All bow to the sun gods

Korean TV series makes big money in China but sparks ‘safety warning’

song hye kyo

Song Hye-kyo: her star power has boosted Laneige sales in China

A 20 year-old woman surnamed Li was said to be so obsessed with Song Joong-ki, the actor starring in the South Korean TV series Descendants of the Sun, that it ruined her wedding anniversary dinner. According to the Chutian Metropolis News, the fan from Fuzhou’s obsession was so extreme that she refused last month to put down her iPad at a celebratory dinner with her husband.

Small wonder then, that the said husband got so jealous that after finishing a bottle of red wine (on his own), he drunkenly stumbled into a photography studio and demanded that the owner take pictures to make him “as good looking as Song Joong-ki”. When he refused to leave the police were called in to intervene.

Song mania has become increasingly commonplace since Descendants of the Sun began to take China by storm. The TV series, which is available exclusively on the online video site iQiyi, is so popular that the first eight episodes – out of a total of 16 – have accumulated over 1.2 billion views since they premiered in late February. On weibo, the show has also been mentioned over 7 billion times. “If you haven’t heard or watched Descendants of the Sun, you are too behind the times,” declares Caixin Weekly.

The series is a love story, featuring a soldier, played by Song, and a surgeon, actress Song Hye-kyo. Set in a fictional country called Uruk, it combines romance, action and a few cliffhangers – since Song Joong-ki often has to leave his love interest at critical moments to go on mysterious missions.

Why is the show so popular? Some fans say they love its glamour (the series was almost entirely filmed in Greece). Others say the script reflects what is truly a modern-day love story.

“Finally a Korean soap opera that doesn’t feature a woman that constantly needs to be rescued. She is highly educated and he is not a fuerdai (second generation rich kid). They are both trained professionals who spend most of their time saving lives instead of courtship. This is a romance between two adults,” one netizen gushed approvingly on WeChat.

Female audiences are smitten with Song Joong-ki’s character, saying that he is perfect husband material because he is not only “dependable” but also “handsome and charming”. On WeChat the ‘Mrs. Song chat group’ quickly formed to discuss the storyline and fantasise over the toned body of the 30 year-old (he is conveniently shirtless much of the time).

The success of Descendants means iQiyi can breathe a sigh of relief. The internet firm reportedly spent $230,000 for the licencing rights for each episode – taking this punt before filming had begun. That renders the show “the most expensive Korean drama in history,” reckons Caixin Weekly, surpassing the fees paid in China for previous record holder My Love Who Came From the Stars.

To court Chinese funds, the producers of Descendants did make some concessions as to how they shot the series. While most Korean TV dramas adhere to what they call the “live-shoot” system – with episodes filmed at the same time as the series airs (so that producers can make adjustments to the script according to ratings and audience response) – this series wrapped up filming way in advance, says Korea Times.

Why? Because one of the terms demanded by iQiyi was that Descendants of the Sun be broadcast in China near simultaneously with its South Korean airing (every episode is released in China only one hour after showing on South Korean network KBS). But in order to do so meant that the show – in its entirety – had to get Chinese censors’ approval ahead of time.

To recoup its investment, iQiyi staggered the release of the series so that its paid subscribers could watch the episodes a week before unpaid viewers. The online video site reveals that fans of the show are so anxious to catch the latest episode – made available every Wednesday and Thursday at 9pm – that its number of paying subscribers jumped from 10 million to 15 million in the first three months of this year. Just signing up these new subscribers has generated as much as Rmb200 million ($30.9 million) in revenue for iQiyi, says China Economic Times.

And that doesn’t include the revenue it also makes from merchandise sales. The e-commerce arm of iQiyi is selling products that are featured in the show. The aviator sunglasses Song Joong-ki frequently wears, for instance, quickly sold out on the platform. The Laneige skincare item (a cushion compact) that Song Hye-kyo endorses saw a huge spike in sales after the release of the series too.

But although even the anti-corruption tsar Wang Qishan is a fan of My Love Who Came From the Stars (see WiC229), the popularity of Descendants looks to have split opinion among the authorities this time.

The military theme has struck a chord with Jiefang Daily, the official newspaper for the People’s Liberation Army. In an editorial, the newspaper said that China’s TV industry should produce more programmes like the South Korean drama to improve the image of the military and help it enlist more troops: “We have the resources to make a TV drama like this, which our soldiers would be interested to watch.”

However, the Ministry of Public Security has warned (via weibo) against viewing the Korean series too much. The department recently cited some real-life cases of domestic violence and divorce (which seems to be where the aforementioned Song fanatic Li and her husband are headed) all of which it claims to be related to Chinese audiences unhealthy obsession with Korean dramas.

It also cautioned viewers against the elements of dramatic licence used by Korean dramas, like “forcibly kissing women” and slapping one another when there’s a fight. “This sort of behaviour may seem romantic, but this kind of romance is not acceptable to everyone… it becomes wrong when you justify criminal behaviour as romance,” the Ministry of Public Security wrote in a weibo post. “Watching Korean dramas could be dangerous, and may even lead to legal troubles.”

But fans are already predicting the name of the next big Korean hit, with reference to the celestial titles used so far. “After My Love Who Came From the Stars and Descendants of the Sun, can An Affair Over the Moon be far away?” a netizen playfully wondered on weibo.

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