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9 Chinese Films of 2017 You Need to Know About

As the new year is around the corner, it is time to look back at 9 Chinese movies from 2017 that are unforgettable.

Angela Heng-hsuan Su

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From patriotic to banned – these are the Chinese releases that moviegoers have been talking about this year.

With the year’s end in sight, it is time to look back at what 2017 has brought, and cinema is undoubtedly one of the good things worth remembering about 2017.

Whether you fancy action, comedy, or drama, there are certain Chinese films that were released in 2017 that are must-sees for both movie-lovers and China watchers. Some of them are important to know about because they broke box office records, some are masterpieces with profound cultural meaning, others are simply entertaining – and then there are those that just fall in between.

Before 2017 ends, we list 9 Chinese releases of the year that you should go and watch if you haven’t done so yet, just because they are worth it.

 
#1 Wolf Warriors II 战狼2
 

Even if you’re not a fan of Chinese films, chances are high that you’ve heard of Wolf Warrior II for its staggering box office numbers. Released in July 2017, the action thriller became the top-grossing film of all time in China in only ten days time. It has grossed nearly 825 million USD so far.

Chinese action star Wu Jing directed the film and also plays the main character: a military hero of the People’s Liberation Army who sets on avenging the capture of his lover in a disease-riddled and war-torn unnamed African nation where China has built hospitals and provided factory jobs for the locals. As if that weren’t enough, the bad guys that are fought by this unstoppable hero – to save and protect innocent civilians – are revolutionaries and Western mercenaries.

Whether you like the politics of Wolf Warrior II or not, this film is relevant for multiple reasons. Besides its record-breaking box office numbers, it was also chosen to represent China in the Oscar’s best foreign film 2018 competition, which is uncommon for action movies. The film was also widely discussed as a work of nationalist propaganda.

 
#2 Duckweed 乘风破浪
 

Duckweed tells the sweet story of a champion racer who time-travels back to the late 90s, meeting his estranged father and never-seen mother and sets out on a comical adventure with them.

Besides displaying a touching father-son ‘bromance’ and featuring witty plot twists, Duckweed vividly portrays some yesteryear scenes in a small town near Shanghai in 1990s China; a pre-mobile phone era where petty gang members carried beepers as talismans of power. Some features of this film might remind you of Back to the Future.

Directed by the talented blogger/author/entrepreneur/car-racer Han Han and starring some of the most well-known actors and actresses in China such as Deng Chao, Zhao Liying, and Eddie Peng, this easy-going and nostalgic comedy became a holiday hit in China during Chinese Spring Festival in early 2017. With the refined acting and well-written storyline, this time-traveling film presents a coming-of-age tale that is worth your laughter (and tears).

 
#3 Have A Nice Day 大世界
 

As the very first Chinese animation film that was nominated for a Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, Have A Nice Day is one of the very few Chinese films that stood out at the major international film award events this year.

The film is set in suburban China, where a chauffeur steals a large amount of money from a local gangster to help his girlfriend fix a failed plastic surgery operation. Later on, this turns into a bloody conflict involving several people from diverse backgrounds with different personal motives.

Despite the fact that Have A Nice Day premiered at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year and has since been released in multiple countries, this animated dark comedy still has not been officially released in mainland China yet.

The film was also withdrawn from a film festival in France in June of this year because of “official pressures.” The 77-minutes animation was allegedly blocked after not passing China’s film censorship.

Although the director Liu Jian claimed his work has nothing to do with politics but is just focused on people’s desires and fates, the brilliantly ironic and cynical way Have A Nice Day portrays its characters, their lifestyles, and the landscape of contemporary China, with dark humor script and sharp dialogs which were bound to touch a nerve.

 
#4 The Founding of an Army 建军大业
 

With its all-star cast and glorious depiction of the early history of the Communist Party of China, The Founding of an Army is the third Chinese nationalist film produced by the state-owned China Film Group Corporation, following The Founding of a Republic (2009) and The Founding of a Party (2011).

