While visiting Hawaii for the Hawaii International Film Festival this week, Korean film stars Lee Byung-Hun, of "A Bittersweet Life," and Lee Ki-Woo, of "Sad Movie," were surprised to find a strong contingent of American fans following them from appearance to appearance despite no organized American fan club nor announcements of their locations.
Actor Lee Ki Woo, in town for three days to promote Dir. Kwon's film "Sad Movie," said "I didn't know. I promise I will not forget them (my fans in America)." Screaming fans greeted him at the opening night gala, and he had to be escorted everywhere by security guards. Expect it to get even nuttier for him next year, when his new KBS drama tentatively titled "Damn Love" debuts in Hawaii and the Mainland US. He stars opposite K-pop star Rain (Bi), who made an appearance at this year's MTV Video awards.
Even stronger proof that Hallyu (I.E The Korean Wave) has hit America happened with the appearance of Korean film star Lee Byung-Hun. (Note: no relation to Lee Ki-Woo). Several tour groups from Japan organized tours for Japanese fangirls to see their hero. A private party thrown by Louis Vuitton at the Honolulu Pump Station had mobs of fans waiting outside for him to make an appearance, as well as his three minutes onstage at the opening night gala, in which he addressed the near-hysterical, sign-waving crowd in flawless English.
At Saturday's press conference for "A Bittersweet Life," fangirls crowded the hotel lobby, shouting "Saranghae" (I.E. Korean for "I love you") as a group. Members of a Hawaii online drama fan club gathered with other US fans, taking pictures with their digital cameras and waving bootleg posters and homemade banners at Mr. Lee, who was also surprised at the greeting, and at the news of grassroots fan groups comprised mostly of white women on the Mainland US.
"I want to meet all of my American fans," said Lee, "in person."
The numbers are surprising - and growing. A 2004 survey of 600 Korean drama and film fans in the US revealed that the majority of American fans are white women age 30-45, with an income of 60-100,000 dollars US per year. They are mostly married with children, homeowners, and have disposable income for vacations, investments and recreation.
The problem, say the individual fans, is that there's almost nothing for them to spend their money on. "I can buy videos and some merchandise from yesasia.com, but I see some of the stuff the Japanese fan club members can buy, like the Joon Bear, that I can't," said one East Coast fan of Bae Yong Joon, "and I get jealous. I have the money to spend; they just don't seem to want it."
There is a thriving trade in black-market fan merchandise, from DVDs to notebooks to fans, coin purses and key chains with pictures of Korean stars on them both online and in major American cities. A bottle of Nanairo-acha, Coca-Cola's "Seven-flavor tea" sells in Japan for about a dollar per bottle. Because Bae is the commercial spokesperson for the drink, a bottle - without the actor's picture on it, but with a small mirror attached to the bottle with his miniscule autograph on the tag - sells for upwards of $30.00 US on the black market. His ads are stolen out of Asian markets more than any other, according to store managers. A walk through the aisles of Daiei supermarket in Honolulu reveals a row of Flavono gum boxes with part of the front torn off - lovelorn fans steal the photos. Palama Supermarket, a Korean supermarket in the same part of town, had someone take off with their entire "Taster's Choice" display, which featured Bae enjoying a cup of the instant coffee.
A quick look at the Internet reveals about ten major Korean fandom discussion boards in the US, with memberships from 350-2500 members each. There are on-ground fan clubs that hold regular meetings in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston, Seattle, Hawaii and several in Southern California.
The problem doesn't seem to be that the stars don't want US fans, but rather that the Korean stars are so insulated in Asia that they simply don't know that the fan base is here and growing. "Korean fans come first, then Asia, and then, maybe if there's time, we'll look at the United States," said a management representative. "But we just didn't know."
Bae has said that he's not interested in America, which some fans took as a rebuff, but, says a longtime Korean fan, "I think he loves his American fans, he's just not interested in working in Hollywood." Given Korea's strong film industry and reputation for excellent films, it's not a huge surprise. But some artists, like K-pop singer Rain, are actively reaching out for an American audience. As American demographics turn more Asian, and, more importantly, American tastes turn to Hallyu, some stars are very interested in riding the wave into America.
Director Kang Je-Gyu, called "the Stephen Spielberg of Korea," is working on a film in Hollywood, entirely in English, with American actors. His hope is that the unique flavor of Korean cinema will carry over into his American movies. Fans of Hallyu in America are hoping the entertainment industry will grab a board and catch the wave, too.
Shelly Smith is a Korean Fangirl. She can be reached at email@example.com