A Korean star rises in the east

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A Korean star rises in the east

The capital of Japan has fallen in love with Korean pop culture. Go to bookstores, convenience stores and news kiosks in Tokyo these days, and you’ll find the faces of Korean actors on the cover of just about every entertainment magazine. If you say you’re from Korea, young Japanese women break into a smile and name-drop their favorite Korean TV dramas.
Park Dong-ha, 31, a Tokyo-based Korean actor, couldn’t be more pleased about it. One of the few Koreans on the Japanese entertainment scene, Mr. Park came here three years ago speaking barely a word of Japanese. Now he’s got a prominent role in the local musical “Elizabeth,” one of Tokyo’s top three stage productions along with “Miss Saigon” and “Les Miserables.”
In this musical, whose run in Tokyo through May 30 is almost sold out, Mr. Park plays Rudolf, an Austrian prince who meets a tragic end. Mr. Park’s name is the only one in “Elizabeth’s” program that’s written in katakana, the Japanese alphabet used for words borrowed from other languages.
Mr. Park also hosts “Annyeonghasimnikka?” (How Are You?) on NHK-TV, Japan Broadcasting Corp.’s show that teaches the Korean language. Next week, he starts shooting an NHK-TV miniseries, “My Wife’s Graduation Day,” in which he plays a young Korean man living in Tokyo. That’s not all; his agency, the influential Toho Entertainment, is planning his singing debut in a few months.
On a recent Saturday afternoon in the upscale Ginza area in the heart of the city, Mr. Park sat down for an interview before a vocal training session. During the interview, which was conducted in Korean, Mr. Park would sometimes lapse into Japanese, then apologize. “Mr. Park has made amazing progress in the last couple of years,” says Kaoru Kimura, his agent. “By now his command of Japanese is so good that I cannot tell his accent from that of a native speaker. Of course, there’s a slight difference, but it does not stand in the way of Mr. Park’s career, because what counts is his attitude and talent.”

Mr. Park began his career as a child actor on a Korean TV network. He majored in ballet in college, debuted onstage in a local production of “Fame” and was nominated for a “new face award” on Seoul’s musical scene.
Park Yong-ho, an executive producer at Seensee Musical Company in Seoul, remembers only good things about him. “He has the potential to be a big star,” he says. “That he is being well received in Tokyo as a full-blooded Korean reflects his talent. Tokyo, like London and Broadway, can be hostile to foreign actors, but the number one priority there is talent, not nationality.”
Park Yong-ho cast the young actor in last year’s production of “Singin’ in the Rain” at Seoul’s Popcorn House as Don Lockwood, the character made famous by Gene Kelly.
“Watching Dong-ha learn tap dancing from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. every weekday cemented my trust in him. He was double-cast with a veteran star actor, but to the closing day, it was Dong-ha who cut a more conspicuous figure.”
Park Dong-ha’s friends and colleagues were sorry to see him leave Seoul, but he says he couldn’t resist the urge to see the larger world. “One day, it suddenly occurred to me that I must challenge myself,” he says. “I didn’t have a chance to study or travel abroad much, and I couldn’t stand the thought that I might spend my whole youth not taking any risks.”
On Christmas Day 2000, he decided to leave. It took little time for him to decide that Japan was the place to go. “I don’t know why, but I have been attracted to Japan from childhood,” Mr. Park says.
He boarded a plane to Tokyo ― well aware it was one of the most expensive cities in the world ― with about 60,000 yen (about $500) in bills and coins. The first thing he did was go to Shiki Musical Company, which owns eight theaters at which it produces musicals.
“There I was, barely speaking a word of Japanese but trying to express myself. I was so reckless,” Mr. Park says, smiling.
He mumbled broken Japanese along the lines of “Let me have a chance to do my best.” To his surprise, an executive at Shiki hired him. He appeared in musicals like “Jesus Christ Superstar” and original Japanese productions like “Over the Century,” while working on his language skills.
Pressed for money, he lived on canned foods, mostly peaches, that he bought at discounts because they were nearing their expiration dates. For eating canned food for lunch every day, Mr. Park’s cast mates dubbed him “Mr. Can.”
“After saving up some money, I made it a rule never ever to eat canned peaches again,” Mr. Park says.
Soon he found himself in starring roles, and the pace became overwhelming. “I was just so busy I barely had a moment to myself,” Mr. Park recalls. After a few months of canned peaches and a crowded schedule, Mr. Park left Shiki for Toho Entertainment, where he’d have opportunities besides musicals.
Now he has a small apartment in Shinjuku, in western downtown Tokyo. Passers-by recognize him on the street. For now, he has no plans to go home.
The Japanese entertainment scene is more systemized than Korea’s, Mr. Park says.
“They are more scrupulous about making the most of their talent,” he says. “Actors get better treatment here, but that has to be accompanied by A-1 performance and discipline.” He adds, “One thing that I learned over the years is that what matters is who can hang in there until the end.”
Mr. Kimura, his agent, says, “Mr. Park’s nationality does not determine his potential. On the contrary, it can be an advantage, for it gives Mr. Park a niche of his own.” His role in the new NHK-TV drama as a Tokyo-based Korean is an example.
“I know that the fact I’m based in Japan does not make me a Japanese actor,” Mr. Park says. “One thing for sure, however, is that I’m willing and happy to be a bridge between Korea and Japan, and I’ll keep trying to do better.”

by Chun Su-jin
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