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‘A Korean Actor on the World Stage’

Ahn Sung-ki, who is revered in Korea as the “people’s actor,” participated in a three-city lecture tour of the United States, which was jointly sponsored by the University of Georgia (Center for Asian Studies) and the Korea Foundation. Along with providing a unique opportunity to broaden awareness of Korea’s cinema world among U.S. audiences, the project also served to enhance appreciation of cultural diversity.

The recent U.S. lecture tour (August 26-September 5), featuring Ahn Sung-ki, represented the second installment of a series entitled, “A Korean Actor on the World Stage.” This initiative was launched in November 2007 by the University of Georgia’s Department of Comparative Literature and Korean Language Program, which invited Korean actor Park Shin-yang to be a guest speaker. The presentation by Park Shin-yang, widely recognized in various Asian countries for his roles in Korean films and TV dramas, attracted an overflow crowd of enthusiastic students and professors to the campus auditorium. Encouraged by this success, the university decided to extend an invitation to another Korean actor, Ahn Sung-ki. Though originally planned as a single event on the University of Georgia campus, the project was later expanded into a three-city tour of the U.S. east coast, thanks to the provision of financial assistance from the Korea Foundation.

Distinctive Sessions
A rather distinctive format was adopted for each venue. For example, Ahn Sung-ki’s visit to New York coincided with the “New York Korean Film Festival,” staged by the Korea Society. The festival featured the screening of a variety of Korean films, such as Musa: The Warrior, Nowhere to Hide, Our Joyful Young Days, and Radio Star, at the Cinema Village in Union Square. Ahn Sung-ki fielded questions during a Q&A session on August 26 and he also gave a lecture the following day.

Among those in the audience at his lecture presentation, a group of Japanese women, self-proclaimed “fans of the Korean Wave,” definitely attracted considerable attention. Each of them had an album of photos and stories of their favorite Korean actors. The audience’s main interest was centered on such topics as the personal experiences of Ahn Sung-ki during his lengthy career, in which he debuted as a child actor, and the success of Korean cinema as seen from a veteran actor’s perspective.
In Washington, D.C., Q&A sessions were held following the screening of films, in which Ahn was cast in lead roles, at the Smithsonian Institute Freer Gallery (August 28-29). Of note, the showing of Radio Star was highly successful, attracting a full house. The appreciative audience expressed their admiration of Ahn Sung-ki’s professionalism and dedication to his acting career, as well as his modest and personable demeanor, much like his portrayal of the Park Min-su character in Radio Star.
In addition, the KORUS House, established by the Korean Embassy in the United States, hosted a private event, to which it invited the cinema-related staff of various embassies, university professors, and media representatives of the Washington, D.C. area. The guests peppered Ahn Sung-ki with questions about his acting career, which coincided with the development of Korea’s contemporary cinema, and his experiences as president of the Korean Actors’ Guild and vice chairman of the Pusan International Film Festival (PIFF). There were also inquiries about the incumbent Korean administration’s policy toward the film industry, the screen quota system, and efforts to promote Korean films abroad at the governmental level.
Six representative films of Ahn Sung-ki were screened at the University of Georgia prior to his lecture. Students enrolled in courses on East Asian film were assigned the task of critiquing the various genres of Ahn’s films and his acting styles. During his presentation, Ahn explained that the tremendous success of Korean films in recent years can be attributed to a long-suppressed freedom of expression, which suddenly gushed out, like a volcanic eruption, together with the unique creativity of Korean filmmakers, social democratization, and heavy investment by big business in the film industry. He also advised the students of film studies that one of the most effective ways to stimulate artistic imagination is through reading.

Support for Korea’s Cinema
This “A Korean Actor on the World Stage” project is intended to publicize Korea’s film culture and acting tradition by encouraging actors at the forefront of the Korean film industry to express their personal views and life experiences directly to foreign audiences. The lecture tour provided a rare opportunity to reveal the genuine warmth and sincerity of Ahn Sung-ki to American audiences, who perhaps thought of Asian movie stars as being aloof individuals living in a world of their own. This kind of personal interaction can only serve to enhance appreciation of cultural diversity and facilitate more international dialogue through the medium of film.
Over the past two decades, Korea’s cinema has undoubtedly contributed more to the promotion of Korean culture abroad than any other art or cultural genre. Still, there is a desperate need for continued support of filmmakers to maintain interest in Korean films, even as the “Korean Wave” begins to wane. Above all, the lecture tour’s success is the result of Ahn Sung-ki, who gave so generously of his time and effort, for which I am most grateful, and the invaluable assistance of Cho Yoon-jung of the Korea Society and Tom Vick of the Freer Gallery, who tended to every detail to assure the event’s smooth implementation.