‘Land of Opportunity’

February 4, 2014

Foreign entertainers are finding fame in S. Korea

Julian Kang, who is originally from Canada, has starred in various television and variety dramas and programs. He is currently starring in the cable television drama “Potato Star.” (Courtesy of Show Brothers Entertainment)

Julian Kang, who is originally from Canada, has starred in various television and variety dramas and programs. He is currently starring in the cable television drama “Potato Star.”
(Courtesy of Show Brothers Entertainment)

By Kim Ji-soo

Japanese actress Mina Fujii featured only briefly in the 2012 television drama “Emperor of Drama.” She had a very small role and her Korean was at a beginner’s level. But instantly, people began inquiring about her on the Internet. There was a demand for actresses such as Fujii in the Korean entertainment industry.

Having acted since she was a teen, Fujii was not a stranger to the Korean entertainment sector. She appeared in music videos with TVXQ, when it was still a five-member K-pop group, and the actor/singer Jang Keun-suk, who is known as “Prince of Asia.” Serendipity was it? Maybe it was. The Japanese actress however was frank and straightforward in saying that she came to Korea after a search for her niche in the competitive acting industry.

Japanese actress Mina Fujii talks about re-starting her career in Korea. She currently stars in the cable drama “Potato Star.” (Korea Times photo by Yoon Sung-won)

Japanese actress Mina Fujii talks about re-starting her career in Korea. She currently stars in the cable drama “Potato Star.”
(Korea Times photo by Yoon Sung-won)

“I fell in love with ‘Winter Sonata’ as a viewer and started learning Korean. I didn’t study Korean with a certain purpose back then. I also liked how the drama continued for 45 minutes and had a different story and ambience,” said Fujii in an interview with The Korea Times. An actress since teen, the Niigata-native turned serious about making her entry into the Korean market when work dwindled after graduation from Keio University.

“My parents allowed me to act on the condition that I get into a good high school in Tokyo, which I did. It was okay to have limited roles as a college student/actress,” said Fujii, adding however that things were not so when she became a full-time actress. She pondered greatly about her choices, and bet on the Korean market.

San Jose-native Kris Johnson smiles during his appearance on an MBC variety show program “Three Wheels” in this captured screen image. Johnson is slowly making his name known in Korea.

San Jose-native Kris Johnson smiles during his appearance on an MBC variety show program “Three Wheels” in this captured screen image. Johnson is slowly making his name known in Korea.

The 25-year-old actress who is active both in Japan and Korea is currently starring in a 45 part cable drama “Potato Star.” She joins the slowly-growing list of foreign stars active in Korea as the foreign community in Korea expands in the global era. Statistics show that 1.5 million foreigners reside in Korea. Of them, 750,000 are multicultural family members whose number is expected to grow to 1 million by 2020.

Her love interest in the drama is the Canada-born Julian Kang.

“My dream was always to act, and I got cast in Korea, the reason I came,” said Kang in an email interview.

“It was a little daunting in the beginning to adjust in Korea because people are work, work, work and no leisure, “said Kang. But he said he is more understanding of the Korean society and as a foreign actor, his strength may lie in how he frankly expresses himself.

Sam Hammington in this screen-captured image. The Australian works widely in the entertainment industry including comedy and reality variety programs.

Sam Hammington in this screen-captured image. The Australian works widely in the entertainment industry including comedy and reality variety programs.

Kang is well known, mostly for his role in the popular sit-com “High Kick” series. In addition to the “Potato Star,” he is also starring in the weekly entertainment show “Our Neighborhood Variety Sports..”

Foreign characters are not just limited to the actors. They are active in variety shows — not in groups in the “A Chat With Beauties” that had aired successfully on KBS. Leading in this sector, Sam Hammington, an Australian native, started out in comedy and is now top celebrity in reality entertainment shows in Korea.

American Kris Johnson — whom one may remember from the LTE commercial as the husband holding the shopping bags for his Korean wife — is also active on a number of cable television programs where he shows off his American-style straight talk spoken in an earthy Korean.

Johnson, 26, is a native of San Jose in northern California. He never thought of coming to Asia until he made friends with an exchange student from Korea University.

“He invited me, so I went to Yonsei University as an exchange student, and during that time I met my future wife,” Johnson told The Korea Times over the phone.

He returned to Korea after graduation in 2010, to study Korean. Johnson married in 2012 and has since been appearing in television and radio shows.

“I got started in entertainment after winning speech and essay contests hosted by Kyung Hee University and the Ministry of Justice,” he said. Johnson started doing the talk show “Hello, Hello” on the cable television channel TV Chosun; but his recent appearance on “Three Wheels” on MBC has garnered more attention. “I am loving it (the attention). I always loved being the center of attention,” he said.

“I think Korean audience like surprises, so if I talk about Korean culture or say something unexpected, they find it interesting,” he said. As a major in history, Johnson said he wants to further his studies of Confucianism and eventually become a host of a talk show.

“It would be a hybrid of entertainment and culture,” he said. “As entertainment is going more global, I think it’s possible.”

These foreigners follow in the paths pioneered by the likes of Lee Charm, former president of National Tourism Organization who was an actor and Robert Holley, an American lawyer who is a frequent guest on a variety of talk shows and entertainment programs. What might set this new pack of foreign entertainers apart is that while Charm and Holley specifically stayed true to a “foreigner” role, a growingly global and multicultural Korea might give them a bigger spectrum in roles to play. Fujii said that starting out anew as an actress in Korea means having freedom to pursue diverse roles.

“In Japan, I played a certain type of a role, say, a rich girl. But here in Korea, I can do a multitude of roles,” Fujii said. With her big eyes and Western-looking features, it’s hard to pinpoint her as a Japanese, meaning a wider spectrum as an actress, an advantage that will be amplified once her Korean further improves. In the meanwhile, she is avidly staying true to her rookie spirit. Her improving Korean is aiding her efforts, she said.

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