Korean stars take their shot at Hollywood

Supporting roles seen as opening doors to larger parts

SEOUL -- At the Wednesday news conference for "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra," it wasn't Channing Tatum or Sienna Miller that caught the eyes of many Japanese fans who anxiously waited outside the hotel lobby to get a glimpse of their star. Instead, they all flew in to see the Korean actor Lee Byung-hun, who plays a supporting role in his first Hollywood live-action pic.

For Paramount Pictures, the film's distributor, this was a promising sign -- one that suggests the potential benefit of casting an Asian superstar to attract regional ticket buyers when marketing a quintessentially American film.

The strategy seems to be on the rise with major Hollywood productions that once had limited roles for Asian actors. Aside from Lee ("The Good, the Bad, the Weird"), who plays the film's charismatic Storm Shadow, other Korean actors are also participating in the trend.

After tasting bitterness with the boxoffice flop of his Hollywood debut "Speed Racer," Korean singer-actor Rain is aiming to revamp his reputation through "Ninja Assassin," another action flick produced by the Wachowski Brothers. Daniel Henney, a Korean-American actor with a strong Asian fan base, starred as Agent Zero in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." Gianna Jun (or Jun Ji-hyun), an Asian darling from a hit romantic comedy "My Sassy Girl," also known for its Hollywood remake, recently starred in a Pan-Asian, English-language film "Blood: The Last Vampire," which many see it as Jun's prelude to a Hollywood debut.

The trend largely owes to a phenomenon dubbed among the locals as hallyu, or a Korean wave, in which Korean TV dramas and movies became such a hit throughout Asia that the country's entertainment scene suddenly became a new tourist attraction.

In the film circle, the idea was quickly picked up through organized meetings like Asia Pacific Actors Network during the annual Pusan International Film Festival, which was originally started in 2007 by prominent Korean actors like Ahn Sung-ki and Kang Soo-yeon, and quickly turned into a venue that encourages Asian actors to make inroads into Hollywood.

"For Hollywood, it (hallyu) is a sign that Korean actors hold major ticket power in Asia," said Choi Min-soo, the head of marketing at CJ Entertainment, the importer of "G.I. Joe." "It's also a sign that the Asian market is no longer just 'one of them.' "

In marketing a Hollywood film featuring Korean celebrities, many distributors and importers are now developing a regional strategy focusing on local stars.

In "Wolverine," the 20th Century Fox Korea prepared a separate poster image featuring Daniel Henney next to Hugh Jackman and a few other leads in the film; Henney's character is not included in the North American version.

Fox Korea has also produced a separate trailer which has added clips of the Korean-American actor on top of the international version.

"It was simply more helpful to market a film (featuring a Korean celebrity)," said Mark Kim at 20th Century Fox Korea. "We do arrange a promotion tour of the cast or a junket before a film releases, but it's different having the actor and their agent around in the country in terms of access."

For Korean actors, though, common dilemma exists when they try to "make it abroad."

Language is an obvious barrier. But for many, compromising their regional star power to play a relatively minor role in a Hollywood film often takes courage and commitment.

The pressure on the local actors is real and often immediate, given that Korean audiences are particularly sensitive about how the international market sees their idols.

Local Internet users, for example, questioned the significance of Lee's role in his first Hollywood debut by making a fuss about the original poster for "G.I. Joe" that showed the face of Lee over a white mask. CJ explained that the company deliberately hid the actor's face "to tease," and later changed it with a different version fully showing Lee's face.

In a country where national pride is often high, many Korean actors also worry about losing their local fans by choosing roles that misrepresent their country or present wrong ethnic stereotypes.

Kim Yun-jin, a Korean-American actress from the ABC series "Lost," had made it clear in an interview with a Korean press that she did not want to start her Hollywood career through a geisha's role, recalling her casting offer from "Memoirs of a Geisha."

"It depends on how you approach it," said Charles Kim, a producer for October Pictures, a production company based in Hong Kong, Beijing and Seoul. "Forget the amount of time the character appears on screen. The question is whether their role will have any impact in creating a strong impression of the actor."

Despite some risks in dampening their reputation, many in the industry agree that actors like Henney and Lee have made the right move for a smooth landing in Hollywood through supporting roles.

On the flip side, companies share mixed views about whether the casting of Asian celebrities will have any direct impact on local boxoffice. There's no real way of proving it.

Although various factors determine a film's success or failure, the local boxoffice of "Wolverine" didn't do as good as its previous film. "Blood: The Last Vampire," failed miserably in the local boxoffice as well. It's now is up to "G.I. Joe," which opens here Thursday.