To commemorate the ninetieth anniversary of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s establishment, The Founding of an Army recaps moments of Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, and other founding fathers of China who fought against the KMT-led government during the Chinese Civil War.

Despite all of these factors, this government-backed propaganda film struggled hard for both box office numbers and media attention. Unfortunately for this film, it coincided with the other patriotic work Wolf Warrior II during the same screening period in the summer. This history-based war film was also criticised for casting a lot Chinese teenage idols and popular young actors who arguably did not have the adequate acting skills to play those military leaders in the movie.

 
#5 Paths of the Soul 冈仁波齐
 

Paths of the Soul is directed by Yang Zhang, whose film Shower received high critic ratings in 1999. This film, Paths of the Soul, first premiered back in 2015 at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it took this film two years to make it onto cinemas in mainland China.

This documentary-drama film blurs the lines between cinematography and photography as it captures the devout and daunting undertaking journey of a group of Tibetan villagers who make a 1,200-kilometer pilgrimage to Lhasa, the holy city of Tibetan Buddhism.

During this over-10-months travel to Lhasa, the changes of seasons and landscapes not only show the distance and time span, but also every obstacle these pilgrims face; natural disasters, financial problems, and internal quarrels.

Paths of the Soul touches the potentially sensitive issue of minority ethnicities in China and their religion. This focus is also rather unpopular on the mainstream Chinese film market, and all actors starring in the film are generally unknown to the majority of Chinese audiences — they are all Tibetans while some of them weren’t even actors before starring in this movie.

Despite all odds, to the surprise of many, Paths of the Soul has successfully grossed over 14.9 million USD and became one of the very few independent productions that was able to make over 100 million RMB box office in China. Perhaps it is this movie’s ability to trigger viewers to think about the smaller and bigger questions of life that has turned it into an unexpected success.

 
#6 Never Say Die 羞羞的铁拳
 

Never Say Die revolves around the story of a male boxer swapping bodies with a female reporter who exposed his bribes, after which they have to help each other to win the UFC championship.

The plot of soul-exchanging may already be a cliche, but this fantasy comedy still managed to dominate the Golden Week holiday box offices and has grossed over 325 million USD so far, coming along as the second big Chinese film box office success of 2017 following Wolf Warrior II, while becoming the highest-grossing comedy in China ever.

Without any big-name cast or large production, Never Say Die uses an easy-going plot and commonly-understood jokes to catch the Chinese audience. And this may signal that the lower-cost Chinese folk comedies are heading in a new direction.

 
#7 Twenty Two 二十二
 

Twenty Two is the title of this documentary and refers to the number of Chinese WWII ‘comfort women’ who are still alive and willing to share their story with the public.

After nearly a century, this documentary focuses on the voices of these 22 women during the last stage of their lives, revisiting the traumas they experienced during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).

The documentary shows how these brave and strong elder women talk about their history, perspectives on life, sufferings, and how they found personal happiness despite all hardships. Unlike most film and television works in China relating to Sino-Japanese War, the heart of Twenty Two doesn’t seem to lie in narrow nationalistic purposes; instead, it succeeds in letting the general public know and understand this specific group of war victims, permanently preserving a crucial part of war history.

 
#8 Brotherhood of Blades II: The Infernal Battlefield 绣春刀II修罗战场
 

It can’t be compared to the classic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but Brotherhood of Blades II: The Infernal Battlefield is definitely the only Chinese wuxia film in 2017 that was able to do well in the box-offices while also earning great critic reviews.

The film is set in the late Ming Dynasty, when minors and weaklings occupied the throne; neglecting their duties, relying on power-hungry palace eunuchs, and isolating themselves from government ministers.

Shen Lian is an elite guard of the palace who gets framed for treason. In order to prove his innocence, he seeks the truth behind this conspiracy together with a mysterious artist.

