Hit Korean TV Drama ‘Descendants’ to be Remade as Chinese Film

  • South Korean drama is the latest mega-hit in China
  • Descendants propelled by megastars Song Joong-ki and Song Hye-kyo
  • Film version will have Chinese cast rather than original Korean leads

South Korean actor Song Joong-ki

Descendants of the Sun (太阳的后裔), the South Korean television series that has taken China and much of East Asia by storm, will be made into a movie in China, local media reported Monday.

The hit drama, which airs exclusively on search engine Baidu’s video streaming service iQiyi, is so popular it has been viewed more than two billion times and has raised the ire of Chinese officials who have warned of the social ills resulting from excessive viewing of Korean dramas.

Leading Chinese TV production group Huace Film & TV has bought the rights to reproduce the TV show into a film in China, the Wuhan Evening News reported.

Zhang Yibai (张一白) will direct the film. His previous projects include Fleet of Time (匆匆那年) (2014) and the Sino-Japanese co-production The Longest Night in Shanghai (夜上海) (2007).

The show is a romantic drama between a soldier, played by Korean heartthrob Song Joong-ki and a surgeon, played by Song Hye-kyo (no relation) — now both megastars in China. It is set in a fictional war-torn Mediterranean country Uruk. The lead roles in the Chinese film version are yet to be cast.

“We are under enormous pressure since the original drama became a hit by casting two very attractive stars,” Zhang told the newspaper.

“We won’t rely on the reputation of the original drama but use it as a foundation to build a wholly new movie,” he said, adding, “We’d like to make a better one.”

The 16-episode drama aired simultaneously in South Korea and China in February — the first Korean drama to benefit from this release schedule — and went on to smash ratings, dominate social media discussion.

In March, China’s Ministry of Public Security warned of the social ills from watching it too much.

“Watching Korean dramas could be dangerous, and may even lead to legal troubles,” the Ministry warned in a Weibo post at the time, citing cases of domestic violence and divorce related to obsessive viewing of the show.

An editorial carried by the Chinese Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily praised the show as “an excellent advertisement for conscription” into the army and suggested China create a similar soap opera.

Video sharing platform iQiyi said it had reached 20 million paying subscribers last month.

The internet firm reportedly spent U.S.$230,000 to license each episode, making it the most expensive Korean drama bought by a Chinese firm. Fees for V.I.P. memberships on iQiyi are set at 19.8 yuan ($2.97) for a month, and 58 yuan ($8.71) for three months.

The video streaming site is also recouping its investment through ancillaries, with Chinese fans snapping up cosmetics, clothes, and fashion accessories favored by the show’s stars on its own e-commerce site.

Unlike most Korean dramas that undergo a “live-shoot” system where episodes are filmed on the fly so adjustments to the script based on audience feedback and ratings can take place, filming for Descendants wrapped up in advance to suit Chinese censors.

Chinese censorship rules require entire seasons of shows to be reviewed by officials before being streamed online. The pre-record was a major “risk,” according to its South Korean producer Next Entertainment World (NEW).

“None of the pre-recorded dramas have been successful in the past,” a spokeswoman for NEW told The Japan Times in April. “But it was necessary to pass Beijing’s censorship rules for our first simulcast in China.”

The show is the latest example of hallyu, or the Korean Wave of pop culture products that have long dominated East Asia. The phenomenon has been so strong in China that it has even led to soul-searching at the country’s political advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC).

In 2014, CPPCC delegates reportedly viewed the popularity of the Korean drama as a blow to Chinese confidence in their own culture, following the success of another Korean hit show My Love From the Star. That show sparked a craze in China for Korean fried chicken and Jimmy Choo Abel shoes at the time.

Such has been the outsized success of Korean pop cultural products been in China that the country has tried to ride the Korean Wave by joining with Korean content creators on projects or simply acquiring them outright.

China has poured $2.5 billion into Korea’s cultural sector including in gaming, movies, and other entertainment over the past five years, according to the Korea’s Small and Medium Business Administration.