In the last few years, Korean films, TV dramas and pop music have become immensely popular abroad, a phenomenon known as the Korean Wave. This is the 29th in a series of essays by a select group of scholars and journalists looking at the spread of Korean pop culture in Southeast Asian countries and beyond. - Ed.
The man is a professional.
It's just another day of filming for Hallyu star Park Yong-ha
. On his way to shoot yet another scene for the hit SBS series "On Air"
, the actor passes by in a burgundy sweatshirt. His face is set and serious, like he is getting into character.
For though he rose to stardom as a singer, Park, 30, is serious about his craft. After five years of running the singing circuit in Japan, he's back in town to show Korea and the rest of the world that he still has the goods.
"Even though he has had over ten years of acting experience, Park said 'I am not a great actor yet. I need to work harder to become a real actor'", a representative of Park Yong-ha
's current management company stated. "Park wanted to hone his acting skills. So he did two months of one-on-one acting lessons".
After five years without acting, unless you count his brief stints in two Japanese dramas, Park knew he was a bit rusty. But his decision to prep for his upcoming role as the brash and confident producer in "On Air"
reflects more than just good judgment.
"This Hallyu star's five year struggle to the top in Japan really shows through in his acting", said an "On Air"
production team representative.
Paying his dues
Park didn't rocket to stardom. He worked his way up, step by step. His current Hallyu star title is a hard-earned one.
For some, it may look like Park got an easy one-up because he starred in the highly successful melodrama "Winter Sonata
". While there's no denying that it helped him make it in Japan, it by no means made him who he is today.
Looking back on his career, one can see nothing but a long string of successes. A total of 10 hit albums and singles, four consecutive Japan Gold Disc Awards and a packed concert at the prestigious Budokan Hall in Tokyo make him a pioneer in the world of Hallyu entertainment.
He can say, without shame, that he was the second Korean singer (after Cho Yong-pil) to perform at the Budokan. He is also the only Korean pop artist to hold the title of four consecutive wins at the Gold Disc Awards.
None of this happened overnight. Park is here to let people in on how he got to where he is now and where he wants to go next.
Big in Japan
It's late, a little past 6 p.m. and he has just finished up filming. Park looks alert, calm, composed. There is something delicate about him, the way he purses his lips, narrows his dark eyes. Yet he is clearly masculine - his set jaw and his built shoulders confirm that.
Before the interview begins, he asks an assistant to bring in two cups of coffee. Every bit the gentleman, he offers up a cup first before taking his own cup of joe.
When the first question is asked, "How did you become a singer in Japan?" The actor-turned-singer smiles and waits before answering, slowly, in a deep voice.
"After 'Winter Sonata
', I was invited to visit (Japan)", said Park in an interview with The Korea Herald. "I sang there. Then afterwards, I was invited again and they said, 'Would you be interested in recording an album?'"
He took them up on their offer and began work on an album. But before he began recording he needed to work on his vocals. Singing was not his forte. Although he sang the hit theme song for the Korean drama "All In"
, up until that moment Park had worked as an actor, not a singer.
"Since I wasn't a singer to begin with, vocal training was a given", said the Hallyu star. "And then I became a professional singer for the first time in my life, and worked as a singer for about four to five years".
After a relatively short period of training, Park officially debuted in the summer of 2004 with his first Japanese album "Ki Byul". From there on out the actor-turned-singer cranked out one song after another.
"You know the saying, 'It happens in the blink of an eye?' That was how much work I had", said Park. "I was so busy that there wasn't enough time to practice. I kept releasing albums and holding concerts".
Park says this very matter-of-factly. But recording five single albums and five full-length albums within four to five years is no easy feat.
And if cranking out two albums annually doesn't sound difficult enough, try doing it in a foreign language.
"I had no choice but to learn the language in the beginning, because only one manager from the Korean management company accompanied me", Park explained. "The only way to communicate was if I spoke. So I learned Japanese from when I first debuted".
For Park, picking up the language was just the beginning of a painful learning process. He had to pick up the culture too.
"Honestly, in the beginning I didn't know much", he said. "It took me about one to two years to realize, 'Oh, this is what I need'".
Lost in translation
During those first few years, Park found himself having to improvise and struggle with language and culture barriers. And for him, all those times spent on Japanese talk shows were some of the most painful moments during his career as a Hallyu star.
Before relating his early talk show experiences, the actor pauses, fingering his chin. He seems to be debating whether or not to talk about it.
"Yes, you could say that this is a painful memory for me", he leans forward, eyes focused and intent. "In a situation where I didn't know the culture and the language well - while they do translate - when a talk show gets underway, it's hard for everything to be fully translated".
For a moment he looks away. Maybe he's recalling the whole situation. The host, the audience, him, in a foreign country, with no one but a translator to depend on. It reads like the scene from "Lost in Translation", when Bill Murray guest stars in a Japanese talk show.
"And after I said something, they would laugh", Park continued. "They would laugh together, amongst themselves. I really hated that moment, that moment of laughter. I had no idea what they were saying, but since they were laughing I had to join in, otherwise it would look kind of weird".
