HONG KONG – A South Korean TV drama “My Love From The Star” (literal translation ‘You Who Came From The Stars’) has become a knockout hit in China.
And despite its whimsical plot and slick, inoffensive presentation it has sparked a string of controversies along the way.
The show features Kim Soo-hyun as an alien trapped on earth for 400 years, but who passes as a near perfect specimen of the human male and in the present day works as a somewhat cynical college professor. Inconceivably, he becomes romantically linked to a beautiful, but obnoxious pop-star/actress, played by Gianna Jun, Korea’s most glamorous movie star.
“Star” played in Korea twice weekly on SBS for 21 episodes from December 2013 to Feb this year and was a smash ratings winner. Its final, extra, episode scored a 28% rating, according to AGB Nielsen. The show was also licensed for Chinese broadcast, for what is reported to be a record price.
Significantly however, it was not picked up by a conventional broadcaster, but instead was acquired by online video platforms iQiyi and LeTV. They have seen episodes of the show streamed over 14.5 billion times since December.
Back in Korea, success has bred contempt.
Professor Kang Byeong-gu, from Seoul National University last year published a research paper into Chinese viewing habits. He proposed that Korean dramas are most likely to be enjoyed by poorly-educated and lower-class Chinese. His research suggested that affluent and better-educated groups are most likely to consume U.S. and Japanese shows, while middle-income, middle-class mainland Chinese are the top consumers of Chinese and Hong Kong content.
Gianna Jun’s Chinese fans have taken umbrage and have recently taken to buying advertisements in Korean newspapers to protest at the perceived slight.
Kang’s findings may anyway come as something of a surprise to China’s political leaders, who seem to be falling over themselves to talk up the show.
“Star” was discussed at length at last month’s National People’s Congress, especially by Wang Qishan, China’s top graft buster and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, making him one of the seven most powerful people in China. Wang confessed that he was a fan, but bemoaned Chinese TV dramas’ comparative lack of competitiveness.
(Top Hong Kong official Stephen Ip Shu-kwan, a 65 year old gourmet and Jockey Club member who really doesn’t fit the mold of lower class or uneducated, was this week the latest to fess up and admit to loving the show.)
Wang, who apparently is also watching “House of Cards,” told the People’s National Congress that “Korean drama is ahead of us.” But he also explained that “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.”
That could be cue for another bout of national soul searching akin to the one sparked a few years ago by DreamWorks Animation and its “Kung Fu Panda” films, which were regarded as a case of foreigners taking iconic pieces of Chinese culture and doing them better.
Others, including film director Feng Xiaogang, have been quick to point to China’s conservative censorship regime as a stumbling block for on-screen creativity.
At the height of the ‘Hallyu’ or ‘Korean Wave’ Korean shows were very popular in China with “Jewel In The Crown” and “Full House” hits on TV. Since then Chinese regulators have banned imported shows from primetime in order to favor locally-made content.
Broadcasters responded by importing formats such as “Superstar K” and “Dad, Where Are You Going” — which was recently also remade as a hit Chinese New Year movie – and making the shows themselves. There are now also caps on formats.
Some imported shows have migrated away from network TV to China’s burgeoning online platforms. Online there have been fewer content restrictions, which may explain why Season 2 of “House of Cards,” with its strong Chinese political theme, has until now been allowed to play unfettered.
New regulations on online content may change all that.
“Star” has also put Jun ever more in the spotlight. A superstar who rarely makes more than one movie per year, she is a model-turned-actress who has been part to several of Korea’s biggest film hits, including “My Sassy Girl,” “The Thieves,” “The Berlin File.” “Stars” is her first TV drama in 14 years.
Less comfortably, it has also put the spotlight on her ethnicity. It was back in 2007 when she controversially changed her name from the Korean-sounding Jeon Ji-hun to the more Italian-sounding Gianna Jun. But since then it has emerged that both her parents are of Chinese origin, a black mark in Korea even today, and that she was in fact born Wang Ji-hyun.
Jun initially denied having Chinese roots and does not speak much of the language, but she has more recently confirmed her origins. While that represents a stigma in Korea, it could be a big plus in an era where today China is an economic superpower.
A decade ago, Jun’s endorsement of a Chinese mobile phone brand VK gave the company a 40% sales boost. But her star wattage was not enough to help “Snow Flower And The Secret Fan,” the Wayne Wang-directed, Wendi Deng-produced period drama in which she co-starred with Li Bingbing.
Still, China’s fast food vendors must love her. “Stars” has propelled a Chinese craze for ‘chi-mek,’ Korea’s fast-food combination of beer and fried chicken.