China quietly released a Korean TV series via official channels for the first time in six years this week. The move is the latest “symbolic milestone” that a years-long cultural freeze is moving towards a more lenient “detente,” Chinese local reports said.
Streamer Mango TV, which is controlled by state-owned Hunan Broadcasting System, released the SBS production “Saimdang: Bitui Ilgi” on its platform Tuesday for viewers eager for a slice of Joseon Dynasty-set fantasy. In other markets, it is known variously as “Saimdang: Soulmates Across Time,” “Saimdang: Light’s Diary,” “Saimdang: Herstory” and “Saimdang: Memoir of Colors.”
Local media dubbed the low-key release a “symbolic milestone” for China in its path towards reopening towards Korean culture, which had hitherto been absent from any satellite TV stations, formal video streaming platforms, or cinemas.
At the cineplexes, the long ice out ended on Dec. 3, when officials allowed the release of the 2020 Korean comedy “Oh! My Gran” (aka “Oh! Moon-Hee”), the first Korean film to hit the Chinese big screen in six years. The title performed abysmally, however, receiving hardly any screenings nationwide and ultimately grossing just $454,000.
The last Korean film to release in China was 2015’s “The Assassination,” co-written and directed by Choi Dong-hoon.
“Saimdang” was completed in 2016 and aired in Korea in 2017, but its China fate has remained in limbo since. It counts China’s Mango Entertainment and Hong Kong’s Emperor Entertainment Group amongst its backers.
Featuring performances from Lee Yeong-ae, Song Seung-heon, Yang Se-jong and Oh Yun-ah, it was hotly anticipated at the time as a comeback vehicle for top star Lee.
Mango TV had the rights early enough for the show to plan a simultaneous release in South Korea and China, but that fell through as China put a stopper on Korean entertainment products to express its displeasure over Seoul’s installment of the THAAD security system in 2016.
Weaving between past and present, “Saimdang” tells the story of an art history lecturer (Lee) whose career has been sidelined by her vindictive PhD supervisor until she discovers the long-lost diary of Shin Saimdang, a famous lady painter and poet in the Joseon era.
Mainland fans used to years of watching Korean content via pirated sites have bristled, however, at the dubbing work done for the series. Over the years, the fan community has become accustomed to hearing the original spoken Korean presented with Chinese subtitles.
Mainland state media reports took pains to emphasize that Chinese viewers shouldn’t expect to be bombarded by a flood of hallyu content, assessing that China’s audience tastes leans now more towards realistic fare.