To clarify, Park describes a possible talk show scenario.
"For example, in Japanese, they might ask, jokingly, 'Did you come here from Korea just to make money?'" He explains. "If I understood what they were saying, then I would be able to answer in return. But since I can't, I have no choice but to laugh. And they wouldn't know that I didn't get it, since there's a translator. And they might think, 'What is he doing? He's acting like a fool'".
He stops and stresses that this isn't a real-life event. It's just an example.
"So when I go out on a talk show and a situation like that occurs", he continues, "Then I just have to laugh".
"When I laugh at that moment", he inhales sharply before going on. "It leaves a sour taste in my mouth. While I'm laughing, I start sweating and thinking, 'What did they just say?' But I've already laughed. I can't ask the translator, 'What did they say?'"
Just thinking about it takes the smile off his face.
"While I worked in Japan, these sorts of things, kind of, made me sad", he adds. "And this isn't just Japan, anywhere abroad is the same".
Park seems to be referring to the world in general, but he might as well be talking about Taiwan, China, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Uzbekistan, where his other Hallyu fans are.
The sky's the limit
"It feels good to be a Hallyu star", the ambitious actor said. "If you look down the line, there will be this time when Hallyu stars were big, and it's good that I got to be part of that time".
He smiles, leans forward, "I don't want to throw it away. And, if one day, that title goes away, I will feel sad. But, right now, for me, on a personal level, I wonder if this title is hiding me".
He stops, gestures with his hands, "Just, Park Yong-ha
. The actor".
"You know, usually you don't say, Hollywood actor so-and-so, you usually say the actor's name", he continues. "Like Brad Pitt".
Park grins, "I would, this is me being ambitious, really just like to have my name out there ... I don't mind if you call me ambitious, or excessive. Whether or not it works out, I'm going to give it a go".
"I like it now, but I don't want to be remembered or seen, after the Hallyu trend has died out, as Hallyu star Park Yong-ha
", he gets this mischievous, secretive look on his face. "There is a certain singer whose theme song made it big in the past. And now, even though 10 years have passed, when that singer is invited (to Japan), then that singer is requested to sing that song. I don't want to live like that".
Park definitely comes off as highly ambitious. But perhaps it is this quality that has gotten him this far.
"I want to be someone who can cover a lot of territory", he cites Chow Yun Fat as an example of a star who has managed a successful international career. "Just my name. Is that too hard?"
But for the time being, Park's immediate focus is on his return to the small screen in "On Air"
, and after he finishes here, going back to Japan to prepare for yet another album, a nationwide fan meeting and a concert.
Considering he just nabbed the "Best Single of the Year" award and the "Best Asian Artist Award" at the 22nd Japan Gold Disc Awards, it looks like this Hallyu star is still going strong.
His secret to success
"Being humble, unchanging or hard working", he answers with hesitation. "But honestly, I can't give you a specific formula if we base it on that single word, success. Because I didn't have any special strategy. All I can say is that I tried really hard. And the crew around me worked really hard. And all that kind of meshed together well. So, I did it slowly, slowly, without rushing. I didn't get here all at once. I built upon it, little by little. And I believe that that is how I got to this place".
But Park seems to have another special quality that makes him an ideal Hallyu star: a knack for cultural diplomacy. The life of a Hallyu star mirrors that of an ambassador, requiring a great deal of cultural maneuvering, endurance and yes, humility. And no one knows this better than Park.
"What seems natural in Korea, can come off as strange in Japan", he said. "And vice versa. So one always has to walk the middle line".
Park returns to the Japanese talk show scenario to explain what he means.
"For example, in Japanese talk shows, there is this custom of hitting one on the head", he said. "There was even an incident when Jun Ji-hyun and Boa
went out on a big talk show like that and got hit on the head. And of course, I've gotten a taste of it also".
According to Park, people in Korea would ask him, "Why did you go out on that talk show in Japan?"
"If I answered, 'Oh it's okay, that's how it usually works over there'", he continues. "Then they would think I was weird".
He explains in earnest, "Our country's people really hate it if you hit them on the head".
"But in Japan people hit you on the back of the head like this", he pretends to whack someone upside the head, "Bbuk, bbuk ... So one has to be careful about things like this".
Not only does he need to be careful about maintaining a neutral stance, Park finds himself functioning as a near representative of Korean culture.
"The press tries to find out more about Korea through me", he said. "For example, this is something that I remember - in Japan people don't share soup. They ladle it into separate bowls".
According to Park, the Japanese press asked him about the Korean custom of sharing food.
"They asked, 'What about sharing with people who aren't family, like your crew?'" he recounted. "And I answered, 'But though they are not immediate family, they're like family'".
With so much cultural navigation to do, it's a wonder he's come this far. But then again, looking at this man who has put in a whole day's work and doesn't look one bit tired, despite the fact that he is interviewing way into dinner time, just one thought comes to mind. The man is a professional.
By Jean Oh