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All About the Chinese Films Featured at Busan Film Festival (Part III)

Gabi Verberg

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From Chinese dissident filmmakers to government-funded films, you can find it all at Busan, Asia’s biggest film festival. What’s on Weibo provides an overview of all the Chinese nominees at the festival. This week, the final 7 in our Part III (See Part I here, part II here).

On the 4th of October, the 23th Busan International Film Festival in South Korea finally kicked off. With the screening of 323 films from 79 countries, and 140 world and international premieres, it is one of Asia’s biggest and most exciting international film festivals, with China as one of the main suppliers of films.

This week, we will introduce to you to the final batch of the Chinese nominees, including mostly arthouse films in the category Wide Angle (many of them being short films), but also the big comeback of one of China’s greatest directors, Zhang Yimou.

 

1. My China (Wǒ de Jìngtóu 我的镜头)

China Mainland/Hong Kong
Genre: Documentary (90 min)
Selected in the category: Wide Angle
Director: Wang Xiaoshuai (王小帅)
Premiere: 6th October 2018, Busan International Film Festival

About the Director:

Wang Xiaoshuai (王小帅) is a renowned Chinese director who was born in Shanghai in 1966. He directed his first film The Days (冬春的日子) in 1993, after which it immediately entered film festivals in Canada, Berlin, The Netherlands, Italy, London and many more. Since then, Wang has made around one film every two years.

Scene from ‘The Days’ (冬春的日).

Wang especially gained international recognition since the 2001 film Beijing Bicycle (十七岁的单车), which became the winner of the Silver Bear Jury Grand Prix at the Berlin Film Festival and wowed critics with its story of a youth’s search for his stolen bicycle, particularly with its shades of Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 Bicycle Thieves. In 2005, Wang’s film Shanghai Dreams (青红) won the Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival. Other famous works of Wang include Chongqing Blues (日照重庆) and Red Amnesia (闯入者) which were both nominated for best film at the Venice Film Festival.

Storyline:

My China, also known as Chinese Portrait, is a documentary portraying Chinese people and the places they live in during a period of upheaval. While traveling all over China, the documentary captures people from all walks of life, including miners, fishermen, farmers, students, or construction workers, with Wang Xiaoshuai himself being the main character and guide throughout the film.

See the trailer with Chinese subtitles here.

Why you should watch it:

Although Wang is one of the most famous Chinese directors outside the PRC, his works are often not welcomed within China. With his often-critical lens, he tries to lay bare contemporary China and her societal problems, leading to many of his works being banned in China.

Chinese Portrait might be Wang’s most personal work yet, as he questions his own identity in it by following the path of his family members; he tries to get to know his own country and get an understanding of how the country influenced him as a person. The film is a very intimate portrait of the director and an honest and a beautiful visualization of China’s tumultuous modern history.

 

2. On The Border (Yánbiān Shàonián 延边少年)

China Mainland
Genre: Drama/Short Film
Selected in the category: Wide Angle
Director: Wei Shujun (魏书钧)
Weibo Hashtag: #延边少年# (164.000+ views)
Premiere: 18th May 2018, Cannes International Film Festival

Starring: Li Zhengming, Cui Yuan, Fei Peng, Gang Yanming, Yang Gao and Zhao Lihua.

About the Director:

Wei Shujun (魏书钧) was born in 1991 in Beijing. At the age of 14, he first entered the film industry as an actor. In the years that followed, he worked in various junior positions, such as runner, assistant director, and sound recorder, before he directed his first documentary Said in the Forbidden City (说在紫禁城). In 2016, Wei had an international breakthrough with his first feature film Duck Neck (浮世千) which got him a nomination at the Busan Film Festival as the youngest nominated director that year.

Storyline:

This 15-minute film revolves around Hua Mingxing, a boy from a Korean ethnic group who lives in a Korean-Chinese border village. His father left him a long time ago to earn money in the city. As the boy is passing his time in the village that is mostly populated by elderly people, he decides to go and find his father in the city to ask him to finance his travel plans to Korea. But instead of finding his dad, Hua ends up roaming the streets of Yanbian, striking up a friendship with a young woman.

See here the trailer with English subtitles.