Brotherhood of Blades II features a mix of amazing martial arts, beautiful scenery, exquisite costume design, and tasteful drama, all the while carrying a sociopolitical undertone. Through the furious and thrilling martial arts extravaganza, this wuxia sequel presents the audience with the styles and lives, the fate and determination, and the toughness and loyalty of the fighters within Chinese tradition.

 
#9 Love Education 相爱相亲
 

This sensitive generational drama starts with the 60-year-old Hui Ying deciding to move her father’s grave from his hometown to a place beside her mother’s grave in the city.

However, the first wife of Hui Ying’s father, who has looked after the grave for years, doesn’t approve of her decision. When Hui’s journalist daughter Wei Wei gets involved, the disagreement ends up becoming a problem for the whole town community.

Love Education is a work that touches upon issues of generational gaps, love, and womanhood in modern-day China. Throughout the grave-moving issue, the film highlights contemporary Chinese family values and shows how women at 30, 60, 90 years old see and learn to deal with the relationships and bonds between mother-daughter, husband-wife, and grandmother-daughter while facing different hardships in their professional and personal lives at their various life stages.

Filled with sophisticated irony and wisdom regarding the topic of love, Love Education is a pleasant and innocuous highbrow lifetime drama. When it opened in the first week of November in China, the film scored a rare 8.6 points on Douban, the biggest Chinese website for film, music, and book reviews, becoming the highest-rated Chinese film in 2017.

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Angela is a Shanghai-based freelance writer focusing on a wide range of sociopolitical topics in China, including social media pop culture, and gender issues. Born and raised in Taiwan, Angela holds a BA in sociology from National Taiwan University and an MA from Goldsmiths, University of London in media & communication.

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China Arts & Entertainment

Rocking it for a Decade, Beijing Band Namo Catches the Spirit of Their Generation

Beijing band Namo, that brings a fresh sound by mixing rock with Chinese traditional music influences, is celebrating its ten-year anniversary this year.

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Image via Sohu.com

Mixing traditional Chinese music with Western rock influences, Beijing-based band NAMO is one of Beijing’s new generation’s go-to bands. This fall, the band celebrates its ten-year anniversary with a new tour all across China. A short introduction (video here!) to Namo and its style by What’s on Weibo.

Although the Beijing-based ban Namo (Nanwu 南无乐队) has been already rocking it for over a decade, their star has especially been on the rise recently, with their upcoming anniversary tour, titled ‘Ruyi’ (如一) bringing them to concert halls all across China.

The start of ‘Namo’ – a term from Buddishm showing reverence and devotion – takes us back to late 2007, when lead singer Liu Xiangsong (刘相松, 1984), who was born and raised in Shandong, had come to Beijing and founded the band after graduating from the Sichuan Music Academy.

Liu’s education has had a profound impact on the band, with his focus on guitar performance, classical guitar, and Chinese opera. Liu also has a strong interest in Chinese traditional culture and Buddhism, which clearly shines through in Namo.

Namo, with Liu Xiangsong in the front.

Through the years, the band has seen some shifts in its line-up and now is a perfect coming-together of six people with their own strengths and backgrounds.

Besides Liu, the band consists of Zhang Lan (also known as Lanzi 张岚) on guitar and keys, Chen Ying (陈颖) on flute, percussion by Zhang Shuo (张硕), Daniel (丹尼奥) on bass, and drums by Shenzi Jun (申子俊) (主唱:刘相松/吉他手:张岚/笛子:陈颖/贝斯:丹尼奥/鼓手:申子俊/民打:张硕).

A little over two years after the band first came together, they were the first music group to perform at the Famen Temple (法门寺), one of China’s most prestigious pagoda temples, to open for renowned Chinese pop star Faye Wong. Shortly after, they became the first Chinese band ever to play at Japan’s Summer Sonic in 2011.

Namo won the “Best Newcomer Award” at Midi 2010. Since then, the band signed with the SX Music (视袭音乐) label, and have made quite a name for themselves, performing at music festivals across China, Japan, and Korea.

