Korean star causes frenzy

Japanese trends influence casting choices, talent fees

TOKYO — Move over, Tom Cruise. Here comes Bae Yong Joon. No other foreign star has elicited so much mass hysteria in Japan in recent memory as has the 32-year-old Korean heartthrob. And very few have created so much ancillary business. His popularity has even affected casting choices as well as salaries paid to Korean talent .

Bae’s recent visit to Tokyo on the occasion of an exhibition of his photos to be published as a book turned into mayhem on several occasions. 3,500 fans, mostly middle-aged women, threw Tokyo’s Narita airport into chaos as they welcomed their star upon his arrival, the event covered by frenzied media in cars and helicopters.

Ten people were injured when a stampede of fans tried to gain entry into the downtown hotel in which Bae was staying. And thousands queued for up to two days to be the first to get into the exhibition once it opened. Television networks covered Bae’s every move and superimposed titles on other programming to keep their viewers up-to-date.

“It’s hysteria on a grand scale,” says one publisher in Tokyo. “But then it sells. Anything with Bae on or in it flies off the shelves, and one cannot ignore that.” Adds a film distribution executive: “He personifies some kind of an unfulfilled dream a lot of middle-aged women (in Japan) must have.”

It all started with the TV drama series “Winter Sonata,” a huge success in Korea and other Asian countries before being aired by pubcaster NHK in Japan last year, with a repeat earlier this year. With Bae as male lead and Choi Ji Woo his female partner, it became one of the most popular TV dramas ever in Japan, pushing the right buttons of lost love and sweet memories. Since then, Korean dramas are hot property, feeding the Korean film boom sweeping Japan.

The result: close to half a million DVD sets of “Winter Sonata” sold, the novelization a constant bestseller, and Bae in an almost embarrassingly high number of local TV commercials, all of them capitalizing on the fact that his Japanese fan base makes up a key segment of the TV viewing- and the cinemagoing audience.

Even Bae Yong Joon wigs sell well, probably for discreet role-playing sessions at home. Travel agents are cashing in on special tours to Korea which feature a short meeting with Bae and revisit locations used in “Winter Sonata” and his film “Untold Scandal.”

Yon-sama, as Bae is affectionately and respectfully called in Japan, has become one of the biggest money machines in Japan’s entertainment industry.

NHK is desperate to get him and Choi, as well as heartthrob throne contender Lee Byung-Hyun, also from Korea, to join its New Year’s Eve song contest, one of Japan’s most popular programs. And Japanese distributors have already started a bidding war for Bae’s next movie slated to be released in Korea in a year’s time, never mind the fact the script is not even ready.

The Yon-sama boom is largely responsible for a surge in Korean talent costs. “High popularity in Japan determines the fees Korean actors can command,” says a Seoul-based producer. The downside: Bae might be the hottest property in Japan right now, but his star is fading back home. “Korean film producers can land in a conundrum: either cast for the Korean audience or for Japan,” says the producer. With sky-high minimum guarantees paid by Japanese distribs for the right movie, Japan’s choice sometimes rules.

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