By Bae Keun-min
One Tuesday evening in Yoido, Seoul, the nation's entertainment mecca, a group of elementary students acted out a scene.
A small boy lays on the floor wearing a blank look on his pale face in a room at MTM Communications, a talent agency that runs acting classes for child actors. Sitting next to him, another preteen boy and a girl start crying.
"Don't die, my little brother. You have to live. You can get over the cancer… This can't be happening to him", the girl cries out with tears on her face and in her eyes. Their acting classmates sit on the other side of the room, weeping at their performance.
The 90-minute session was over after some more emotional role-playing and physical practices. It appeared to be playful, but these actors-to-be were serious. While their peers are at after-school math and art classes, these students come here three times a week.
Kwon So-hi, 11, and Kim Geun-young, 11, walked out from the class with broad smiles on their faces. It has been about a year since their first class.
"It is fun. I love acting. I want to keep performing when I grow up", said Kim, who has always wanted to act in TV dramas since she was very little.
"When I first asked my parents to take me to an acting class, they were quite surprised. But they okayed it", Kwon said.
Kwon said some of her friends envy her, and say that they also want to take classes after they watched her on TV. Unlike her peers, she has been featured in some 20 pieces as an extra (arranged by MTM). "But I want to play a talking role so badly and I think I will do soon", Kwon said.
However, being on TV is not always fun, Kim and Kwon said.
"Some older students at my school give me the cold shoulder. It is also hard as I have to go to other private lessons such as English and to try harder to keep up with schoolwork as I sometimes miss class because of shooting", Kwon said.
"Whenever I see her toiling hard during filming, I want to make her give it up. I want her to focus on her schoolwork", said Jeong Mi-kyung, 37, Kwon's mother. "After taking acting classes, her speaking skills and presentation at school have improved though".
Rise of Child Actor-Hopefuls
Lee Ju-deok, MTM director, said the number of children, who want to see themselves on TV or in films and actively do something, are on the rise because, "children are able to easily access cultural products these days including TV dramas and films, and they watch child actors of their own age, thinking they can be just as good as or even better than those on TV.
"Also, they actively find information about private acting institutes on the Web and persuade their parents to take them to classes", Lee said.
At MTM alone, some 300 child-actor hopefuls, ranging from infants to adolescents, are enrolled in acting classes. There are three to four leading after-school acting academies, including MBC Academy and inStars, with seven other major institutes.
"New institutes are opening too. But there are as yet no reliable statistics on the number of institutes", Lee added.
Lee said the trend is spurred by rising child stars such as 10-year-old Park Ji-bin
, winner of the Silver Iris award for Best Actor at the 2005 New Montreal FilmFest with the flick "Hello Brother
", and 13-year-old Yoo Seung-ho
, hero of the 2002 film "The Way Home
". They have played leading roles in many films.
"The demand for juvenile actors in the entertainment industry remains pretty much at the same level as five or 10 years ago. It's just that children have become more interested in it and jump into it", Lee said.
He said only some 10 percent of the hopefuls earn significant talking roles. "Anybody can enter the industry but not everybody can succeed", Lee said.
A few young celebrities make substantial incomes from their performances, an income that is sometimes larger than that of their parents. For instance, 6-year-old doll-like Jung Da-bin
, who reminds people of the Olsen twins some 15 years ago, signed seven contracts in the first half of this year to play a kid spokesmodel in TV commercials. She is estimated to earn around 15 to 20 million won per contract.
But most child actors, even if they win public recognition, receive petty paychecks for TV dramas, though commercials and films can earn them a relatively hefty sum of money.
A child gets 60,000 won to 108,000 won if cast in a talking role in a one-hour MBC TV program, according to the broadcasting company's drama bureau, which is little different from other TV stations. Considering that child actors always travel with their mothers and the large number of hours of shooting required for a one-hour show, the pay is very low.
Fame-Beginning of New Troubles?
After a child actor becomes famous and earns a fortune, bitter times and hardships often follow.
"As they have no clear self-identity and responsibility, ordinary children feel relatively at ease about their lives and what they do; their mistakes tend to be okayed. But once children actors are recognized as somebody in the public eye, they are unable to behave naturally and get stressed", said Hwang Sang-min, psychology professor at Yonsei University.
As they don't have normal lives, they tend not to have the common experiences that they can share with their peer group, possibly resulting in difficulties when they leave the industry and try to adjust to ordinary lives, Hwang said.
He said it is possible that stress and the irregular lifestyle can hamper their physical growth as well.
"Although there is a risk, they can get something. If they are talented and satisfied with working in the entertainment industry, they enter into the adult world earlier than their peers and have social roles. They will be equipped with a profession with networks in the industry", Hwang said.
The downside of childhood stardom has been illustrated by the experiences of numerous actors, both local and abroad. Some child actors can't handle the stress caused by their successful performances.
Drew Barrymore, now 31 was loved by the world for her role in the 1982 film "E.T". However, as a teenager, she relied on drugs to escape stress.
Two weeks ago, 18-year-old Haley Joel Osment, hero of the 1999 film "The Sixth Sense", was charged with misdemeanor counts for driving under the influence of alcohol and for marijuana possession in Los Angeles.
A Korean child star, Kim Sung-eun
, 15, was the reigning star for her mischievous role as Oh Mi-dal in the mega-hit SBS sitcom "Soonpoong Obstetrics and Gynecology" (Soonpoong Sanbuinkwa), which ran from 1998 to 2001.
But in real life, she was teased at school because the name of her TV character Mi-dal can mean someone who is dull or lacking. People also automatically identified her with her TV character, a clueless and impish person, which put Kim under tremendous stress.
"I wanted to stab people who called me Mi-dal. At that time I wasn't sure whether or not I was becoming deranged", Kim said in a TV program last year.
She left for New Zealand right after the end of the sitcom and returned in 2004. Although two and a half years had passed, people still remember her as Mi-dal. The teasing continued until last year's televised interview, she said during an interview in early August for her comeback play "Puppy Turd" (Kangaji Ttong).
It is common to see child stars struggle to get rid of an image that once lifted them to stardom as they grow older and develop their careers. Some succeed and some don't.
Macaulay Culkin, 26, was loved like everybody's little brother in the early '90s, thanks to the mega-hit films "Home Alone" and "Home Alone 2". Although he was featured in films now and then, none of his following movies were successful.
However, there are figures who started as famous child actors and earn bigger reputation as they grew older. They include Oscar-winning Jodie Foster, Lindsay Lohan, Kirsten Dunst and Natalie Portman in Hollywood, and actor Ahn Seong-gi
and Venice Film Fest-winning actress Kang Soo-yeon
"This is the real world, where competition is tough and endurance is required. Parents have a big responsibility here. As a child grows, his or her once-adorable appearance may change and lose charm, resulting in no jobs", Lee at MTM said. "It may be better to just enjoy being on TV a few times and keep some good childhood memories".