In 2014, Namo was invited to perform for the CCTV Spring Gala, where they played their song ‘Spring is Here’ (春来了).

In the first season of Chinese reality TV show ‘Sing My Song’ (中国好歌曲), in 2014, Liu Xiangsong also performed the same song on stage (see video below), which then gained in popularity.

Their music is inspired by Chinese music, but also uses influences from Western music styles, resulting in an original style that is both charming and humorous at times.

At Beehype, William Griffith describes the band as follows: “Combining Chinese culture obsessed, 80s nostalgic, vigorous lyric-based melodies, and crosstalk rock, a traditional Chinese comedic performance style, the band is a creation of their generation of youth.”

Namo is a representation of the Chinese post-80s generation (bālínghòu 八零后) in multiple ways. Their songs reflect on the urban stories of China’s modern-day society and the lives of young Chinese, and the overall style of the band also corresponds with what characterizes China’s post-80s; they are formed by traditional Chinese culture, but also grew up in a China that was quickly modernizing, transforming, and impacted by Western influences. Noteworthy is that Namo’s band members come from all across China.

 

Social Media & Online Channels

 

Recently, Namo and its band members have been growing more popular on Chinese social media. Their official Weibo account @南无乐队微博 has over 48,500 fans, but the individual members also have quite a following.

* Lead singer Liu Xiangsong currently has approximately 74,000 fans on his Weibo account: @南无刘相松.
* Band member Lanzi: @南无岚子 (48,400 fans).
* Namo’s Chen Ying: @陈颖小卡 (30,100 fans)
* Shenzi Jun: @申子俊 (10,150)
* Zhang Shuo: @南无张叫母 (4270 fans)
* Daniel: @丹尼奥帅牛哈哈 (2000 fans)

Listen to Namo on Xiami here.
On Douban here.
QQ channel here.

 

Tour Dates

 

Although the band has already been touring over the past year, they will still perform in many Chinese cities for the weeks to come. For those interested, we’ve listed the tour dates with links to further information on venues, times, and tickets.

November 9: Xi’an
November 10: Chengdu
November 11: Chongqing
November 14: Nanning
November 16: Guangzhou
November 17: Shenzhen
November 18: Xiamen
November 21: Wenzhou
November 23: Shanghai
November 24: Nanning
November 25: Wuhan

Don’t forget to check out What’s on Weibo’s latest video on Namo here.

Interested to read more? You might be interested in the following:
* Rock Hotpot: Why Chinese Celebrities are Opening Up their Own Hotpot Places
* The Early Days of Rock in China – Interview with Sinologist & Hardrocker Jeroen den Hengst: From copied tapes to a unique rock scene – Jeroen den Hengst was part of the Beijing rock scene when it first awakened.

By Manya Koetse


Directly support Manya Koetse. By supporting this author you make future articles possible and help the maintenance and independence of this site. Donate directly through Paypal here. Also check out the What’s on Weibo donations page for donations through creditcard & WeChat and for more information.

 

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©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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Backgrounder

K-Pop’s Recipe for Success: Why Korean Idol Groups Got So Big in China and are Conquering the World

The success of K-Pop in China and beyond is evident – the causes for its success are less obvious.

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K-Pop (Korean pop music) is one of South Korea’s most successful export products today. With bands such as BTS that are dubbed the ‘biggest boy band on the planet’, it is obvious that the locally produced K-Pop has become a globally well-liked phenomenon. Although its popularity is obvious, the reasons why K-Pop became so big, from China to the US and beyond, are less evident.

On coming Saturday, October 13, the South-Korean boy band BTS will perform in an Amsterdam area in front of thousands of fans who have been looking forward to this event for months. Ticket sales for the first concert of the 7-member boy group in the Netherlands were sold out within minutes, despite their relatively high prices, with people paying up to €250 ($290) in the official sales, or even €400 ($460) and more for a single ticket in the unofficial online sales afterward.

