AFM: China Does Some Seoul Searching

Illustration by: Lars Leetaru

The Chinese film industry is aggressively courting South Korean filmmakers, but will censorship and cultural differences sour the partnership?

Much has been written about how China is intent on learning as much as possible about the movie business from Hollywood. Now the No. 2 film industry in the world is setting its sights on South Korea.

After all, despite a population of only 50 million, South Korea has the highest rate of movie watching in the world, with the average Korean catching four titles per year. What's its secret? China would like to know, and a number of recent developments suggest the Chinese and South Korean film sectors are developing a very close, symbiotic relationship:

• In July, the culture ministries of the two countries signed a landmark agreement to treat co-productions as local films. This allows South Korean films to avoid China's quota of 34 imported films a year based on a revenue share basis and Chinese releases to be ensured a showing in Korean theaters.

• In October, Showbox/Mediaplex, one of Korea's top three distributors, announced plans to open a branch in China, while Le Vision Pictures, the Chinese company behind such films as Zhang Yimou's Coming Home, announced it is prepping a Korean office. Both plan to launch in 2015.

• Also in October, China's Huace Film & TV invested $52.7 million in top Korean investor/distributor Next Entertainment World, becoming its second-largest stakeholder. Chinese online services company Sohu.com poured $15 million into Keyeast, the Korean entertainment agency behind such big regional stars as Kim Soo-hyun, to become its second-largest stakeholder. And Korean film production firm Spackman Entertainment Group recently acquired a local K-pop video production brand, Breakfast Film, in hopes of expanding its business presence in China.

• China's online media giants have begun eyeing Korean films following the success of local TV soaps in the mainland. Youku Tudou, the Chinese YouTube,  has bought the exclusive online copyrights for CJ Entertainment's film output from 2014 to 2016. And iQiyi, a Netflixlike streaming service, acquired exclusive rights to 90 Korean titles from Lotte and international sales banner Finecut.

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So far, the burgeoning relationship between China and South Korea seems like a match made in heaven. China, rich in capital but lacking filmmaking experience, is reaching out to its neighbor with the more mature cinema culture, while Korea has found opportunity beyond its borders.

"The Korean film market needs to expand. Working with China is the best way to make my dreams as a filmmaker come true," says director Kim Yong-hwa, whose 2013 film, Mr. Go, co-produced by Korea's Showbox/Mediaplex and China's Huayi Brothers, brought in $16.73 million in China, twice as much as it earned in Korean theaters.

"I believe that the Chinese film market will grow as big as Hollywood in the near future, so there will basically be another Hollywood," says Choi Yong-bae, CEO of Chungeorahm Film.

"But as much as it grew so large so fast, it's difficult to keep up with the manpower [needs]. Just like Hollywood often hires European directors and Australian actors, China will need a lot of Asian filmmakers. There is a noticeably greater interest in Korea, with lots of discussions about co-productions."

Choi says he has received offers to create a Chinese remake of the 2006 Korean blockbuster The Host, directed by Bong Joon Ho (Snowpiercer), and is now discussing the project with potential Chinese partners.

Even Korean films that are not joint ventures can eye lucrative box office in the Chinese market: Korea's The Admiral: Roaring Currents recently secured more than 3,000 screens across China via China Film Group, according to Korean distributor CJ. The film, about a Korean admiral defeating 300-plus Japanese ships with just 12 vessels, is expected to resonate strongly with Chinese viewers given the country's historic animosity against Imperial Japan.

Unlike China, contemporary filmmaking in South Korea is extremely diverse and daring.

Kang Woo-suk, the producer-director behind some of Korea's most popular blockbusters, says one of the primary reasons Korean films have been successful with local audiences is because of their "daring audacity." He says: "During a summit I attended recently, Chinese officials said they were shocked by the diversity of the subject matters in Korean films, and I believe this novelty factor is what makes Korean films so successful."

But will Chinese authorities accept the often dark and violent cinema of South Korean filmmakers? Indeed, censorship in China remains a creative hurdle that Korean filmmakers and scriptwriters must overcome. Some observers say the historic differences between the film cultures could become dodgy.

"We want to work with more Korean filmmakers, but it's problematic that many Korean movies have sad elements even if they're comedies, and Chinese audiences really like happy stories," says one spokesperson of a Chinese company seeking joint ventures with Korea.

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Chinese censors balk at a range of subjects that routinely grace South Korean screens, such as extreme violence, the supernatural and graphic sex. Korean helmer Im Kwon-taek, who recently directed his 102nd film, says he is still trying to recover from the trauma of censorship restrictions from Korea's 1970s-'80s military regime. "It's been decades [since the censorship has disappeared], but I am always questioning myself, whether I've trapped myself inside the framework I've been used to working. This is something that takes a while to get over, and I'm sure it's similar in China," he says.

Adds a South Korean producer who asked not to be named: "One director who is famous for creating epic action films was deliberately asked to pen a happy ending for a drama that my company co-produced with China."

Yet things are changing, as they always are in China. While ghosts may still be banned, the Bunshinsaba franchise directed by Korean filmmaker Ahn Byeong-ki took in more than $30 million at the Chinese box office, proving there is room for genre titles. Many also hope that the decentralized censorship process for local films — which will include Korean co-productions — will eventually help filmmakers work with more freedom.

Korean partners, however, need to meet their end of the business deal, says Won Dong-yeon, head of REALies Pictures.

"For a long-lasting, win-win partnership, Korean companies need to make sure their Chinese partners can make money, too," says the producer, who is in talks with Chinese companies for a Chinese-language remake of 2006 hit rom-com 200 Pounds Beauty. "We are planning to get Korean investors to make an equal contribution [as the Chinese investors]."

Says Soojin Jung, vp international business at Showbox/Mediaplex: "There are a lot of discussions of collaboration, and the two markets have really opened up to each other. But as much as there are advantages, there can be downsides as well, and so there is a need to think about entering the Chinese market in a more strategic way."

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