After she starred in the controversial espionage drama Lust, Caution, actress Tang Wei was feted. She won the best new performer category in Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards, considered the Chinese-language Oscars, and was named by Variety magazine as one of 2007’s top 10 stars to watch.
But the plaudits overseas didn’t seem to translate into success at home. Soon afterwards the Chinese authorities slapped a ban on broadcasts featuring Tang, supposedly as punishment for her unpatriotic trysts with a collaborator with the Japanese in the film (see WiC2).
Tang enjoyed better luck abroad. In 2010 she was cast in the drama Late Autumn, a South Korean movie shot mostly in English. Her performance won her the best actress gong at South Korea’s prestigious Baeksang Arts Award – the first foreign actress to win the award.
But Tang’s success in South Korea is hardly the norm. In fact it’s rare for Chinese actresses to appear in Korean movies – although paradoxically it is increasingly common for Korean actors to make it big in Chinese cinema and television.
According to China Business View, South Korean actresses are regularly putting Chinese starlets out of work. Why? Roles that might otherwise go to big-hitters like Zhang Ziyi and Zhou Xun are now going to the Koreans because of the wild popularity of Korea’s pop and TV soap operas in China.
Additionally, industry observers say Chinese audiences are also fed up with seeing the same handful of Chinese actresses that have come to dominate the country’s domestic cinema.
Instead, audiences have grown accustomed to Korean stars playing Chinese roles, albeit with a dubbing of their dialogue in Mandarin. Despite this, the South Koreans seem to attract bigger audiences. “To cast a South Korean actress is a commercial decision. Korean dramas have cultivated a huge fan base in China and all around Asia so South Korean actors can widen a film’s box-office appeal,” an entertainment industry analyst told China Business View.
Bill Kong, a Hong Kong film poducer, agrees. He told TIME magazine that Korean films also benefit from being more accessible to audiences elsewhere in Asia, unlike those from Japan. Korea’s movie culture is “closer to China, closer to the rest of Asia,” Kong suggested.
No wonder that producers for last year’s mainland hit Warring States hired South Korean star Kim Hee-seon to play the female role rather than going with a Chinese actress. Reports say the role was originally slated for Zhao Wei.
Ironically, the China market has also been important for some of Korea’s stars as a way of reinventing themselves in the face of waning popularity at home.
Take actor Jang Dong-gun, who has managed to resuscitate his career prospects in China. The 40 year-old first shot to local stardom in a television drama series in 1992. But since 2004, Jang has concentrated on his career in China, appearing in several mainland productions like Chen Kaige’s 2005 fantasy epic The Promise. Industry insiders say Jang is now more recognised in China than he is at home. More recently, Jang signed on for the latest adaptation of the French literary classic Dangerous Liaisons (see WiC125) – this time in Chinese – which also features Zhang Ziyi and Cecilia Cheung.
But it’s Jeon Ji-hyun, best known for her role in the romantic comedy My Sassy Girl, who wins the title for the most active South Korean star in China. Jeon also appeared in the Chinese-American production Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and her face also adorns products ranging from Huiyuan orange juice to Midea air-conditioners. Competition for endorsement deals can be cut-throat, with Jeon reportedly battling another South Korean actress Song Hye Kyo for a tie-up with a leading Chinese cosmetics brand recently. Song ended up winning the contract by charging a lower fee.
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