A Pop Culture Wave Rolls On

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A Pop Culture Wave Rolls On

"I am a fan of 'All About Eve.' The plot was gripping," said Vincent Teo, 33, a business professional. But he's not talking about the classic 1950 Bette Davis movie. The "All About Eve" he's talking about is a Korean drama. Mr. Teo speaks no Korean, only English and Mandarin. He lives in Singapore.

Mr. Teo is among the growing audience in China, Taiwan and Southeast Asia that has cultivated a taste for Korean pop culture. "I started watching Mandarin-dubbed Korean dramas on satellite television stations operating out of Hong Kong and Taiwan even before Channel U, a local Chinese-language channel, began airing Korean dramas recently," Mr. Teo explained.

So what was it about the show that kept Mr. Teo's eyes glued to the TV set? "The girls are so attractive!" he said without hesitation. It also helped that the plot was tight and not everything was black-and-white. "I really sympathized with the good girl. However, I also felt a certain sympathy for the pretty but evil girl," he said.

Love-triangles and even four-sided love stories are the main fare of both Korean and Chinese dramas, but there is something about Korean dramas that have made them all the rage on television screens across most Asian countries. "For one thing, the camera work is better than dramas produced locally in Singapore," Mr. Teo suggested. He also likes to observe the difference in value systems between the two countries. "Watching the dramas enlightens me about life in modern Korea," he said. His wife watches the shows for the fashion, he added.

Enthusiasm for Korean dramas and television stars are evident on the Internet where there are numerous foreign-language sites that specialize in Korean dramas and music. At www.koreanfilm.org, an English-language Web site dedicated to Korean films, visitors ask where they can locate certain Korean dramas, they recommend other Korean dramas to try and they discuss the endings of various programs. One posting asked, "Got enthralled by 'Fireworks'... Any idea where I can find a synopsis of the story?" The query brought responses from other die-hard fans of the drama starring Cha In-pyo and Lee Young-ae, two stars who command a huge following in Taiwan. Other fans volunteered fantasy endings, saying the way they thought the show should have ended. So popular is Lee Young-ae in the island country that she is reported to be one of the most requested faces by the Taiwanese women seeking cosmetic surgery.

Riding on the popularity of Korean dramas that are drawing huge audiences, some actors and actresses are being asked to star in Chinese productions as well. Ha Ji-won, a rising star both on the small screen and the silver screen, recently departed for China where she is to star in "I Love Beijing," a 20-episode drama being shot both in Korea and China. Ha plays the role of a Korean who comes to China after having studied in the United States.

Actors and actresses are not the only Korean pop culture figures that are sweeping Korea's Asian neighbors off their feet. Korean singers and dance groups have the region's youngsters dancing wildly to their latest rhythms as well.

The popularity of these stars is such that their loyal fans are willing to reach deep into their pockets to see their idols up close and personal. Nearly 500 Chinese fans arrived in Korea on Aug. 17 to attend a joint concert by Position, NRG, Baby Vox and Shinhwa. Two weeks earlier, for 600,000 won (about $465) each, many times the average monthly paycheck in China, some 250 Chinese teenagers came to Korea to join a weekend camp with their idol Ahn Jae-wook, an actor-cum-singer, at Yangpyong, Kyonggi province.

It is the exciting possibility of turning this hanliu, or "Korean current," sweeping across Asia into hard cash that has the business sector and the government abuzz. LG Household and Health Care, an affiliate of the LG Group, jumped into the game early and is cashing in. In 1999, the company's Vietnamese joint-venture LG-VINA Cosmetics suggested importing a popular Korean drama model to Vietnam. "Kim Nam-joo, our model, played a leading role in the drama and we thought we had nothing to lose by having the show air with our commercial featuring Ms. Kim back-to-back with the program," recalled Oh Kang-kook, public relations manager at LG Household and Health Care. Kim struck the right chord with the Vietnamese audience. LG-VINA Cosmetics, which began manufacturing the DeBon line of cosmetics in Vietnam early last year, expects to see its sales grow by 60 percent to approximately $13 million this year. "We notched first place in brand recognition among foreign cosmetic brands in Vietnam," said Oh. Likewise, Samsung Electronics credits its ads featuring Ahn Jae-wook with playing a major role in helping the company take the No. 1 share of the computer monitor market in China.

Pushed to come up with a plan to further cultivate and exploit the current Korea wave rippling across Asia, the government at the end of last month unveiled a blueprint aimed at promoting the Korean cultural industry. The plan includes places in Beijing, Shanghai and major tourist spots in Korea where people can experience Korean pop culture firsthand. The Culture and Tourism Ministry would also assist in the production of Chinese versions of music albums, dramas, films and games. For those skeptical about any government involvement, Culture and Tourism Minister Kim Han-gil said that the government does not intend to take the lead, but plans to resolve difficulties faced by the private sector. Mindful of adverse reactions from other countries, Minister Kim added that the policies would be carried out in terms of expanding bilateral cultural exchanges with the countries concerned.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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