DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Tom Larsen, general manager of YA Entertainment, is convinced of the potential of Korean dramas marketed on DVD in the U.S. market.
The "Korea wave" that began in the islands continues to gain strength as the Asian drama series are released nationally in DVD sets
HAWAII HAS A serious thing for Korean TV dramas.
The popularity of these Asian soap operas has been growing across the United States, but it all began right here, when the programs first aired on KBFD. So it's no surprise that local retailers would be the first to sell DVD box sets of such popular fare as "Stairway to Heaven" and "Hotelier."
Tom Larsen, general manager for YA Entertainment, based in San Bruno, Calif., and exclusive distributor of English-subtitled Korean TV dramas in the United States, said the "hallyu," or the Korean wave, definitely began in the islands.
"Hawaii has been the doorway to the U.S. market," he said, "and KBFD is a big reason for that. They're the pioneers in putting English subtitles on the dramas from Korea in order to attract a wider audience."
Larsen was in town earlier this month for an academic conference at the University of Hawaii's Korean Studies auditorium on the popularity of the historical drama "Dae Jang Geum." Also known as "Jewel of the Palace," the serial tells the true story of a female apprentice cook who learns the secrets of traditional medicine and food preparation, then triumphs over palace politics to become the king's personal physician during the Chosan Dynasty. Larsen's company markets three volumes of the program on DVD.
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
The 16-episode drama "My Lovely Sam-Soon" will be released nationally tomorrow. The show is centered on a sassy pastry chef who has been compared to England's Bridget Jones.
As Hawaii's fan base is ethnically mixed, so too is the mainland's, said Larsen. "According to a 2004 survey of Yahoo! Groups fan clubs, around 66 percent of them are Caucasian, with 16 to 20 percent second- and third-generation Asian American, and the rest Hispanic and others.
Korean serials on dvd
Korean TV drama box sets available from YA Entertainment:
"All About Eve"
"Dae Jang Geum" (three volumes)
"Did We Really Love" (two volumes)
"My Love Patzzi"
"My Lovely Sam-Soon" (in stores tomorrow)
"Rooftop Room Cat"
"Ruler of Your Own World"
"Something Happened in Bali"
"Stairway to Heaven"
"Star in My Heart"
Next month: "Sandglass" and "Meteor Rain" (Taiwanese drama)
January: "Turning Gate" (movie) and "Mr. Duke"
February: "Lawyers" and "Save the Last Dance for Me"
Where to buy
Borders Books and Music stores, Sam Goody, Tower Records and Video, Wal-Mart, Blockbuster Video, Barnes & Noble, Longs Drug Stores; online at KBFD, Amazon.com, YesAsia.com
"Our company's own informal survey is 20 to 30 percent Asian Americans, and most of them Japanese.
"You know the fan base has grown across the board when professors and teachers start using the dramas to help students learn the language. One common practice is to give out the Korean-language scripts of the shows to first read, and then have the students watch them later in class to follow along."
The influence of the club grapevine can't be denied. When actor-heartthrobs Lee Byung-hun and Lee Ki-woo made promotional appearances at the Louis Vuitton Hawaii International Film Festival last month, avid female fans from Hawaii, Japan and the mainland showed up in droves.
Needless to say, the festival plans to up the Korean star presence next year.
LARSEN'S own business involvement began as "a personal passion I wanted to share."
Armed with a degree in international relations from Brigham Young University (with a business emphasis and a minor in Korean language), Larsen moved to South Korea in 1998, serving for two years as a missionary. He also worked as an intern for eight months at LG Electronics. Upon returning to the United States, he taught Korean language to other American volunteers for two years.
"In 2003, I realized that the TV dramas were a great way to share their culture with the rest of the U.S." He and his business partners looked into marketing the dramas. "Through our research, we figured there was enough of a fan base to make it work, and not just with Korean expatriates." In fact, they learned to their initial surprise that expatriates weren't much of an influence on the dramas' popularity here.
YA Entertainment got off the ground in February 2004, and the business has grown enough to support a staff of 15.
Just less than half of the miniseries offered by YA Entertainment offer English subtitles that originated on KBFD; the rest are done by the company's own translators. The box sets also offer reference guides about some of the native culture and language of Korea.
Now, with upward of 25 million TV viewers in the United States having access to these dramas through local stations and national cable networks such as AZN (available locally on Oceanic Time Warner Cable's digital service), the company's catalog has grown to 22 titles, with more on the way.
Tomorrow marks the national release of the 16-episode box set of "My Lovely Sam-Soon." Larsen says the main character of "an unpolished and opinionated pastry chef ... who does not fit the mold of the typical Korean TV drama princess" is akin to England's Bridget Jones.
"We always ask fans what they want to see released on DVD," Larsen said, "and we check the fan clubs' message boards a lot to see what's popular.
"The basis of the popularity of these dramas is the story lines. ... They're mostly rooted in real-life family situations, with characters usually beating the odds and overcoming obstacles in their lives. And with usually 16 to 20 episodes, viewers know that there is an ending, not like the American soap operas."