Heroes of Sui and Tang Dynasty stars Korean actress Jang Seo-hee. Photo: IC
Flowers in Fog features Korean actor Joo Jin-mo. Photo: IC
Since South Korean idol Ahn Jae-wook starred in Chinese TV series White Collar Condominium in 2001, collaborations in the entertainment industry between the two countries have ratcheted up.
About a decade ago, foreign entertainers needed intermediaries in order to negotiate with Chinese entertainment companies. But as borders continue to break down in showbiz, the process for hiring Korean actors has been smoothed out. The crossover presents great opportunities for both the actors and domestic producers.
A large number of fresh stars in South Korea compete for chances to debut on TV every year, but only about 2,000 episodes are produced annually, according to the Information Times. Compare that to China, where about 30,000 episodes are made for more than 60 local TV stations every year, according to freelance entertainment critic Fang Liuxiang. These domestic TV series offer more opportunities for experienced ex-idols and second or third tier stars from abroad to have leading roles.
Finding a new audience
Some South Korean entertainment businesses have set up Chinese offices in order to send their talent directly to China. Actor management company Fantagio Corp announced at a press conference recently that its new Fantagio China branch will be based in Beijing.
One actor represented by Fantagio, Joo Jin-mo, who plays the hero in the series Flowers in Fog (2013), said that he should have come to China earlier. He never imagined that he would find so many fans in China.
Some Korean actors and singers sign directly with Chinese agencies.
"The local agencies know more about the market," said Wu Yifeng, managing director of a branch of Zhejiang Huace Film & TV Co Ltd, which last month signed popular Korean actress Jang Seo-hee.
Previously, Jang had faced obstacles when working in the Chinese market. For example, she was cheated by an intermediary agent when she was working on War and Destiny in 2006, Wu said.
"She was miserable at that time," Wu said. "So she accepted our invitation after long consideration."
After signing with Zhejiang Huace Film & TV Co Ltd, Jang announced that she would focus on developing her career in China.
For producers, Korean stars that already have a following in China are a safe bet for success.
Wu's company offered Yoon Shi-yoon, 27, a role in Chinese TV drama Happy Noodles (2012) with a small salary but good exposure for the rising star. Yoon was handpicked by Wu because he had done well in the Korean TV drama King of Baking, Kim Takgu. When broadcast in China this May, it was one of most-watched shows.
Restarting a career
Jang is well-known for her performance in the highly-rated Korean series Miss Mermaid (2002, imported by CCTV-8 in 2004) and Temptation of Wife (2008, imported by China Entertainment Television in 2009).
Yet two recent Chinese TV dramas starring Jang, Master Lin in Seoul (2012) and Heroes of Sui and Tang Dynasty (2012), earned lukewarm reviews.
When asked whether now was the best time to sign with Jang as the peak time for her fame seems to be already several years in the past, Wu told the Global Times that she is very confident about rebuilding the 41-year-old star's reputation.
Like Jang, many Korean stars over 30 are seeking to restart their careers in China.
Kangta (also known as Ahn Chil-hyun) was away from the entertainment industry for two years while completing his military service.
When he came back in 2010, he took on roles in a series of Chinese TV dramas including Pepper and Kimchi (2011) and Di Jin (2011), and released a Chinese-language album, Jing Xiang Qi Yue (Rest in the Seven Tunes). As the ex-vocalist of the musical group H.O.T., which was very popular among Chinese fans in the late 1990s to the early 2000s, Kangta still has a strong fan base in China for his future endeavors.
Fang, the entertainment critic, explained that housewives enjoy actors like Jang. For those born in the late 1970s and 1980s, idols from the 1990s and 2000s Korean dramas and music groups like H.O.T. remind them of fond teenage memories. For the audiences who are even younger, the new generation of Korean stars who appear on TV shows and in concerts in China are also favorites.
The price is right
Is it true that Korean stars earn more in China than in their homeland? Wu replied that it depends on the actor, but generally Korean actors do get paid the same or more in China.
"Otherwise, why would they like to come here for jobs?" she remarked.
According to a report on the Information Times, if the payment for an actor in South Korea is about 300,000 yuan ($49,280) for a single episode of a TV drama, the price could grow to 400,000 yuan when the actor comes to China.
This price is still much cheaper than some local stars, who earn around 700,000 yuan per episode, according to Fang.
Many producers still choose to add one or two foreign actors to their dramas, not only for the lower cost, but also for their good work ethic and the international flair they add to the program.
"Many Korean actors working in China are dedicated and easygoing," Fang said. "They are usually trained to listen to the director and producers, and not to ask for changes to the plot to gain more camera time."