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The end came quietly with the humdrum announcement of a deal between two state-owned TV groups, China Central Television (CCTV) and South Korean public broadcaster KBS. The pronouncement of “cooperation in various aspects of the cultural industry by using the strengths of both in online video,” could scarcely have been more banal.

But China watchers were quick to seize on the hope that the claimed “strategic partnership” meant a thaw in the frosty relationship between Asian neighbors that had completely iced up bilateral Chinese-Korean business dealings in entertainment.

The underlying problems were high-level and political and had nothing to do with the two countries’ film, TV or music industries, which were all seemingly getting along fine. Instead, the inter-governmental spat centered on China’s objections to South Korea agreeing to allow the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system THAAD on its soil. South Korea said it needed the system to protect against saber-rattling North Korea. But China claimed that the THAAD radar system could be used for spying into mainland Chinese territory.

With almost immediate effect, from July 2016, South Korean content became taboo in China. Korean stars were to be shunned and even Korean firms with long-established businesses on the Chinese mainland were no longer welcome in the Middle Kingdom. Entertainment was not the specific target, rather an innocent and suitably visible hostage pinned down amid the political crossfire.

Now, last week’s hopes that China’s three-and-a-half year boycott might be ending have been given substance by no less than China’s reliably strident Global Times, a Communist Party mouthpiece in the shape of a tabloid newspaper. “New Chinese film starring EXO idol Sehun signals return of South Korean wave to Chinese mainland,” it screeched on Wednesday.

It carefully explained that Chinese movie “Catman,” starring Korean actor and singer Oh Se-hun in the lead role, has finally received a new release date (March 14, 2021). “Filmed in 2016 and originally scheduled for release in 2017, the film’s new release date is being considered as a sign that the Chinese mainland is reopening its doors to South Korean entertainment and stars,” the paper said. And in case its readers had forgotten the reasons that they had spent recent years turning to pirate channels to get their K-pop fixes, the Global Times did not shy away from linking the boycott of Korean cultural products to the THAAD deployment.

How quickly – and how far – things bounce back is less clear.

“The painful reality (is) that Korea continues to be stuck in a hard place between the U.S. and China,” given the “conflict between its security and economic concerns,” wrote Hallyu TV Seoul CEO Gyowon Yoon in an op-ed. “For the sake of commerce, we are desperately hoping that spring will come.”

“The mood for improvement in Korea-China relations is beginning again. And if the conditions (allowing) a co-production film between Korea and China are really set, there could be a new breakthrough,” producers’ representative Andy Yoon told Variety. “However, there are many political variables, so it is difficult to expect too much.”

Jonathan Kim, who produced a handful of films in China on behalf of Korean companies prior to the freeze, expects co-productions to be among the last things to thaw out because the levels of trust needed to make international films will take a long time to be reestablished.

A clear example of that breakdown is the film “Bath Buddy,” which enjoyed a brief theatrical career in China in December. Korean production company Moonwatcher issued a formal complaint that the film was a rip-off of its IP, a web comic that was originally published on Korea’s Naver platform. It explained that when its adaptation deal with Chinese giant Wanda was cancelled in 2018, Wanda simply went ahead and made the film anyway. The film was pulled off screens in the first week of January.

“They’ll buy our (completed) films, but we’ll have to wait and see for co-productions,” was Kim’s analysis.

While his point about buying might point to a Chinese fillip for Korean film sales companies at Berlin’s European Film Market and the upcoming Hong Kong FilMart, volumes and prices are likely to be low.

Few mainstream commercial films from Korea have ever released in Chinese theaters, and China’s marketplace for art house titles has of late been sapped of energy by the coronavirus and waves of Chinese patriotic fare. Censorship and political correctness remain the firm watchwords of China’s theatrical sector.

There is ongoing private debate about whether even a prestige title like multi-Oscar-winner “Parasite” could ever be passed for release in China without being either cut to pieces by censors or distorted into a parable of western decadence and corruption.

Music and TV may start to flow again far quicker than film. Before the boycott, Chinese companies were far keener buyers of Korean IP that they could remake or re-engineer as Chinese-made. Some of that activity seemingly continued despite the official ban and could pick up again smartly. Similarly, several K-pop acts were crafted to have appeal in mainland China and have managed to maintain some channels of fan contact through the blackout.

For several months, Chinese OTT platforms have already been aggressively seeking rights to Korean TV drama series. In December, streamer iQIYI inked a deal produce its first Korean original series and revealed that it had licensed rights to more than a dozen Korean TV series – content that would have been banned in its home market – for play on its expanding Southeast Asian service. (Some commentators suggest that the Chinese streamers had simply been given advanced knowledge of the ending of the K-content ban.)

With Korean content now outperforming Hollywood fare in some parts of Asia, that sets up the intriguing prospect of China’s iQIYI, Tencent Video and Youku going head to head with Netflix, Disney Plus and regional success story Viu in a competition for Korean TV drama. There is even the possibility that to succeed they will have to step-up and ink world-wide deals.
– Rebecca Davis also contributed to this report.