On the night of Jan. 14, 2002, the first episode of KBS TV drama series “Winter Sonata” went on air. Korea was four months ahead of the highly anticipated 2002 FIFA World Cup in Korea and Japan, and was still recovering from the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
The term “hallyu,” which was in fact introduced in 1999 by local reporters in Beijing who were surprised by the popularity of Korean TV drama shows in China, was still unfamiliar among the viewers. Even Yoon Suk-ho, the producer of what later became the pioneering hallyu drama, had no idea what the series was about to lead to in Korea and Asia as a whole.
The year 2012 is surely a milestone year for the history of hallyu, as the famous love saga has its 10th year anniversary. Ever since the show ― the second installment of producer Yoon’s four part “Endless Love” series ― was aired in Japan through NHK in April of 2003, the show has symbolized the beginnings of hallyu across Asia.
Thanks to its enormous popularity, its main actor Bae Yong-joon rose to heartthrob status in East Asia, while its filming location, Nami Island in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, has welcomed more than one million visitors in the last decade.
Before 2003, however, the sob-fest love story had been regarded as just another popular TV series in Korea. It came after a series of tear-jerking romance movies and TV dramas released in Korea from the late 1990s on, including late popular actress Choi Jin-sil’s film “The Letter” (1997), director Hur Jin-ho’s “Christmas in August” (1998) and Yoon’s first installment of the “Endless Love” series “Autumn in My Heart” (2000).
Culture critic Lee Young-mi, who saw “Winter Sonata” as an “extension of therapeutic pop-culture products to ease the collective trauma of the 1997 financial crisis in Korea,” said the show’s popularity in Korea and Japan must be understood separately.
“People rejected the ‘traditional’ kind of love throughout the 1990s in Korea by the younger generation,” Lee told The Korea Herald during a phone interview on Wednesday.
|Scenes from KBS’ 2002 hit drama series “Winter Sonata” (KBS)|
“These young men and women were confident enough to have fun while not settling down or being too committed. But that confidence was totally shattered by the financial crisis in the late 1990s. By this time we all knew there was no such thing as romantic, ever-lasting love. But we needed to hang onto those fantasies to survive. So what came out were movies and drama series that dealt with death-transcending love stories. The popularity of ‘Winter Sonata’ in Korea took part of that.
“But its popularity in Japan has nothing to do with it,” Lee continued. “In general, though, I think the show received more positive reviews in Korea after it gained popularity in Japan. Most culture products that enjoy popularity overseas are hardly criticized locally in Korea.”
The show’s popularity in Japan was surprising to many, including the producer Yoon Suk-ho and then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who in 2004 famously said, “Bae Yong-joon is more popular than I am in Japan.”
Drawing at least 20 percent of prime time viewers in 2003, the show soon rose to cult status. NHK made $3.5 million from selling Winter Sonata-related products, while selling 330,000 DVD sets and 1,220,000 “Winter Sonata” novels. Its most enthusiastic viewers were middle-aged women, who were completely mesmerized by its main actor Bae Yong-joon, who starred as a caring and romantic ski resort CEO who would give up everything for his first love.
Bae, who the New York Times called “the $2.3 billion man” for his value in 2004, made his famous visit to Japan that year. Some 3,000 middle-aged women gathered at Narita International Airport to greet their heartthrob.
According to a scholarly article published on Keio Communication Review in 2007, some 350 riot police were there to guard the scene. In spite of the presence of the officers, however, 10 women were sent to hospital as they were injured from “pushing and shoving” in an attempt to see their “Yon-sama.”
“I had no idea it would become so popular in Japan,” producer Yoon Suk-ho told The Korea Herald during a phone interview on Wednesday. “In fact, the first installment of the series, ‘Autumn in My Heart,’ was popular in Southeast Asian counties, not Japan. I planned on filming as much snow as possible for ‘Winter Sonata’ to attract the viewers in those warm counties.”
Yoon, who last year produced the musical adaption of the show for the 10th year anniversary, which is currently on stage in Seoul, shared his favorite line of a review from a Japanese critic. “It said, ‘Winter Sonata’ awakened the little girls deeply buried in the middle-aged Japanese women’s subconscious,’” Yoon told The Korea Herald. “I think ‘Autumn in My Heart’ was popular in Southeast Asia as it dealt with social class differences as well as poverty. Japan, on the other hand, was the first country in Asia that went through modernization and westernization. I think the show touched on what these Japanese women left behind, as well as their fond memories and values that only exist in their past.”
Yoon is currently preparing for his upcoming TV drama “Loverain,” featuring young hallyu stars Jang Kuen-suk and popular girl group Girls’ Generation member Yoona as a young puppy-love couple in the ‘70s.
Jang, in particular, is largely considered one of the rising hallyu stars in Japan. Last year he successfully completed a one-of-a-kind, fantasy-like concert tour in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. Unlike Bae, most of Jang’s fans are Japanese youngsters.
While the theme of the show resembles that of “Winter Sonata” ― pure and noble love shared by young innocent souls (which has been Yoon’s long-time interest) ― it will be interesting to see what the edgy and young duo will bring to the show, Yoon said.
“hallyu has become more about K-pop than the drama series nowadays,” Yoon said. “As a TV producer I am not particularly happy about that. But K-pop’s energetic and feisty. Jang Keun-suk has all of that K-pop quality. He’s open, honest, unique and is always himself. I think he will bring such energy to the show, while I will keep the good old stuff that needs to be kept (by telling the love story of the ‘70s).”
The musical adaptation of “Winter Sonata,” currently being staged at Myungbo Art Hall in central Seoul, runs until March 18. Tickets cost 50,000 won. Japanese subtitles are available. For more information, call (02) 1544-1555, or (070) 7019-6707.
By Claire Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org)