It is not just the success of the BTS European tour that is making headlines; the record-breaking views on YouTube on their videos – the latest being the song ‘Idol’, that had more than 200 million views in little over a month – is also attracting the attention of the media.

And BTS is not alone. Other Korean pop (K-Pop) groups such as EXO, BIGBANG, TWICE, Shinee, or Got7, have also broken records when it comes to online video views or Spotify plays.

Although the English-language media attention for the K-pop phenomenon is more recent, the Korean entertainment industry has since long been extremely popular in China and on Chinese social media. In this overview, What’s on Weibo explores the K-Pop popularity (focusing on its idol boy and girl groups), its short history, and success formula.

 

BTS and More: An Army of Fans

 

The pop group BTS (방탄소년단), also known as the Bangtan Boys (防弹少年团, lit: ‘Bulletproof Boyscouts’), is an award-winning seven-member South Korean boy band formed by Big Hit Entertainment that debuted in the summer of 2013. They are currently hyped as the “biggest boy band on the planet.”

Initial auditions for the band were held in 2010, followed by roughly three years during which the band was formed and prepared for their major debut, that was promoted on social media months before their actual launch in June of 2013.

The band consists of multi-talented young men. Singer-songwriter Kim Seokjin (Jin) (1992) was studying film at Konkuk University when he was invited to audition by Big Hit; rapper Min Yoongi (Suga) (1993) was an underground rapper before he was signed; dancer and rapper Jung Hoseok (J-Hope) (1994) was part of a dance team in his pre-BTS life.

Lead rapper Kim Namjoon (RM) (aka Rap Monster, 1994) was already active in the music scene as rapper and producer; dancer and vocalist Park Jimin (Jimin) (1995) was a top student as Busan School of Arts before joining; vocalist Kim Taehyung (V) (1995) is known to have one of the most expressing voices of the group; and main vocalist Jeon Jungguk (Jungkook) (1997) was only 12 years old when he auditioned for BTS, followed by three years of intense training.

BTS, formerly ‘Behind The Scenes’, is known for its strong social media presence, which helps to spread its music and connect to its fans, who call themselves an ‘ARMY’ (also stands for Adorable Representative Master of ceremonies for Youth). The band has more than 16 million followers on Twitter, 3.3 million fans on Weibo, 12 million subscribers on Youtube, and nearly 8 million followers on Facebook.

Although BTS is the band that is currently dominating the headlines, there are many more K-Pop bands that are extremely popular on Weibo and beyond. The nine-member South Korean–Chinese boy band EXO, for example, has dozens of fanclubs on Chinese social media. Band member Oh Se-hun alone already has almost 9,5 million fans on his Weibo page. BIGBANG has more than 7 million Weibo fans, the eight-member girl band Girl’s Generation (少女时代) is on the rise with 1,5 million Weibo followers, Super Junior over a million, and the list goes on.

 

CREATING SUCCESS

A Short History of K-Pop: Finding a Sublime Entertainment Formula

 

Besides media attention, there has been ample scholarly attention for the Korean pop culture phenomenon over the past decade. The year 2012 especially marked a special moment in the history of K-Pop, when the song ‘Gangnam Style’ by Korean rapper Psy broke all YouTube records and became a global hit.

But before K-Pop became a global force to reckon with – that seemingly rose out of nowhere -, it had already made its first international successes in neighboring countries China and Japan since the early 2000s.

In China, the success of Korean popular culture is defined as Hallyu (韩流)*, the ‘Korean Wave’ since 1997 (Yang 2012, 105). Hallyu encompasses far more than idol bands; it includes the boom of South-Korean dramas, films, celebrity idols, and entertainment programs. In 2002, for example, the South-Korean soap opera ‘Winter Sonata’ became a hit in both China and Japan.

