Kimura's 'Hero' eyes big Korean launch

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TOKYO -- Takuya Kimura's latest project has been met with nothing short of hero worship in Japan, and the singer-turned-actor with the floppy hair is assured of a similarly fevered welcome in much of Asia -- starting with the acclaim that is anticipated in Pusan for "Hero."

"Obviously Kimura is very popular in Korea as well as Japan, but we also have local star Lee Byung-Hun in the film," executive producer Chihiro Kameyama said. "Even if this had not been a popular television program before, we believe there would have enough elements to make it a hit."

The signs are very good; "Hero" will be the biggest launch of a Japanese movie in South Korea, with local distributor Keowon Film getting 250 screens to show the title beginning Oct. 25.

Back in Japan, it took in ¥3.76 billion ($32.6 million) in its first 12 days and crossed the 3 million viewers mark in less than two weeks. Kameyama, who also is head of Fuji Television Network's Motion Picture Department, said "Hero" is already well on its way to the ¥10 billion milestone and is likely to exceed the ¥11 billion that Johnny Depp and the crew of "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" earned at the boxoffice here.

"It started out as a TV drama back in 2001, with Kimura making his character hugely popular because it was his first chance to act the role of a professional in a program," Kameyama said. The most-watched show on Japanese television, in which Kimura is a maverick public prosecutor, it brought in an average viewer rating of more than 34%.

"It was embraced by the viewers, but it was a deliberate strategy to leave the story alone until 2006, when we released the two-hour TV special, and use that to reintroduce the characters and build it up into the feature film," he said. "Fuji is the expert in taking projects from the TV and turning them into hit film titles, and it has worked immensely well again this time around."

Kameyama also was behind the two "Bayside Shakedown" movies, which grew out of popular small-screen thrillers. The second in the series holds the record for Japan's biggest-earning live-action movie, earning more than $152 million in 2003.

"I had it very clear in my mind that we have to offer something more when we took 'Hero' into the cinema, adding extra value for the audience, so in addition to the great cast we have spectacular scenes and a storyline with real depth," he said.

Directed by Masayuki Suzuki, there is a nice symmetry in the title returning to be a highlight of the Pusan International Film Festival, with filming in the city earlier in the year attracting interest.

As well as South Korea, "Hero" has been sold for distribution in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, with Fuji confirming that talks are ongoing in several other markets as well. Significantly missing from that list, however, are the North American and European markets.

Kameyama knows he has a hit on his hands yet is realistic about its chances beyond Asia, even with one of the biggest names in Japanese cinema on board.

"I have high expectations for the film, and obviously if a Japanese movie gets a big international release I want it to be one of mine, but I don't think I'll see that in my time here," he said. "It's much easier for an English-language movie to come to Japan because audiences here are used to having films dubbed or with subtitles, but for us, selling to other markets remains a very difficult problem."

Kimura is about to start filming his first English-language movie, "I Come With the Rain," and Kameyama suggested that a production in English might be the logical way to take the story forward.

So the next time Kimura and his cohorts take on the bad guys, it might be in Portland, Phoenix or Philadelphia instead of Pusan.
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