March 2007


It was interesting (yet hardly surprising) to find an editorial in the English version of the Chosun Ilbo (entitled Korea Can’t Keep Siphoning Off Japanese Culture ) calling for the Korean content industry to stand on its own two feet rather than copying or importing Japanese films, books, and TV dramas.

Korea really only opened up to Japanese cultural imports for TV programming in 2003 (according to my figures at least – I am always open to new info). Koreans have effectively been starved of Japanese content due to government policy banning its importation. They could certainly be forgiven for binging on Japanese popular culture such as music, books, and television drama, if that is indeed what they are doing.

With a massive local content quota of around 80 percent for television broadcast, Korean broadcasters have faced real barriers to broadcasting foreign content (Japanese animation dubbed into Korean for example) and have needed to source local programs. It is no wonder that many of these have been ‘copied’ off Japanese formats, given the financial legal barriers (and financial incentives?) to produce local adaptations.

Proponents of nationalist and protectionist sentiment need to accept that the flows of cultural content has been far from uni-lateral. Korean content does have its own unique style , and Japan was as caught up in the Korean Wave (hallyu) as other countries in Asia. One could even say that the relaxing of restrictions on cultural imports helped to give the Korean Wave some of its momentum, particularly in Japan, as it allowed foreign content traders into Korea, and also gave the Korean industry the impetus to be export-oriented rather than rely on protection from formidable competition across the water. (again, feel free to bring me down on this one)

The editorialist does recognise the popularity of Korean content in Japan:

The reason Korean TV dramas like “Winter Sonata” and Korean movies do well in Japan is because of this market principle. And it is because of that market principle that Japanese products are popular among Koreans. There is no rule that says only our culture should be marketed overseas and not vice versa.

Yet, the writer feels there something fundamentally different about this case than simple market fundamentals, which lies in Japan’s advantage at reaching out to middleclass audiences…

The Japanese know how to embrace middlebrow readers, in between high and popular literature. That genre is nonexistent in Korea. High literature trundles down its own path, without looking back at its readers. In contrast, popular literature can’t see its readers since they are often too embarrassed to admit they are reading it. And fans of literature fall through the gap between the two genres. Readers who cannot find solace in Korean literature have fueled a Renaissance of Japanese literature in Korea.

So by the writer’s own admission, we now have a section of the Korean public that now is satisfied, having been unable to get their hands on the material they desired, and now, with the importing of Japanese content, their entertainment needs have been satisfied.

Forgive me for applauding the newfound happiness of others, but is this not a good thing? I am sure that the depicted polarisation of Korean content is somewhat of an exaggeration, but even if it is so, Japanese content has found a niche in Korea for which consumers are apparently grateful. In any case, the rights for Korean translations of Japanese works will no doubt reach a price in the future where it becomes more economical to produce local content than import it and pay exorbitant license fees. In the meantime, talent who can tap this “middlebrow” market will undoubtably develop locally and will be able to compete. When that happens though, it will be no surprise if certain camps bemoan the fact that local creative talent has taken to copying Japanese cultural imports.

There is enormous value in nurturing and promoting cultural differences. There is a danger, however, in placing nationalistic protection of local culture above the quality of life of those whom proponents purport they are professing to protect. Cultural diversity enriches lives, but there are also scores of cottage industries around the world that survive purely on rents derived from convincing governments of their cultural significance.

Given, nationalism occurs everywhere. In an inverse of the Korea/Japan cultural imperialism saga, the Australian entertainment industry was up in arms in 1998-9 when the High Court (see Project Blue Sky vs Australian Broadcasting Authority) ruled that New Zealand television programs must be considered as Australian programs for broadcasting under the free trade agreement rules (Closer Economic Relations treaty). There was talk of cheap New Zealand programs flooding the market, that NZ productions were unfairly subsidised, that children would be subjected to NZ accents while watching cartoons (cultural imperialism arguments against the US were temporarily forgotten, and the fact that NZ kids were probably sitting through a lot of Australian programming was not even considered). It caused concern that with multilateral trade negotiations, Astro Boy might even be considered Australian.

People working within a protected industry will always fear for their economic security when barriers to trade are removed. Likewise those who sense a vulnerability of their cultural heritage or way of life will tend to fight to shelter it rather than to preserve it by giving it temporal currency.

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According to a survey commission by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (TDC), Hong Kong has become the most popular trading centre in Asia for entertainment content. The article in Monsters&Critics reveals that the survey, which interviewed 332 entertainment industry players from around the world, yielded the following information:

  • More than 50 per cent of the respondents said they had acquired entertainment content from Hong Kong in 2006 followed by the Chinese mainland, Japan, Korea and Thailand, respectively.
  • More respondents indicated that they would source entertainment from Hong Kong over the next 12 months, citing Hong Kong as the best place to reach out to the mainland and other Asian areas in exploring co-production opportunities and meeting buyers.
  • More television professionals plan to expand their business in Hong Kong (86 per cent) and the mainland (90 per cent).
  • The Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF) was noted by survey respondents as a useful means of finding investment for film projects, as were Korea’s Pusan Promotion Plan and Japanfs Tokyo Project Gathering.
  • About 90 per cent of the respondents said digital entertainment had the greatest growth potential, followed by television (78 per cent) and film (68 per cent).
  • Survey respondents saw the Chinese mainland as the biggest growth potential in the film, television and digital entertainment sectors.
  • More than 80 per cent of the respondents agreed that cross-media convergence will bring more business opportunities to the entertainment industry. They regarded the convergence of film and digital entertainment as having the strongest growth potential in the next 12 months.

The main flaw with using these survey results as evidence for the self-proclaimed title of “Asia’s Entertainment Hub” is that the survey was conducted at the Hong Kong Film & TV Market (FILMART). Naturally, one would expect attendees at this fair to be more likely to purchase content from Hong Kong than other Asian countries. If more than 50 percent of respondents had NOT chosen Hong Kong, it would arguably have been more of a slap in the face to the Hong Kong Trade Development Council than these results are to boast about.

Organisers of the Tokyo or Pusan film markets could run the same research at their respective events and quite possibly reach the conclusion that their country was indeed the entertainment hub of Asia.’ To give these figures any real tractability, the same survey would need to be run in Tokyo and Pusan (substituting Hong Kong’s name for the relevant market). If Hong Kong still emerged as the most popular media and entertainment region, then the Council would have something to boast about.

I am not disputing the importance of Hong Kong in Asian and global media markets – particularly in it providing access to mainland China. I must protest however, when data is used out of context to support such hyperbolic statements.

For some insight into a broader spectrum of opinions from different participants, see the article in The Hollywood Reporter.