The former Exo (formation has now altered): a Chinese-South Korean band formed by SM Entertainment in 2011, consisting of twelve members separated into two subgroups, EXO-K and EXO-M, performing music in Korean and Mandarin.

The early 2000s mark the ‘first Korean wave’ in China, that mainly revolved around TV dramas produced in South Korea and were liked by females above the age of 30. It was followed by the second wave from the mid-2000s to 2010, when the K-Pop music genre popularized in China.

The third period, after 2010, marks the moment when K-Pop was further incorporated into mainstream Chinese popular culture, with a ubiquity of K-Pop idols in everyday Chinese pop culture, and the launch of Chinese versions of Korean entertainment programs (Ahn 2014, 47). It was also in this ‘third wave’ that you saw the debut of pop groups such as EXO. Formed in 2012, that band incorporates both Korean and Chinese members, performing in both languages.

Although K-Pop from South Korea became somewhat less visible in the PRC during the past few years, mainly because the industry suffered from various politically-motivated bans on Hallyu in China, the genre’s influence on China’s mainstream pop culture is evident, with some Chinese groups, for example, also being modeled after K-Pop bands.

Entertainment Powerhouses

Many studies explain the foreign success of Korean popular culture in Asia, mainly China and Japan, through “cultural proximity,” saying that the success of K-Pop especially occurred in China and Japan because they have, for example, linguistic similarities and corresponding Confucian values (Ahn 2014, 47; Messerlin & Shin 2017, 412).

But the more recent global wave of K-Pop shows that cultural proximity is not the sole answer to the genre’s success. Besides, there is actually nothing traditionally “Korean” about K-Pop, which only emerged in the 1990s (Shin & Kim 2013, 256).

The genre’s success mainly lies in the big players that brought forth the first Korean pop idol groups and have excelled (and still do) in selecting the right entertainment “products” to invest in, with a strong focus on both on the production side and the market demand side.

SM Entertainment, JYP, and YG Entertainment are the first major and leading entertainment houses of the 1990s. Big Hit Entertainment, home to BTS, followed later; founder Bang Si-Hyuk (1972) used to collaborate with JYP Entertainment founder Park Jin-Young (1971) before going his own way in 2005.

-SM Entertainment, founded 1988 by musician and TV host Lee Soo Man (1952)
-YG Entertainment, founded in 1996 by musician Yang Hyun-Suk (1970)
-JYP Entertainment, founded in 1997 by musician and producer Park Jin-Young (1971)
-Big Hit Entertainment, founded in 2005 by producer/songwriter Bang Si-hyuk (1972)

What characterizes these entertainment houses is that they are/were small in terms of revenue and employees (very different from big labels such as Sony or Universal), and play multiple roles as intermediate between musicians and consumers, as well as producers.

Different from many international big players in the entertainment world, K-Pop entertainment companies integrate processes of artist selection, songwriting, management, signing advertisement deals, etc. in-house rather than leaving these processes to various parties outside their own studio (Shin & Kim 2013, 260). Significant about the founders of these entertainment powerhouses is that they all had ample experience in the music industry themselves before starting their studios.

Lee Soo Man, image via AllKpop.com

The story of SM Entertainment, which was founded by musician and TV host Lee Soo Man in 1988, is crucial in understanding the beginning of the K-Pop industry. Lee was inspired by the transforming American music market after spending time there in the 1980s, and decided to replicate US entertainment in a new way. In his first studio he brought together the right equipment, the right expertise, and the right talent all in one place to kick-start his business (Shin & Kim 2013, 263).

Although the first acts that came from SM’s studio were no instant success, Lee was determined in learning through trial and error until he found the right beat and image that struck a chord with young consumers. In doing so, he adopted a strategy in which teenagers were surveyed on what they wanted, and in which he focused on scouting new talent from all over the country to give them intensive training in dancing, singing, and acting at the SM Studio (Shin & Kin 2013, 264).

The band H.O.T. stood at the beginning of the K-Pop genre. (Image by Soompi).

