A scene from Descendants of the Sun (Photo/Courtesy of iQiyi)
After the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television introduced regulations requiring the entire season of any foreign show be reviewed before being streamed in the Chinese mainland, it has been next to impossible for Chinese audiences to legally keep up with the rest of the world when it comes to watching their favorite shows. Though shows such as The Big Bang Theory still number among the most popular shows on some streaming sites, they are at least an entire season behind other countries.
However, a South Korean show, Descendants of the Sun, has managed to break through the lines. Not because it managed to acquire special permission, but because the production company decided to shoot the entire 16-episode season all at once so the show could air in South Korea and the Chinese mainland at the same time.
The producers of the show had huge incentive to make this historic move as Chinese streaming site iQiyi paid the studio $230,000 per episode before even a single scene was filmed.
The binge model
Before the new regulations on overseas shows were released, foreign programming was in high demand in the mainland. According to a report from Tencent in 2014, US shows were usually contracted at a price range of $2,000-4,000 per episode and $30,000 per episode for exclusive streaming rights.
Before 2013, the average price per episode was $1,000-3,000. Streaming rights to South Korea's The Heirs went for about $13,808 per episode that year, while the country's You Who Came from the Stars went as high as $28,364 per episode. After You Who Came from the Stars became hugely popular at the beginning of 2014, the rates for South Korean programming skyrocketed. Rights to Doctor Strangers rose to more than $80,000 per episode, while My Lovely Girl reached a record-setting $280,000 per episode.
Despite these high rates for these South Korean shows, none rose to the same heights as You Who Came from the Stars. For example, while both the leading actor and actress in My Lovely Girl became popular in China, the show itself was often criticized for being full of clichés.
After the regulations were released last year, the rates for South Korean TV series cooled off as Chinese streaming sites had more time to judge the value of series based on local reviews and audience ratings.
The chance iQiyi has taken with its investment demonstrates the confidence it has in the show, which may stem from the fact that it stars actress Song Hye-kyo, who also starred in the Chinese films The Grandmaster and The Crossing, and features the talents of scriptwriter Kim Eun-sook, who wrote for popular shows such as Secret Garden and The Heirs.
This confidence seems to have paid off as the series, which debuted on February 24, has proven successful so far. Currently VIP members on iQiyi can watch the Chinese subtitled show at the same time it is broadcast in South Korea, while non-paying members can watch episodes after a week delay. The first four episodes have earned more than 303 million views according to iQiyi. The streaming site has also announced that it will be opening an online store so audiences can buy products that appear in the show.
Descendants of the Sun focuses on the romance between special forces soldier Si-jin (Song Joong-ki) and a doctor Mo-yeon (Song Hey-kyo). Outstanding in representatives of their own fields, the two immediately fall in love with each other. The show takes place in the fictional war zone of Uruk, where Shi-jin combats terrorists and Mo-yeon works as an international medical volunteer.
In the first four episodes, the South Korean special forces soldiers beat up a team of US soldiers while cooperating on a mission to rescue hostages from terrorists, while the doctor successfully saves the life of a Nobel Prize-winning Arabian leader against the wishes of his colleagues. So far Chinese audiences seem to be enjoying these heroic South Korean idols as they try to save the world and navigate the intricacies of romantic love.
Fans on popular Internet forum Baidu Tieba have started to dissect what they can of the South Korean military based on the clothing and military ranks presented in the show. Some of them even speculated that Shi-jin's team is supposed to represent the reallife the 707th Special Mission Battalion. Yes, just like how Hollywood spy movies have made the U.S.'s CIA and FBI famous around the world, this South Korean TV series is selling its own version of local heroes.
The show is an example of the increased confidence South Korean studios have had in their own culture. In the early 2000s, roles in South Korean shows often featured actors with Japanese-styled haircuts (The Temptation of Eve) or studying abroad (2005's Love Story in Harvard), while 2013's promoting You Who Came from the Stars promoted the country's traditional culture through an alien's mouth. Now this most recent series shows South Koreans taking part in helping people in another part of the world by providing both military and medical assistance.
While many Chinese TV series are still telling Cinderella-style stories featuring a poor but pure young woman being courted by a wealthy and handsome man, which was also a major theme for South Korean TV in the early 2000s, South Korean romance has gradually stepped beyond these clichés into more mature territory: Both the man and woman are independent and excel in their own fields, and their choice to start or end the relationship is based on their feelings for each other instead of some fear of being single or some perceived gap in class. The show has discovered it doesn't need to be a daydream romance, but a more realistic portrayal of both men and women.