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Korean talent wows export market

Actors, their management are rapidly globalizing

If the Korean Wave has peaked, what of the stars whom auds across Asia associate with the Wave’s hits?

There’s Bae Yong-joon, who became a phenomenon in Japan through the TV drama “Winter Sonata”; Lee Young-ae, made famous by period-set TV drama “Jewel in the Palace”; or pop singer Rain, who made his film debut in Park Chan-wook’s “I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK.”

They’re making plans to conquer the rest of the world.

Korea’s actors and their management companies are rapidly globalizing, in step with the rest of the film industry. Contacts and partnerships with Hollywood are at an all-time high, more and more stars are appearing in high-profile international projects, and management companies are starting to expand outside of Korea.

Some companies are even creating their own projects targeted at the international market: Last year, iHQ (parent company of leading management firm SidusHQ) formed a partnership with Cinetic Media for advice on all aspects of English-language feature film production.

To date, there have been only isolated cases of Korean actors appearing in Hollywood films (Park Joong-hoon in Jonathan Demme’s “The Truth About Charlie”), and Korea has yet to produce a crossover star like Ziyi Zhang or Ken Watanabe. Nonetheless, the next 12 months will see a string of debutantes on the international stage.

First in line is Jun Ji-hyun (“My Sassy Girl”), who takes the lead in Chris Nahon’s “Blood: The Last Vampire.” Based on a Japanese anime, the English-language live-action pic will see Jun — who’s adopting the Westernized moniker Gianna Jun for her rapidly globalizing career — play a vampire slayer in post-WWII Japan.

Lee Byung-heon, another well-known Korean Wave star who has found success in films (“A Bittersweet Life”) and TV dramas (“All-in”), will take a role opposite Josh Hartnett in U.S.-French co-production “I Come With the Rain.” A mystery-thriller set mostly in Hong Kong, pic is directed by Anh Hung Tran of “The Scent of Green Papaya” fame.

Lee, who moved with his agent from CAA to Endeavor last year, also stars with Japan’s Kimura Takuya (“2046”) in the Japanese film “Hero,” to be released in Korea Sept. 8.

Another actor stepping out is Jang Hyuk, playing a Korean who comes to Singapore to learn ballroom dancing in Max Mannix’s “Dance of the Dragon.”

Singing phenomenon Rain will make his second film appearance in the Wachowskis’ “Speed Racer.”

Success overseas would provide a boost to Korean actors and their management companies, particularly because the local market is not looking as strong as it used to.

With film industry profits plunging in 2006 and 2007, many stars have been persuaded to plow a portion of their fees back into a film’s budget in return for possibly profiting as an investor. Actors’ fees have plateaued after rising sharply over the past few years — a star like Lee Byung-heon can expect something in the neighborhood of $600,000 per role.

Yet the B.O. failure of recent star-centered projects such as “The Restless” or “Hwang Jin Yi” have left some in the industry questioning the need to cast major stars.

“I don’t think the star system holds any meaning anymore,” says one producer. “The success of ‘D-War’ (with no local stars) is a perfect example. Today’s audiences are drawn in by a film’s concept or theme; they’re not just going to turn out for any particular star.”

Meanwhile, SidusHQ has announced the opening of a Beijing branch. The venture’s aim is to promote Korean stars in China and also add Chinese talent to its roster.

“In the case of star management, the local market is already saturated, and competition continues to grow stronger,” says an iHQ rep. “We hope to open a new market and provide an opportunity for our agency’s stars to enter into the global market.”

With Asia’s entertainment sector continuing to grow, such contacts could become useful if and when the Chinese Wave hits.

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