While the world has been riffing on BTS, “Squid Game” and “Parasite,” China has been busily keeping the Korean content wave at bay.
That may be about to change after Tencent Video this week began streaming “Hotel by the River,” a 2018 film from art-house director Hong Sang-soo about a poet meeting his estranged sons.
The move has caused some in the Korea entertainment industry to hail a “partial lifting” of China’s ban. And the president of Korea, Yoon Suk-yeol has already claimed some of the credit. Yoon met with China’s president Xi Jinping last week on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali.
“A Korean film has been aired recently on a Chinese OTT after the six-year ban,” Kim Eun-hye, senior presidential secretary for press affairs, told reporters on Tuesday. “We hope that this small gesture will lead to big, meaningful progress in the future of the bilateral relations of the two countries since the recent summit.”
The ban was imposed due to political-diplomatic concerns, so a government-to-government solution may indeed have been the breakthrough. China objected strongly to the deployment of U.S. Terminal High Altitude Defense missile systems in South Korea in 2018.
South Korea said the systems was necessary to protect itself from its erratic and nuclear armed North Korean neighbor. China said that THAAD’s radar system was capable of spying into its territory.
“The [Korean] president also stressed the need for growing interactions between the younger generations of the two countries. President Xi concurred with the view,” the presidential spokeswoman said. “China responded favorably to Korea with the Chinese OTT releasing the Korean movie.”
The ban on Korean content had a wide-reaching and costly effect on Korean entertainment businesses. For some producers and distributors, the blockade meant the loss of one of their biggest export markets at a time when K-Pop and Korean TV dramas such as “Descendants of the Sun” were highly popular.
For others in the VFX and production sectors, no longer being meant the unwinding of operations in China that had been built up and embedded over several years. In the case of Lotte, the hotels to fast-foods conglomerate that is also South Korea’s second film concern, it meant the winding down of its Chinese supermarkets and cinemas chains.
Chinese media concerns had also been significant buyers of Korean IP and minority investors in a handful of Korean media concerns. Huace bought a $52 million stake in Next Entertainment World, Suning bought a piece of FNC Entertainment an Alibaba unit was an investor in talent firm YG Entertainment and Huayi Bros and Tencent joined forces to control another firm with its own stock market listing.
Despite the messaging from their president, Korean firms are likely to treat the overture with suspicion. There have been previous reopening announcements in the past two years. In December 2020, Chinese regulators approved the release of a Korean video game. And in March last year public broadcasters in the two countries said they would begin cooperation. But subsequent activity has been negligible, with the exception of Chinese streamers iQiyi and Tencent licensing or co-investing in Korean-content for their international ex-China operations.