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K-Pop Kids Show for CBBC-CBC Cites Universal Themes


Welcome to Global Breakouts, Deadline’s fortnightly strand in which we shine a spotlight on the TV shows and films making noise in their local territories. The industry is as globalized as it’s ever been, but breakout hits are appearing in pockets of the world all the time and it can be hard to keep track. So we’re going to do the hard work for you.

Today’s pick, Gangnam Project, comes to you from Canada and the UK, where it airs on CBC and the BBC. Gangnam Project taps into universal themes of cultural belonging. And in a kids content market changing rapidly, it is a sign of the the times that the Canadian and British broadcasters have tapped into the phenomenon that is K-pop.

Name: Gangnam Project

Country: Canada, UK

Network: CBC, CBBC

Producer: Pillango Productions, Aircraft Pictures

International sales: Federation Kids & Family 

For fans of: XO, Kitty, Love in Taipei

In Gangnam Project, 16-year-old Hannah Shin (Julia Kim Caldwell) struggles with not feeling Korean enough on her first trip to her father’s homeland. Bubbly and happy-go-lucky by nature, our protagonist shakes off the doubt and goes on to live every teenage girl’s dream – tutoring idols at Korea’s elite K-pop training school and ending up as a trainee herself. 

The latter part may be a tad fantastical, but show creator Sarah Haasz knows exactly how the first part feels. The Korean-Canadian producer visited South Korea when she was 16 on a government initiative to familiarize Korean-origin children with their culture. “I had this expectation that I was to learn a lot about Korea, and be welcomed with open arms,” says Haasz, who co-created the show with Filipino-Canadian director Romeo Candido. “What I didn’t anticipate was not being accepted as a 100% Korean person.”

The theme of an incomplete sense of cultural belonging is one that has cropped up in Hollywood a fair bit of late. Jenny Han’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before spinoff XO, Kitty comes to mind, as does the more recent Love in Taipei – an adaptation of Abigail Hing Wen’s Loveboat Taipei – and Lulu Wang’s The Farewell.

For Swin Chang, Executive In Charge of Development and Production at CBC Kids, Gangnam Project stood out in amongst a sea of similar pitches. “We hear a lot of pitches and most of them sound ‘same-same’ to be honest,” says Chang, who is also Korean-Canadian. “[Sarah] taps into a very universal theme about trying to find your place in the world. Who do you want to be? How can you get there? These are questions that resonate with a lot of teens.”

K-pop the perfect draw

Although Haasz’s primary focus with Gangnam Project was to portray the cultural disconnect she felt as a teenager, she needed a relevant hook. K-pop was the perfect draw. 

Korean pop culture has been consistently making headlines for the better part of a decade now, from K-pop acts headlining Coachella to Netflix recently investing billions of dollars into developing Korean content. “Korea is the modern centre of the creative world and K-pop, K-drama and K-cartoons continue to rise in popularity across the globe, especially amongst younger audiences,” says Sarah Muller, Senior Head of Commissioning and Acquisitions 7+, BBC Children’s and Education. “That’s why we brought CBBC viewers their very own K-pop show.”

In pursuit of authenticity, Haasz extensively researched the experiences she was trying to portray. A former 90’s K-pop trainee – who also consulted on the show –  led the way into visiting talent schools and entertainment agencies in South Korea. An Irish-Canadian English tutor in Korea provided valuable insights that were written into Hannah’s character tutoring idols in the show. Co-showrunner Candido – who used to be in a Filipino band himself – brought in musician August Rigo for the show’s soundtrack. Rigo, who has composed for K-pop heavyweights BTS, Justin Bieber and One Direction, wrote all the songs that the trainees sing in the music-heavy series. 

Ensuring diversity in the cast and crew while simultaneously meeting local Canadian quotas meant the project took six years to get off the ground. The team had a relatively small pool to choose from when it came to finding young Canadian actors of Korean origin, many of whom would be required to sing and dance. Save actor Zeboria (who went to South Korea to study the language), all the principal cast is of Korean origin, and Haasz is proud of the approach. “We wanted to make sure that diverse voices were heard and authentic in the series and that’s why it took so long,” she says. “It’s truly rooted in people’s experiences.”

The show is co-produced by CBC Kids, and since its Canadian launch on March 8, Gangnam Project has been in the top 10 kids’ programs on CBC Gem, and among the top three tween programs on the platform, with episodes still available on CBC Gem and BBC iPlayer. Chang and Haasz, however, maintain that its charm extends beyond its 8-12 year old demographic. Haasz especially wanted the show to feel like it could be watched with family. “You purposely see a lot of relationships in the show, between Hannah and her aunt, her grandmother, the relationships between the grandmother, and her son,” explains Haasz. “There is a lot of angst in those relationships that is also relatable to families in general.”

The show also touches lightly on the extremely competitive and controlled aspect of the K-pop industry, with Hannah’s trainee journey facing obstacles from mean girl Mina (Kylie Haasz, who is also Sarah Haasz’ daughter), moody tutee Chan Mi (Brianna Kim) and powerful executive Sandra Yim (M.J. Kang). These are reflective of the frequently tragic news from the actual K-pop industry about idols struggling with mental health, online harassment and forced apologies. 

Haasz was not too concerned about drilling too deep into the truth in her portrayal of the depth of struggles undergone by trainees. “There’s always a dark side to anything competitive. It’s our responsibility to convey what our target viewer is able to process,” begins Haasz. “If we were a documentary, then we would definitely be responsible to show the entire perspective.” 

“But this series was not necessarily saying that these are the steps you need to be a K-pop star,” she goes on. “The show is primarily rooted in the idea of self-identity. K-Pop is just the vessel.”

Although it has just been over a month since the show was released, Haasz and Chang are hopeful about the reception Gangnam Project has received, and are already planning for a second season, while Federation is selling worldwide. With audiences now invested in the characters, Haasz believes a sequel season will be all the more impactful. “I promise, it is going to be phenomenal,” she proclaims, with the confidence of a K-pop star.



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