Korean pop culture, from pics to music and TV dramas, have boomed through much of Asia.
But is the wave ebbing?
Japan was the first and biggest market to catch the wave (known as hanryu); consumers began taking to all things Korean during soccer’s 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup.
Popularity hit its peak with the success of “Winter Sonata,” a Korean TV soap watched by millions of Japanese female fans during its first run and repeats on pubcaster NHK, starting in 2003.
The main attraction was Bae Yong-joon, the soft-featured star whose pure-hearted onscreen persona reminded many middle-aged fans of idols from their 1980s youth. Anything with his name on it became ratings and B.O. gold, including his 2005 romantic drama “April Snow.” Its take of $23 million was the second highest of any Korean pic released in Japan.
The hanryu boom soon spread beyond Yong-sama (Prince Yong), as his Japanese fans dubbed him.
In 2005, the weeper “A Moment to Remember,” about a young woman afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, set an all-time B.O. record for a Korean pic in Japan with $25.6 million.
This year, however, the Korean wave has become more of a Korean washout, as pic after highly hyped pic faltered at the Japanese box office. None have reached ¥1 billion ($8.5 million), considered the mark of a commercial hit in Japan.
Even other genres are not immune to the boom’s deflation. Bong Joon-ho’s horror pic “The Host,” Korea’s all-time B.O. winner with 13 million admissions, has done only so-so business in Japan since its August release, recording an opening weekend of $622,310, or 23% that of “April Snow.”
Ironically, the director’s cut version of “April Snow” broke a single-screen opening weekend record of $46,637 when it bowed at the Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills theater in Tokyo in September — the biggest opening of any arthouse film in 2006.
Among casualties was the romantic thriller “Daisy,” whose opening weekend B.O. in May was $756,034 on 235 screens or 37% of the bow of star Jeon Ji-hyun’s previous hit “My Sassy Girl.”
Even Choi Ji-woo, the Korean “queen of tears” who co-starred with Yong-sama in “Winter Sonata,” could not boost weepy drama “Now and Forever” into megahit territory. Its first weekend B.O. in April was $913,793, only 46% of “A Moment to Remember.”