SEOUL — South Koreans have long been hooked on local TV dramas, but what has been dubbed the Korean Wave of TV content is crashing on more and more shores worldwide and looks set to become a $100 million-a-year export industry in 2006.
In Japan, the craze for KBS’ smash hit “Winter Sonata” became one of the most-discussed social trends of 2004. MBC’s Lee Young-ae starrer “Jewel in the Palace” topped 50% viewer ratings in Hong Kong last year and upped cable subscriptions in China — even President Hu Jintao has admitted to being a fan.
Meanwhile the dramas’ juxtaposition of flashy modern lifestyles and Confucian-influenced family structures have found a receptive audience in the Middle East, where the region’s largest broadcaster, ERTU (Egyptian Radio and Television Union), is responding to consumer demand by stepping up acquisitions of Korean product.
Pirated videos are even seeping across the border into hermetic North Korea. Teenagers in Pyongyang are said to be able to name all the stars of the most popular dramas.
At home, 2005 produced one clear standout — MBC’s 16-episode “My Lovely Samsoon,” the story of a plain woman, played by Kim Sun-ah, who works as a baker.
The drama topped 40% viewer ratings during its run in June and July, and is skedded to reach Asian audiences this year.
The scale of this success has surprised many in the Korean TV industry, and provoked equal degrees of elation and anxiety about whether the Wave — or hallyu — can last.
“Many people are voicing concern about the number of TV dramas trying to jump on the bandwagon simply by casting well-known stars,” says Yang Geun-hwan, director of talent agency BOF, which represents “Winter Sonata” star Bae Yong-joon. “Maintaining the quality of the content should be our first objective.”
The most anticipated works of 2006 feature a mix of established names and rising talent. Yoon Suk-ho, the producer who has won a massive following for “Winter Sonata,” “Autumn Love Story” and “Scent of Summer,” wraps up the series with “Spring Waltz,” which is being shot in Austria.
Already sold to 20 countries, the KBS-produced drama features Korean-American model Daniel Henney, who emerged as a breakout star in a supporting role in “My Lovely Samsoon.” Yoon also stunned observers by casting a complete unknown, Han Hyo-joo, as the femme lead.
“Successful dramas should create stars, not the other way around,” Yoon is quoted as saying. “Spring Waltz” will start screening in March in South Korea and Japan.
Yet stars are the defining factor of many other upcoming works.
Korean actors have always divided their time between film and TV projects, but the increased prestige gained by the TV sector in the past year is drawing a rush of talent.
In March, “Yeonae-shidae” from SBS will star actress Son Ye-jin (“April Snow”) and Gam Woo-sung (“King and the Clown”) in a comic drama about a couple who remain close after they divorce.
Although they haven’t selected their next projects yet, top actors Jang Dong-gun (“Typhoon,” “The Promise”), Lee Byung-heon (“A Bittersweet Life”), Kim Hee-sun (“The Myth”), and Kwon Sang-woo (“Running Wild”) have also indicated that their next appearance will be on TV.
Finally in September, the most recognizable face of the Korean Wave, Bae Yong-joon of “Winter Sonata,” returns to the tube as the lead in the 24-episode “The Great King,” a historical drama about an emperor from the Goguryeo Dynasty who lived from A.D. 375-413.
He will be joined by Moon So-ri, from the films “Oasis” and “A Good Lawyer’s Wife,” making her debut in soaps.
If even one of the 2006 productions matches the popularity of “Winter Sonata” or “Jewel in the Palace,” then the Korean Wave will keep on rolling.