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The Musical Chairs Of Friends And Foes Is Underway Again At China’s Theatrical Box Office

The musical chairs of friends and foes is underway again at China’s theatrical box office, with South Korea seemingly back in the game while Hollywood and Bollywood could be out of luck for the foreseeable future.

On Dec. 3, South Korean family comedy Oh! My Gran, produced by Seoul-based Big Stone Pictures, opened theatrically in China. The movie is the first Korean title to show on Chinese screens since 2016, when Seoul installed a U.S.-made missile defense system, known as THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), on the Korean peninsula, infuriating Beijing leaders who viewed the installation on their doorstep as an affront to China’s regional sovereignty. Chinese regulators retaliated by blocking their massive market from all Korean film imports — a move meant to hit the country’s surging culture industry where it hurts.

 

 

Oh! My Gran’s release carries more symbolic significance than it does commercial value. A relatively small, offbeat movie, it received limited screen share and opened to just $170,000 over the weekend. But analysts see its arrival as the first move toward a potential reopening of the floodgates for South Korea’s red hot content industry in the enormous Chinese marketplace.

Korean cinema’s box office fortunes were rapidly rising right up until the moment that the country got iced out. Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer earned a record $11 million in 2014 and was far surpassed the next year by CJ Entertainment’s Korea-China co-production 20 Once Again, which earned $59.3 million.

Rance Pow, president of Asian box office analysis firm Artisan Gateway, pointed out that “2022 is the 30th anniversary of the two countries establishing diplomatic relations, so the timing of this is not insignificant.”

A similar relaxation of cultural imports has been in evidence throughout the Chinese entertainment landscape of late, with South Korean celebrity Weibo accounts beginning to be reactivated; popular model-actor Lee Dong-wook appearing in the December issue of GQ China; and members of K-pop supergroup EXO scheduled to participate in China’s Tencent Music Entertainment Awards on Dec. 11.

 

 

As Korean pop culture is finding new favor, other longstanding staples of imported entertainment are seeing their market share rapidly erode in China. And Beijing has swapped regional rivals at its box office before — a blunt form of economic messaging, analysts say. When a territorial dispute with Japan over an uninhabited island chain claimed by both countries since World War II escalated into street demonstrations in numerous major Chinese cities in 2012, no Japanese film was imported into China for months and years afterward.

Once Korea was blocked in late 2016, however, China began softening its stance on Japanese cinema to make up for the release shortfalls — and the constructive, if icy, relationship between former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping also helped. By 2019, 24 Japanese titles were released in China, including a rerelease of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated classic Spirited Away, which earned more than $70 million, nearly 20 years after its original Japan release.

Just a few years ago, Indian cinema was also in ascendance in China, occasionally rivaling Hollywood tentpoles in total ticket sales. Aamir Khan’s family sports drama Dangal earned an astonishing $193 million in China in 2017. But since the 2020 border disputes between Chinese and Indian forces — which resulted in several dangerous skirmishes and a wave of nationalist sentiment in both countries — not a single Indian film has been released in China.

 

 

With diplomatic tensions between Beijing and Washington at a nadir, Hollywood’s China business lines are hitting fresh lows. U.S. film imports are now at their lowest levels in a generation and various major studio features, including popular superhero titles Spider-Man: No Way Home and Venom: Let There Be Carnage from Sony-Marvel, still have no release dates. Their chances of getting the green light are becoming slimmer by the day as the year winds down, analysts say. (The first Venom earned $269 million in China in late 2018.)

Just 25 U.S. movies have been released theatrically in China in 2021 so far, and those include a raft of very minor indies. (In 2019, some 45 Hollywood titles were shown on Chinese screens.) The planned U.S. diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics can be expected to further escalate the antipathy working against Hollywood’s commercial interests in what’s now the world’s largest theatrical market. Most insiders now fear the business climate will get worse before it gets better.

Adds Pow: “The possibility of singling out sectors of commerce as a means of economic or cultural messaging is always possible, and the cultural sector is only one among many options. Banning out of favor cultural or entertainment content has not been a uniquely South Korean issue.” note: Spider-Man: Homeless Day Streaming Movie