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Saturday, Oct. 15, 2005

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

The 'Winter Sonata' blues -- revisited


He's baaack. Not that he ever went away.

No doubt playing now somewhere at a theater near you is the Korean love story "April Snow," with the choice of the word "snow" evoking a relationship to "winter." Coincidence? Maybe.

But when the male lead is Bae Yong Jun -- less than two years removed from his successful "Winter Sonata" seduction of virtually every Japanese female over 40 -- one has to figure there's a marketing connection there somewhere. The bigger the heartthrob, the bigger the potential profit. And Bae Yong Jun has been heartthrobbing his way through Japanese commercials ever since "Winter Sonata."

Not that my wife has succumbed to his charms -- "Honey, come down to the living room and let's watch TV," I call.

She sits unmoved before our bedroom mirror and picks at her split ends.

"Oh look, honey! I've cut myself. All the way to the bone. Could you come and apply a tourniquet? Or perhaps phone an ambulance? Please?"

She picks at her hair and yawns.

"Oh, wait! There's a new commercial with Bae Yong Jun!"

I hear the thunder of pounding feet. The wall cracks. The door flies off its hinges. She stands there with light streaming through her hair and smoke sizzling off her slippers.

"Yong-sama! Where?"

"Too bad. You just missed him."

Then I dash for cover. For hell has no fury like a kick from a Yong-sama fan.

And my wife does not even qualify as a hardcore follower. She has not, for example, made a pilgrimage to "Winter Sonata" sites in South Korea. She was not involved in the stampede of Yong-sama devotees who brought injury to themselves at the Hotel New Otani last fall. She does not even faint at the sight of his clean, brown-sugar-eyed face -- although she did tack up a photo of that face in our bedroom. A photo that -- according to my view -- looked much better with penciled-on mustache, fangs and devil's horns. She, however, was not amused.

"You're just jealous," she snoots.

Oh, right. Jealous of a man whose claim to acting fame is that he portrayed an amnesia victim. A mindless look that was no doubt completely natural. Excuse me if I forget to be impressed.

Still, one has to wonder how all this has come about. How has this one rather average fellow so enslaved the upper echelons of Japanese femininity?

After all, Bae Yong Jun is not exactly Mr. Muscle. Stick me in a T-shirt and shorts and even I have a better build. In fact, toss the T-shirt and shorts on the floor and they have a better build than us both.

Neither is Yong-sama especially handsome. He benefits from an earnest, puppy-dog grin that makes people yearn to pat him on the head. Or perhaps give him a fat lip, depending on your point of view.

He could use a haircut as well. His Samson-like hold on older women might disappear if his mop was buzzed away. Yet here I must note that he altered his preamnesia/postamnesia "Winter Sonata" character by dyeing that hair. If his head were shaved, would he have dyed his scalp? His acting range leaves few other options.

When off the screen, Bae Yong Jun is by all account a fellow of princely character. He comes off as kind, generous and considerate, plus humbly appreciative of his fans. This clean-cut, Mr. Nice Guy image leaves no false notes. Yong-sama rings with sincerity.

"He's just perfect," says my wife.

In short, he's the type of guy that other guys hate. He is the Boy Scout you'd like to see chased by bears. Or the teacher's pet you'd die to see caught cheating. Or the goody-two-shoes born to receive wedgies.

Which makes the attraction all the more mysterious.

The standard media answer is that "Winter Sonata" reminded female viewers of a time when Japan was a simpler, purer place, a place where romantic first love drew colored glasses over the harsher realities of postwar Japan. Thus the impact on older ladies and not on younger generations, who are both more street-smart and more pampered. Somehow Yong-sama has been able to epitomize those more tender days.

"Can't you hark back to your own first love?" says my wife.

Sure. I fell head over heels for a '66 Chevrolet. The memory is sweet, but I can't imagine myself chasing after antique Chevies and screaming. Or journeying to revisit spots I once enjoyed with that car -- the phalanx of gas pumps at the Star Service Station or the do-it-yourself car wash.

"But what," my wife says, "if that first love was someone like Yu Jin?" She means Choi Ji Woo, the pixie-like female lead of "Winter Sonata," a graceful actress forced to bounce her lines off the wooden thespianship of Yong-sama. "What then?" my wife raises her brows.

I press my index finger to her nose. "But that's exactly what happened. You're my Yu Jin, don't you see? You always have been."

Now there is how you tame the savage beast. My wife hugs me with happiness. The warm glow is not dissimilar to Japan's renewed cultural interest in South Korea -- a positive and most welcome side effect of Japan's hysteria for "Winter Sonata."

It is only when my wife teases and calls me "Yong-sama" that the love bubble bursts. I would rather be compared to a '66 Chevrolet. Besides, I don't have the hair.

Of course, if my wife wants to see the real "Yong-sama," all she need do is traipse to our local theater, where he is now plowing his way through "April Snow." Which will never exceed the success of "Winter Sonata," but it doesn't have to.

Bae Yong Jun's popularity is cast in iron, not snow, and with no meltdown in sight for the foreseeable future.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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