Why you should watch it:

On the Border was awarded with a Special Jury Distinction-Short Film at the Cannes Film Festival of 2018.

 

3. Void (Mèn 闷)

China Mainland
Genre: Drama/Short film
Selected in the category: Wide Angle
Director: Xu Jianshang (徐鉴赏)
Premiere: 19th June 2018, China Mainland

Starring: Chen Xuanyu (陈宣宇)

About the Director:

Majoring in film directing at Beijing Film Academy, Xu Jianshang received recognition for her short Lost in the City (城市), which won Best Screenplay at the Xiejin Academy Film Festival and got nominated for the French Poitiers Film Festival. She graduated from the Asian Film Academy in 2014 and directed the feature film Ma•amaa, a co-production between India and China. She is currently studying film production at Busan Asian Film School.

Storyline:

Pai is a Beijing-based student who is alone and struggling with her studies, her friends, and her living situation. When Pai tries to make things better, the this 19-minute short film shows how her situation further spirals out of control.

Noteworthy:

Despite the fact that Xu is still young, she already received much recognition for her work. Xu is the only female listed among all the directors in our three part overview of Chinese nominees at Busan.

 

4. In the Middle of Blue (Yīzhǐ lánsè de xiā 一只蓝色的虾)

China Mainland
Genre: Drama/Short film
Selected in the category: Wide Angle
Director: Qi Ji or Miracle(祁骥)
Weibo Hashtag: #一只蓝色的虾# (315 views)
Premiere: 21th June 2018, Beijing Film Academy Graduation Show

Starring: Kong Yan (孔雁), Zhang Benyu (张本煜) and Zhang Lu (张鹭).

About the Director:

Qi Ji is a 22-year-old director that graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in July of this year. In 2016, after studying film for only one and a half year, he directed Belief (念) a short film portraying the Muslim minority in China. The film unexpectedly entered the International Youth Micro Film Exposition (国际青少年微电影) and ended in the top ten Best Chinese Films. For Qi’s second work, In the Middle of Blue, he won the jury award at the +86358 Short Film Festival.

See here his speech ‘Can an artist be made?’ on TEDx in English.

Storyline:

This 26-minute film features a female protagonist called Ye Hong, who is left by her husband after not being able to have children. Her life then takes a dramatic change, that unexpectedly leaves her having twins and only raising one of them.

Why you should watch it:

Qi is an extremely young and promising director that is worth keeping your eye on. This does not only show in his nomination for the Busan Film Festival, but is also evident from the cast he rounded up for this production.

 

5. Down There (Nàlǐ 那里)

China Mainland/France
Genre: Drama/Short film
Selected in the category: Wide Angle
Director: Yang Zhengfan (杨正帆)
Premiere: 6th of September 2018, Venice Film Festival

Starring: An Qigu, Wang Songhua and Chen Shaokai

About the Director:

Yang Zhengfan started his career in filmmaking in 2009, and in 2012 he set up production company ‘Burn the Film‘ with producer Zhu Shengze (朱声仄). In 2013, his work Distant (远方) received international attention and was nominated at the Locarno and Vancouver Film Festival. In 2016, he was invited at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, receiving the Jury Award at China Independent Film Festival and the Best Experimental Film Award at South Taiwan Film Festival with his work Where Are You Going (你往何处去).

In collaboration with Zhu, Yang also worked as a cinematographer and producer for two documentaries titled Out of Focus (虚焦) and Another Year (又一年). Both received much international attention.

Storyline:

A blissful night is unexpectedly interrupted by the sound of a woman desperately screaming downstairs. Residents of the apartment building do wonder about the sound, but it quickly loses their interest, and continue the thing that they were doing before. If nobody sees what happened, does that mean it becomes something that never happened? This 11-minute sgort film explores indifference and cruelty in the modern-day city.

See here the trailer with English subtitles.

Why you should watch it:

Down There received nominations for both the Venice International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. Another reason why you should watch it, is that Yang has proved to be an expert in portraying individuality, loneliness, and exclusion of people in big cities. Whether he is portraying migrant worker families or middle age taxi drivers, Yang has a gift for showing the immensely intimidating effect the big city environment has on people.