In 1996, eight years after Lee Soo Man started his entertainment company, and going through years of changing, refining, and improving his strategies, the first success was there. The boy band H.O.T., consisting of five hand-picked members who each had their own strength, debuted in 1996 and became the first major success in the short history of K-Pop.

Companies that followed after SM’s initial successes further experimented in adopting new strategies and trying out new styles of music, but stayed true to the idea of in-house training of young, new artists, rather than selecting renowned artists with defined styles (Shin & Kim 2013, 264). With frequently held auditions and training programmes that can last for years, some trainees start as young as 5 or 6 so that they are fully equipped for the entertainment industry by the time they reach adolescence (ibid., 265).

More than being teachers, producers, songwriters, marketers, etc., these entertainment houses are also trend watchers; training their talents in various areas now in order to be able to place them in the right setting and format in the future, corresponding with (global) market demands.

Companies such as SM place an emphasis on the export of music, and focus on appealing to global audiences, making use of hundreds of composers and experts from around the world in doing so. In producing and performing the K-pop girl band Girl’s Generation’s song ‘Genie’, for example, SM Entertainment used a Japanese choreographer, a Norwegian songwriter, and Korean lyricist (Shim 2016, 38).

 

SHAPING SUCCESS

The Popularisation of K-Pop: A Digital Strategy

 

Although a main cause of K-Pop’s initial success lies in the (training) strategies adopted by the aforementioned entertainment houses, there are also other major factors that have contributed to its global influence.

The Korean government contributed to the initial success of K-Pop by developing a world-leading internet infrastructure (although the goal of developing that infrastructure, obviously, was not to promote K-Pop), which helped the rapid rise of the genre through online strategies.

According to some studies (e.g. Messerlin & Shin 2017, 422-425), Korean entertainment companies have been the first in the world when it comes to realizing the potential of the internet for the distribution and marketing of their performances; they were already long awake to its possibilities and were acting upon them, while many big players in Europe and America were still focusing on traditional album formats.

What also helped the spread of K-Pop at the time were the relatively friendly and equally balanced Korean policies on issues such as copyright, that were (and are) less protective and restrictive compared to America or the EU (Messerlin & Shin 2017, 421).

The first success (1997-2007) of K-Pop and other Korean popular culture products in China, Japan, and other countries within Asia, have also been called the first major Korean Wave, whereas the current period (2008-present), represents the ‘New Korean Wave,’ that is defined by the role that is played by new media technology and social media as a platform for K-Pop to reach every corner of the world (Jin 2016).

Online strategies were particularly relevant in the context of the (early) K-Pop industry because 1) it was dominated by relatively small businesses that did not have the means to invest in other major publishing platforms than that of efficient online distribution and 2) they did not have costly plants where they could produce CDs, DVDs, or vinyl. Having the high-tech Korean electronical market on their side, online strategies were thus a natural and cost-efficient solution to give publicity to their performances (Messerlin & Shin 2017, 426). More so than focusing on traditional album releases, the release of digital singles that come with visually attractive online videos, for example, is one important K-Pop production characteristic.

Probably the best example showing that this strategy works is the global success of ‘Gangnam Style’ that was made possible through YouTube. By now, six years after its release, the world-famous song by Psy, who was signed by YG Entertainment, has over 3,2 billion plays on YouTube.

The revenue of concert tickets for K-pop performances, its merchandise industry, the digital singles, advertisement income, the many brands wanting to associate themselves with the star industry that K-pop has generated, etc., makes K-Pop production a money-making machine that shows that the model that focuses on traditional (CD) album formats and promotional single releases has become outdated.

 

CONTINUING SUCCESS

Marketing more than a Band: Active Fans and Interesting Characters

 

While South-Korea’s innovative music enterprises were crucial for the international launch of K-pop, its worldwide fanbase has now also become a motor driving its continuing success.

