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(News Focus) Soap reignites Korean culture boom in China

2014/03/11 15:15

By Shim Sun-ah

SEOUL, March 11 (Yonhap) -- A South Korean fantasy-romance soap opera has became a runaway hit in China, reigniting the Korean pop culture boom known as "hallyu" in the world's most populous country.

Broadcast by commercial station SBS TV between mid-December and late February, the soap "My Love from the Star," which enjoyed an audience rating of some 30 percent in South Korea, depicts the love between an alien from outer space and an A-list actress.

The hit drama series instantly appealed to Chinese viewers, with starring actor Kim Soo-hyun and heroine Jun Ji-hyun becoming household names among young Chinese viewers.

Although the drama has never been broadcast on China's major television networks, the 21-episode series has recently topped 3 billion views in total on the country's major Internet sites that show old TV episodes.

"When we include the number of views counted on smaller sites that bought the drama from its local distributor, the number is expected to be well over 3 billion," an official of HB Entertainment, which produced the drama, told Yonhap News Agency.

"More viewers will be able to enjoy the show if it goes on air on various television networks in the future."

   Experts say the soap opera has helped rekindle the popularity of hallyu in China as it came at a time when the enormous craze generated by "Gangnam Style" by South Korean rapper Psy and his horse-riding dance moves had been fading there.

"I think the emergence of fresh stars like Kim at just the right time when generational shift of hallyu stars is needed was an important factor behind the latest boom," said Ha Jae-bong, a pop cultural critic.

Hallyu in China began in the late 1990s with the popularity of Korean soap operas, peaking with the arrivals of other TV dramas "Winter Sonata" and "Daejanggeum (Jewel in the Palace)" in 2002 and 2003. However, Korean dramas have lost much of their popularity in China and other Asian countries in the past decade.

South Korean actor Kim Soo-hyun (L) and actress Jun Ji-hyun (R), who star in the new drama "My Love from the Star," pose for a photo during a publicity event in Seoul on Dec. 16, 2013. (Yonhap)

South Korean actor Kim Soo-hyun (L) and actress Jun Ji-hyun (R), who star in the new drama "My Love from the Star," pose for a photo during a publicity event in Seoul on Dec. 16, 2013. (Yonhap)

Proving the popularity of "My Love from the Star," a television station in Nanjing in China's Jiangsu Province invited Kim to appear in a popular entertainment program. It reportedly offered Kim a chartered flight and 521 million won (US$489,477) in appearance fees.

To effectively protect Kim from possible attacks, the TV station toughened security to its highest-ever level a few hours before he showed up at the studio Saturday.

Audiences were banned from bringing bags or cameras, as well as liquid, and ordered to sit down in designated seats with their name cards on their chest.

An admission ticket to the TV studio were sold at prices up to 5.2 million won as fans were desperate to get a chance to see him in close proximity, according to Chinese media.

The drama's popularity has gone well beyond a pop culture phenomenon.

Since the female lead Jun mentioned that "fried chicken and beer is a good match for a snowy day" in one episode, fried-chicken-and-beer sets have been selling like hotcakes in China.

According to prominent Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao, a Japanese sushi restaurant in Hangzhou sold thousands of fried-chicken-and-beer sets a day during the week of Valentine's Day, instead of sushi. The menu was even included in the Valentine's Day party package by InterContinental Hangzhou.

At some Korean fried chicken stores in Shanghai, people had to wait at least three hours in line to buy one.

The newspaper also reported that a devoted female fan of the drama in Changsha of Hunan Province ate fried chicken for eight meals in a row.

In addition, Korean fashion items and accessories worn by Jun have been sold out while plastic surgery clinics say they see more and more people asking to make their faces to resemble Jun and other popular Korean stars.

The drama's soundtrack is no exception from the China-wide craze for the show. South Korean pop singer LYn, who sang "My Destiny," the show's theme song, was invited to perform during a Chinese music awards show on March 27.

It is very rare for a Korean ballad singer, not an idol group, to get such attention abroad for a drama soundtrack.

Korean soap operas also emerged as a topic in an annual Chinese political event.

"Korean dramas are ahead of ours," Wang Qishan, one of China's top Communist Party leaders, said during a legislative session in Beijing, according to Beijing News. "The core and soul of Korean operas is a distillation of traditional culture."

   Wang is a Politburo member of the Chinese Communist Party and head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

"My Love from the Star" was not alone in the recently rekindled boom of Korean pop culture.

Several Korean television shows such as "Where Are We Going, Dad?" "I am a Singer" "Superstar K" and "Hidden Singer" made big hits among Chinese viewers in recent months after Chinese networks produced their renditions of the shows.

"The Heirs," an SBS TV drama, has garnered more than 900 million views since its episodes began to be uploaded on Youku, China's biggest web streaming video service, last October.

Thanks to the drama's popularity, the passenger terminal of Hangzhou Xiaoshan International Airport in China was jam-packed Friday with thousands of Chinese fans who came to see the drama's lead actor Lee Min-ho when he visited the city to appear on a TV show. A woman was pushed by the crowd and suffered a head injury, according to Chinese media.

Regarding "My Love from the Star," critics point to attractiveness of the drama's stars and the characters as a secret behind its success.

"A considerably large part of the drama's fun comes from its actors and actresses," Hang Jin-mi, a critic, said in a recent newspaper column.

Jun embodies the arrogant but quirky top star Cheon Song-i as she incorporates her own image fostered through her previous works, Hwang said. Jun has played characters who are at once vivacious, sexy and friendly, the critic said. The lead actor, Kim, depicted a serious but warm-hearted extraterrestrial being from some four centuries ago in the best way he can, she added.

She also attributed the show's success to a combination of diverse genres such as fantasy, romantic comedy, period drama and thriller, an unfamiliar mix for Chinese viewers.

Some other critics say Korean TV shows, even though they are well made, would not have gained so much popularity in China without the presence of Internet as a distribution channel.

"'My Love' and 'The Heirs' succeeded in large part due to the power of Internet as a distribution channel," said Jeong Deok-hyeon, one of the critics. "Internet has strong power of influence and explosiveness and are relatively free from government censorship."

   sshim@yna.co.kr

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