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Taking a shot at Hollywood

Korean actors find their place amid the samurai and kung fu fighters

Sept 24,2009
As you watch the latest crop of Hollywood action movie trailers, you may notice something unusual, something some said would never happen: more and more Korean faces in lead roles.

The year 2009 has been an especially fruitful one for Korean actors who have made it in American film, though no one knows how long their luck will last.

“My Sassy Girl” heroine Jun Ji-hyun starred in her first international action movie, “Blood: The Last Vampire,” which was released in June in Korea. In the action flick, Jun plays the role of a human-vampire hybrid named Saya.

Korean wave stalwart Lee Byung-hun also made his Hollywood debut in the big-budget “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” which opened in August. In this theatrical and colorful action movie, Lee plays Storm Shadow, a Korean martial arts fighter and a member of the villainous organization of the title.

And even more big-budget Hollywood movies with Korean actors in the lead roles are coming soon. In “Laundry Warrior,” his first American film, Jang Dong-gun plays an Asian assassin who has been hiding out in a small American town. Pop superstar Rain made his debut in Hollywood in a supporting role in “Speed Racer” in 2008, but now he is ready to come back as the lead character in the new movie “Ninja Assassin.”

This huge list may seem an unqualified success for Korean actors, but bigger problems often crop up after they land on the shores of Los Angeles.

As previous attempts by Korean actors to break into the American film industry show, the biggest obstacle to overcome is the language barrier. The ability not only to read lines fluently, but also to communicate with the director and the film crew is crucial.

At an interview in May in Seoul, Jun explained the issues she had to deal with while shooting Blood.

“I remember the first shoot very vividly. I could only perform two lines of the script, and I couldn’t understand what the producers wanted from me,” she said.

Because language is a major difficulty for foreign actors, it is inevitable that Korean actors not fluent in English will have limited options for possible roles. Most of the time, Korean actors choose action films and play very dynamic characters, expressing themselves with movement rather than verbally through lengthy conversations or monologues.

Although Lee has a quite big role in G.I. Joe, his character is built up through set pieces and visual qualities rather than lines. Of course, the blockbuster is an excellent start for Lee’s career, raising awareness of him worldwide.

However, the question remains: After the movie’s success, will Lee be able to keep up with the fast pace of Hollywood and take it to the next level? The test for every Korean actor is to be more than just an exotic Asian face and continue to make films.

Being able to speak fluent English is a big plus, but it is also something Korean actors have to overcome in order to take that next step in Hollywood.

Another reason Korean actors have limited role options in action movies has to do with stereotypical ideas about Asians in Western society. Japanese samurai or Chinese kung fu fighters are still the commonly accepted images of Asian culture, particularly Asian men. Films in genres that average Americans identify with the most, like drama or romance, seldom have Asian characters in leading roles.

Stereotypes are unquestionably negative, as they come from the commodification of one’s culture, but they have helped shape individual countries’ identities. Samurai have become representative of Japanese culture, and likewise for kung fu and China. But Korea has no such quick fit in the Western world. Thus, roles for Asian characters often tend to go to Japanese or Chinese. In fact, Jun’s film Blood is based on a Japanese anime.

Meanwhile, Rain’s character in Speed Racer, Taejo Tokokan, and Lee Byung-hun’s character Storm Shadow were originally Japanese, but they both asked the filmmakers to change the nationality of the characters since they are Koreans. Although a lot of the characters’ features may still remind viewers of Japan, that effort should be acknowledged.

It might be inevitable for Korean actors to start their Hollywood careers playing stereotypical Asian characters, but in time the best will be able to build up their own identities. Perhaps the best known example of this is Kim Yun-jin, who played a complex and nuanced Korean character on the American television show “Lost.”

Establishing a positive and strong Korean identity that can be differentiated from previously built images is the key to the globalization of Korean culture - and its biggest challenge.


By Susan Yoon Contributing writer [estyle@joongang.co.kr]




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