By Bae Keun-min
South Korea and its export-oriented economy seem to have found new bestsellers, thanks to "hallyu", the wave of enthusiasm for Korean pop culture sweeping Asia. Korea's cultural contents such as films, TV dramas and K-pop, have emerged as hot export commodities.
's economic value is estimated to be 1 trillion won. Singer Rain has just begun charming women in Asia with his metrosexual look and dynamic dance music.
The drama "Jewel in the Palace", - "Dae Jang Geum
" featuring actress Lee Young-ae
, has been exported to 35 nations up until last month, earning around $4 million. Actor Bae Yong-joon
's latest film "April Snow
" has earned over 2.3 billion yen in just a month after its opening to become the most successful South Korean film that ever opened in Japan, thanks largely to Bae's phenomenal fame there.
However, not all pop culture products are all the rage. For the performing arts, enthusiastic fans and gifts from abroad are not to be found.
"It has been some less than five years since the performing arts started being perceived as an industry here. It has not fully developed as an industry nor established a solid foundation to do so yet", said Lee Seung-hoon
, manager of the Performing Arts division in CJ Entertainment, one of the nation's largest investors in performing arts. The company has invested in some 18 local musicals.
He said there even has been no thorough research of the performing arts, and its size is not accurately known. He said the Samsung Economic Research Institute estimated the size of the industry in 2003 at 470 billion won, which is the best study he has been able to find. When it comes to market size based on ticket sales, it was 156 billion won in that year, he added.
But, the budding market is mostly dominated by licensed foreign musicals, rather than Korean original works. Shin Chun-soo
, president of OD Musical that savored success with a licensed musical "Jekyll & Hyde" last year, said, "It is a transient phenomenon in the process of developing an established musical industry, through which Korean musicals can grow".
Despite the weak market foundation, Korean original pieces have attracted international attention for some time and harvested fruits such as the non-verbal percussion performance "Nanta", also known as "Cookin'", and the musical "The Last Empress".
"The Last Empress" has been performed in many of the renowned theater districts of the world including Broadway and West End for the past 10 years. Organizers plan for the musical to tour of Asian cities, including Beijing and Shanghai of China in April and May.
Five reporters from China came last week to interview Yun Ho-jin, president of ACOM International, about tour plans and the historical background of the musical.
"Cookin"' recently wrapped up its 18-month off-Broadway journey after a 632-performance run. It became the first Korean performance that had a theater of exclusive use in New York. But the results were in the red with a $300,000 loss.
Song Seung-whan, co-president of PMC Production that produces the percussion performance, said running an off-Broadway show is a priceless credit. "I don't think it is a loss but marketing costs. It was a success to run the show for 18 months on off-Broadway". PMC is negotiating with three hotels in Las Vegas to stage the show.
Although only a few Korean original musicals and performing arts have gained success in local theaters or received international attention, artists and people in the industry believe the genre will soon join the wave of popularity experienced by Korean pop culture.
With the adoption of the five-day workweek system and the rise in national income, the Korean performing arts market has the potential to grow and produce profits which could fund an overseas tour, said Lee at CJ Entertainment. He added some pieces have great potential.
"What the performing arts need is a matrix from which they can grow into a part of hallyu, just as the film industry has done", Lee said.
He added that to nurture a healthy industry, its foundation has to be solid. "Infrastructure, including theaters, and subsidies are essential", he said.
As part of the government's efforts to help the performing arts at home and abroad, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism supported the Performing Arts Market in Seoul (PAMS) earlier this month at the National Theater of Korea.
The event was the nation's first large-scale international arts market ever, featuring some 170 shows. More than 100 international performing arts organizers and experts attended.
In the PAMS Choice section, which includes 13 pieces with potential for overseas markets, over 130 meetings between troupes and promoters from abroad took place. Negotiations are underway but no contracts have been signed yet.
Lee said it is important for Korea to have its own performing arts market. "We have to first make efforts to build overseas networks and inform people abroad of Korean performing arts", Lee said.
So far, Korean performing arts have utilized international festivals and arts markets as a window to showcase themselves as "Cookin"' did. The non-verbal performance "Jump", a combination of comedy and Korean martial arts taekwondo and taekkyon, used this year's Edinburgh Fringe festival as a springboard for a worldwide tour.
"Jump" was the fourth in the box office at the fringe, where some 1,800 performances were staged. On the back of the responses, the play signed contracts during the festival for a tour of 10 countries, including Britain, Spain, Germany, Saudi Arabia and China in the first half of next year, through which the troupe is set to make at least $1.5 million.
"I didn't know how to promote our work. We had no information at all. We just distributed leaflets. Luckily, good reviews spread by word of mouth", said Kim Kyoung-hoon, president of Yegam, which produces "Jump". "The festival definitely gave us confidence about the play".
Yohangza Theater Company has been invited to the Barbican Center in London, one of the most prestigious stages in the world. It will perform "A Midsummer Night's Dream", an Eastern extension of the Shakespearean work with featuring Korean fairy tokkaebi, for six times in June and July next year with an invitation by Louise Jeffreys, head of the theater at the center, who watched the show during this year's Edinburgh Fringe festival.
To make homegrown cultural contents more competitive in the global market, Lee at CJ Entertainment said: "Even if contents are made based on domestic cultures, they have to be international enough to make them understandable by the whole world".
Lee also said joint productions with foreign entities is a significant option to consider as a way to promote Korean cultural contents. "Seensee Musical Company is producing a musical version of `Sanppul (A Forest Fire)' by playwright Cha Bum-suk with helps from foreign director and composer. It may be a direction that we need to take", Lee said.
Celebrated artists Ariel Dorfmann and Eric Woolfsen, accordingly, dramatize and compose for the musical version, renamed as "Dancing With Shadow". The piece is about the meaninglessness of war.
"We asked them to make the musical universal, getting rid of Korean folkways and history while adding the favor of fantasy", a Seensee PR official said. "`Dancing With Shadow' will premiere either in Korea or Japan as early as 2007".
"It is a natural process to learn something from more experienced people. Cooperating with the Western musical industry, which has a history of more than 100 years, is important to become globally competitive", Lee said.
Not to mention, infrastructure, including theaters exclusively run one performing arts piece, and human resources are indispensable for a long-term development of the local industry.
"Accumulating know-how and cultivating professionals will eventually bear a `Shiri
'-like musical", Song at PMC said.