 

6. Monkey Magic (Dànào Xīyóu 大闹西游)

China Mainland
Genre: Animation
Selected in the category: Wide Angle
Director: Ma Xihai (马系海)
Weibo Hashtag: #大闹西游# (3.498.000+ views)
Premiere: 22nd of September 2018, China

Starring: Sun Ye (孙晔), Shen Dawei (沈达威), Tao Dian (陶典) and Liu Beichen (刘北辰).

About the Director:

Ma Xihai began his career in the animation industry in the early 1990s. He started as a crew member, made it to senior graphic designer, production supervisor, and eventually executive director. Besides Monkey Magig, he has worked on many adaptions like Master Q: Incredible Pet Detective (老夫子之反斗侦探), Master Q: Fantasy Zone Battle (老夫子之魔界梦战记), and Storm Rider. His computer animations even brought him to South Korea where he produced a TV series, and to Japan where he worked on game animations. In 2013 he co-directed his first animation film The Soccer Way (圣龙奇兵大冒险). Monkey Magic will be the first film directed entirely by Ma.

Storyline:

Monkey Magic is a modern reinterpretation of the timeless Chinese classic Journey to the West. The story starts when toys refuse to admit that monkey Sun Wuyuan is the king of monkeys because he doesn’t have Sun Wukong’s magic stick. Full of determination, Sun Wuyuan goes to find the legendary king Sun Wukong on Mount Huaguo to give him the magic stick – the beginning of a tumultuous adventure.

See here the trailer with Chinese subtitles.

Why you should watch it:

The film has already seen a very good reception within China since it premiered, selling over 36 million tickets. It was the most popular film in theaters during the mid-autumn festival, and it already is the most successful animation film of 2018.

 

7. Shadow (Yǐng 影)

China Mainland
Genre: Drama/Action/Historic
Selected in the category: A View on Asian Cinema
Director: Zhang Yimou (张艺谋)
Weibo Hashtag: #影# (88.674.000+ views)
Premiere: 6th of September 2018, Venice Film Festival

Starring: Chao Deng (邓超), Sun Li (孙俪), Zheng Kai (郑恺), Wang Qianyuan (王千源), Wang Jingchun (王景春), Hu Jun (胡军), Guan Xiaotong (关晓彤) and Wu Leo (吴磊).

About the Director:

The renowned Zhang Yimou is an awarded cinematographer and director from Xi’an. He is often praised for his knowledge of Chinese history and his capacity to respectfully and truthfully transform these old stories into white screen productions. He is one of the few Chinese directors that is a regular at both Asian and western film festivals. In 2003, his film Hero (英雄) was nominated for an Oscar for the best foreign film. Other famous works include Red Sorghum 红高粱), Not One Less (一个都不能少), The Flowers of War (金陵十三钗), and his previous film starring Matt Damon, The Great Wall (长城).

In 2008, Zhang directed the opening- and closing ceremony of the Olympics held in Beijing, China. This gained him a very high reputation in both China and abroad. That same year, he was nominated for “person of the year” by the American Time Magazine.

Storyline:

Shadow is based on Zhu Sujin’s rendition of China’s legendary Three Kingdoms saga. It tells the story of Yu, a commander who lost his kingdom. In an attempt to regain his power and kingdom, he trains a boy named Jing to become his ‘shadow’ or double (note: Yu and Jing are both played by Chao Deng). But things go differently than he planned, with Jing falling in love with Yu’s wife and growing up to doubt his own identity and the path that was chosen for him.

See here the trailer with English subtitles.

Why you should watch it:

Variety was positive about the film and was talking of a comeback after Zhang’s somewhat soulless previous two films. The review read: “Every supremely controlled stylistic element of Zhang Yimou’s breathtakingly beautiful ‘Shadow’ is an echo of another, a motif repeated, a pattern recurring in a fractionally different way each time.”

Others describe the film as “rousing” and “typically beautiful.”

To see the other Chinese films at Busan, check Part I and Part II here.

By Gabi Verberg

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

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

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Gabi Verberg is a Business graduate from the University of Amsterdam who has worked and studied in Shanghai and Beijing. She now lives in Amsterdam and works as a part-time translator, with a particular interest in Chinese modern culture and politics.

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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.

 

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©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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