Different from the initial spread of K-Pop in China or other Asian countries – where K-Pop has become common in everyday pop culture -, is that many consumers of the genre in the US, Europe, or elsewhere, fully depend on the internet and social media to access K-Pop, as it is not a genre that is prevalent in the mainstream popular culture of their own countries.

The fact that fans of K-Pop in these regions have to actively seek for the latest information and releases of their favorite groups, also means that they have become participatory and engaged consumers in the spread of K-Pop – almost turning them into the ‘soldiers’ of fandoms such as the BTS ‘army’. They have become part of enormous (online) subcultures in various countries across Europe and America.

More than just listening and watching K-pop, these fans become members of the ‘culture’ by translating material, circulating it to friends, or integrating it on their own social media channels (Jin & Yoon 2016, 1285).

TWICE

What further strengthens this fandom is that the successful K-Pop bands are anything but one-dimensional. More than just building on their synced choreography, flawless singing, fashionable looks, and visually attractive videos, the band members of groups such as BTS, EXO, or TWICE, have their own identities, voices, and goals that go beyond music; their various characters and roles within the group resonate with their different fans.

The fact that many K-Pop groups and members also have an androgynous and gender-bender appearance also makes them more interesting to many fans, with many K-pop boys being ‘pretty and cute’ and girls having a ‘strong and handsome’ look, breaking through typical male and female stereotypes.

Amber from F(x) has an androgynous look.

Heechul from boy band Super Junior.

Furthermore, more than pop bands, these K-Pop groups have virtually become ‘platforms’ with their own streaming channels, websites, television shows, merchandise shops, lively online communities, stories, and so on.

In their recent appearance on the US Tonight Show by Jimmy Fallon, BTS frontman RM explained the group’s mission in perfect English, saying: “It is about speaking yourself, instead of letting other people speaking for you. Cause in order to truly know ourselves, it is important to firstly know who I am, where I’m from, what my name is, and what my voice is.”

Many find their voice in K-Pop. And that is a sound, from a local Korean product to a global force, we can expect to grow much louder in the future.

By Manya Koetse

* For clarity: note that due to scope this article focuses on the development of the K-pop phenomenon, and does not explore the anti-Hallyu or anti-Korean wave movement in China, and the previous bans on Hallyu in the PRC.

References

Ahn, Jungah. 2014. “The New Korean Wave in China: Chinese Uders’ Use of Korean Popular Culture via the Internet.” International Journal of Contents, 10 (3): 47-54.

Jin, Dal Yong. 2016. New Korean Wave: Transnational Culture in the Age of Social Media. University of Illinois.

Jin, Dal Yong, and Kyong Yoon.2016. “The Social Mediascape of Transnational Korean Pop Culture: Hallyu 2.0 as Spreadable Media Practice.” New Media & Society 18 (7): 1277-1292.

Messerlin, Patrick A. and Wonkyu Shin. 2017. “The Success of K-Pop: How Big and Why So Fast?” Asian Journal of Social Science 45: 409-439.

Shim, Doobo. 2016. “Hybridity, Korean Wave, and Asian media.” Routledge Handbook of East Asian Popular Culture,Koichi Iwabuchi, Eva Tsai, Chris Berry (eds), Chapter 3. London: Routledge.

Shin, Solee I. and Lanu Kim. “Organizing K-Pop: Emergence and Market Making of Large Korean Entertainment Houses, 1980-2010.” East Asia 30: 255-272.

Yang, Jonghoe. 2012. “The Korean Wave (Hallyu) in East Asia: A Comparison of Chinese, Japanese, and Taiwanese Audiences Who Watch Korean TV Dramas.” Development and Society, 41 (1): 103-147.

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What’s on Weibo provides social, cultural & historical insights into an ever-changing China. What’s on Weibo sheds light on China’s digital media landscape and brings the story behind the hashtag. This independent news site is managed by sinologist Manya Koetse. Contact info@whatsonweibo.com. ©2014-2018

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