stylish “Princess Hours” has become the most talked-about drama of early 2006. Locally it has flirted with a 30% viewer rating, while internationally it has been sold to China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam, with a lucrative Japan deal in the works.

Apart from its popularity, it can also be described as a work that reflects the future of Korea’s TV drama industry.

If current trends are any indication, Korean TV dramas will continue to get more expensive. “Princess Hours” is a prime example. Each of its 24 episodes cost an average of $230,000 to produce, with a famously elaborate $1.5 million set that blends Korean architecture, Western decorative styles and modern color schemes. Another $2.5 million was spent on furniture and props. All were designed by Min Eon-ok, a production designer renowned for her work on films such as “Chunhyang” and “Blood Rain,” who says that being denied permission to shoot within Seoul palaces ended up being a blessing in disguise. “It gave me the freedom to go all out with the colors,” she said.

Food stylist Ko Young-wook and hanbok (traditional Korean clothing) designer Bae Young-jin also contributed to the drama’s unique aesthetic, which is often cited as the key draw for younger viewers.

Much of the behind-the-camera talent comes from the film industry, another growing trend. Director Hwang In-roi (“A Man With Flowers”), writer In Eun-ah (“Tell Me Something”) and special effects director Min Byeong-cheon (“Natural City”) all have experience in the movies.

Technically as well, the team behind “Princess Hours” made a special effort to raise the bar. “We wanted to give ‘Princess Hours’ the feeling of a film, so we shot it in HD format with a 16:9 screen,” says Hwang. “We used the same type of camera as in ‘Star Wars,’ and kept changes lenses with each scene to get the highest definition possible.”

The fact that “Princess Hours” was made by an outside production company and partially shot in advance also conforms to growing trends.

In terms of local marketing, the film utilized posters shot in the same style as movie posters, and in general adopted the marketing of films as its model.

Production company Eight Peaks announced that a second season of the drama would return in 2007, an unusual move within the Korean industry. Shooting will start in September, with a broadcast date skedded for January.

Ironically, the one aspect of the drama that does not reflect future trends is its young cast, which lacks any major name stars. At the film’s opening press conference in January, Hwang said, “We don’t want to wrap ourselves around the star system and build off of a star’s pre-existing image” — a strategy that has worked well in this case. However,the rising influence of star power — for the local market and especially international sales – will ensure that fewer and fewer big-budget productions are left in the hands of fledgling actors.