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[UPGRADING KOREAN CULTURE (8)] Foreign artists discuss Korean culture

2007/04/26 | Permalink | Source

This is the last in an eight-part series of articles that look into the country's cultural and entertainment sectors and explore ways to help sharpen their competitive edge. - Ed.

Vibrant local movies charm American scholar

Thomas Giammarco, a professor of English at Woosuk University in North Jeolla Province, loves Korean movies. He regularly publishes reviews and articles on Korean films and is also pursuing a doctorate in the subject.

Giammarco, born in North Providence, Rhode Island, started watching Korean films shortly after he arrived in Korea in 1995. His initial purpose was to learn Korean. With a dictionary in hand, he rented videos and found himself enjoying the films even though he could not easily understand them.

A turning point came in early 1996 when he went to a local theater for the first time and watched "The Gingko Bed". A few months later, he watched "A Petal".

Both films deeply impressed him. "I realized for the first time the potential that the film industry in Korea had", he said in an interview with The Korea Herald.

His fascination with Korean cinema coincided with the dramatic growth of the Korean film market. Prior to his arrival here, he knew little about Korean films. To learn more, he would ask students and Korean friends, but they would often respond, "I don't know. I don't watch Korean movies".

That quickly changed with the releases of iconic box-office hits such as "Whispering Corridors", "Beat" and "Christmas in August", touching off a wave of stylish and innovative films that infused the fledgling Korean movie business with an unprecedented impetus.

"The biggest change was not only the improved technology, better sound and picture or bigger budgets. It was the creative spark that talented new directors were bringing to their films that ignited the passion of the audience", he said.

Giammarco also became fascinated by the depth of emotions generated by Korean films. "Without exception, you are able to understand and sympathize with the characters on the screen. In Hollywood films, the action is often larger than life while the emotions are often shallow or wholly lacking. One of the strengths of Korean films is just the opposite", he said.

A keen observer, Giammarco has spotted some warning signs as well. For a start, Korean filmmakers rely on only a handful of popular genres. Another weakness is a seriously limited profit channel of films in the domestic market. Due to the prevalence of illegal downloading and file-sharing, Korean filmmakers end up with minimal DVD sales revenues. To resurrect the crucial DVD market, Giammarco said, the government should crack down on illegal downloading sites.

The Korean Wave also shows signs of fatigue. After the heady growth of recent years, the number of new Korean film projects plunged early this year. The primary task is to maintain the quality of films classified as part of the Korean Wave, he said, adding that local filmmakers and investors alike should take more risks and try new things.

Still, Giammarco remains optimistic about the Korean film industry, which he described as "resilient". To get a pulse on what's hot here, he also recommended participating in the Jeonju International Film Festival, which starts today.

"The festival offers the best venue for indie and digital filmmakers", he said. It's a safe bet that Giammarco will be seen watching his beloved Korean films at the festival this year -- and for many years to come.

By Yang Sung-jin

Singer expects to see more J-pop stars here

Many young Korean pop and film stars who can barely say "hello" in Japanese are seeking to make it big in Japan, and quite a few of them are doing amazingly well so far. (For Korean superstars like Song Seung-hun, a simple smile is more than enough to make a crowd of Japanese women happy.)

The language and cultural barrier, however, seems to be higher for Japanese musicians and actors who want to appeal to Koreans. That's why Otsuru Ayaka (better known as Soon Sim here), 23, a member of Korean girl group Cats, has tried to master the Korean language and learn about local culture.

"Japanese people do not seem to care much about Korean actors or singers whether they speak Japanese well or not, as long as they are good at what they do", Otsuru, originally from Fukuoka, told The Korea Herald in native-level Korean. "Before I debuted here, I had chances to talk to a few Japanese stars who had been frustrated by lukewarm reactions from Koreans, which worried me some more", added Otsuru, the lead vocalist of the female quartet, which specializes in dance music.

Although she has taught herself Korean by watching television dramas featuring her favorite actor Bae Yong-joon, her Korean is near perfection.

Her Korean name, Soon Sim (meaning "pure heart") -- which sounds a little outdated and unsophisticated -- was also chosen by the group's management agency to make Koreans feel more friendly toward her.

"I feel happy when people call me 'Soon Sim nuna' or 'Soon Sim eonni' the way Koreans address each other", continued Otsuru. "Nuna" and "eonni" both mean "older sister".

According to her, Cats is a highly talented group, with each of its members excelling in singing, dancing and even celebrity impressions. With "Baby Cat", the third track of their debut album, Cats are frequently on television and radio. She and other members -- Park Soo-jung, Han So-yoo and Kim Ji-hye -- are all having the busiest year ever.

Otsuru, however, is already thinking about her next step. "I'd like to become a star both in Korea and Japan, like BoA, then I will go on a concert tour all around Asia", said the Japanese, who has fallen in love with the taste of budaejjigae (spicy stew made with spam and sausages). "But now my only concern is making the group more appealing".

By Lee Yong-sung

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