It’s hard to believe that as recently as a decade ago, South Korea suffered from an inferiority complex, often looked down upon by more prosperous and culturally influential neighbours such as Japan and Hong Kong. How things have changed. You don’t have to travel far to see that the country is now experiencing an incredible cultural renaissance, its soft-power diplomacy extending from Beijing to Tokyo and our own shores. First it was K-Pop, the musical wave that has supplanted J-Pop and Cantopop as the soundtrack of teenagers’ lives all over Asia; then the huge popularity of Korean dramas, religiously watched on TV and streamed online by millions of devoted fans; and finally Korean beauty products, prized for groundbreaking innovations that are imitated even in the West.
Although some blame the Korean entertainment industry for its cookie-cutter approach to building young stars and turning them into flawless and sometimes soulless performers, there must be more than meets the eye, given that young people all over the world can’t get enough of stars such as Super Junior, G-Dragon and Girls’ Generation.
Entertainment companies such as SM Entertainment are behind the rise of Korean pop culture. Their talent agents trawl the country in search of the next big thing, plucking kids from obscurity with the aim of turning them into superstars. Known for the extremely intense training of the new recruits and the competitive streak they foster among wannabe stars, these talent agencies are true conglomerates, churning out stars at breakneck speed and building their careers.
While many such performers turn out to be one-hit wonders, there are some with real staying power, natural-born entertainers who can move beyond the strait-laced role of the pretty boy or girl dancing on a stage and spewing out catchy tunes. Super Junior, the group that started the craze for Korean boy bands, turned 10 this year and its leading man, Siwon Choi, has managed to transform his image as a young heart-throb into a successful career as an actor, with roles in international productions and a fan base that transcends the screaming tweens who go hysterical whenever he makes an appearance.
The handsome 28-year-old, who recently starred in a film produced by watch and jewellery brand Piaget titled Beyond a Gift, was set on his path to stardom from a very early age. “When I was a kid, I wanted only to be famous, a celebrity. I thought that I would do my father’s job or something like a boring job, always studying and always taking courses, but I really didn’t want to do that,” he says when we meet him on the set of the film in a leafy suburb of Seoul.
It didn’t take long for the then 16-year-old to score an audition with SM Entertainment before being picked out two years later to be part of the global phenomenon of Super Junior, whose best-selling single, “Sorry, Sorry”, propelled the band to international stardom. “The funny thing is that I didn’t want to be a singer or an actor,” says Choi. “Not that I didn’t want to do it, but it’s not that I wanted to do at first. Mr Lee [Soo Man], our chairman, just called me, ‘Hey, come to my office, what do you want to do? What can you do? Maybe drums or taekwondo or something?’”
After that, the two engaged in a long conversation, during which Lee realised that Choi had great potential for international appeal. “He said I should go to China, so I went for three months,” reveals Choi, who since then has mastered Chinese and acted in a series of Chinese productions alongside stars such as Andy Lau and Jackie Chan.
Fluent in both Mandarin and English, Choi realised when just a teenager that language barriers were keeping many Korean stars from making it big on the worldwide stage, and decided to master both languages. “In 2007,” he says, “I went to LA, to an event at the Hollywood Bowl, this huge concert for Korean people. Everyone was speaking English and they asked me something, but I couldn’t understand. Then I was really motivated and I started studying by myself.”
That same dedication is evident on set, where Choi displays a tremendous work ethic and doesn’t indulge in any of the antics of the jaded and spoiled superstar. After a long day filming the Piaget short, he kindly spends a few extra hours on location to shoot this cover story, showing an earnest and friendly attitude that’s at times quite disarming. When asked about his positive outlook, he mentions an early episode in his life that shaped his personal philosophy.
“When I went to New York, I saw The Lion King on Broadway and I met Matt Damon in the theatre. I said, ‘I’m Siwon Choi from Korea, and I’m part of Super Junior, like the Asian Backstreet Boys.’ He said, ‘Wow that’s good! Have fun in the States!’ He was very encouraging, very friendly. I thought, ‘That’s a Hollywood star, wow!’ I was a kid to him, I was 20, and he was really famous.
“I then promised myself that if I ever meet someone, anywhere, if they introduce themselves to me, I would be even friendlier than Matt Damon. I promised myself then. I built my philosophy then. I made my own philosophy. It was very inspiring and motivating. He’s a really good actor, a good father, also a good husband.” Choi further attributes his positive thinking and strong discipline to his Christian faith. “Maybe it’s because I’m Christian,” he says. “I also respect Islam, their culture. They really obey. “Everyone says that they love Jesus, really love Jesus, but then they do what he hates. Christianity is a huge influence on me; religion first and then my dad. He has his own philosophy, his own way, he never does it another way, always does it his way. I really respect him so much.”
Choi is also grateful to father figures such as Andy Lau and Jackie Chan, early mentors who guided him on his foray into acting. “Andy Lau is very professional. He pays a lot of attention to details. I was 18 when I worked with him. He’s been in more than 90 movies in his life. He controls everything he can on set but he respects the director because he never oversteps, only tells him what he’s thinking. Mr Chan is really professional too and he works hard. He wants to be a really good coach to the next generation, like me.”
As someone who’s constantly under the spotlight and who’s the focus of the relentless attention of countless fans who follow every move he makes, Choi seems to take everything in stride, without letting the surrounding mayhem go to his head. He’s definitely not one to complain about the pitfalls of fame and stardom.
“A lot of people would love to get this attention, with so many fans who like them, so I thank God, I don’t complain,” he says. “Second of all, I feel very responsible to the next generation of people. If I do something wrong, if I make a mistake, I can accept it. But for the next generation, I want to be a good influence, a role model.” Even though he grew up on the stage and has been an entertainer for most of his life, Choi doesn’t believe in mixing his personal life with work and reveals that he would rather date someone who doesn’t come from the entertainment world. But for now, family and career are his priorities.
“I’m still living with my parents,” he reveals. “I promised them that I would live with them until I do my military service. You know, Korea is still two separate countries, so I have to do it too, and I promised my parents that until I go to military service I will stay with them.” His close bond with his family also inspires Choi’s charity initiatives. “I’m planning to work on a Unicef project with Super Junior. I want to do something for children. When I open my eyes, my parents are there for me, Mr Choi and Mrs Choi, my parents. They care about me. But think about it, many children when they open their eyes have nobody and have nothing, no parents, no future, no life. So, if I go to heaven in front of God and he asks, ‘Hey Siwon, good to see you. What did you do for me? I gave you love, what did you do?’ I want to say, ‘I was trying to help poor people, children, somewhere.’”
All this talk about doing good, however, doesn’t keep Choi from focusing on his ultimate goal of becoming an international star on a par with other Asian and Hollywood A-listers. He says that he sees a future career separate from Super Junior and that his goal is to become the first Korean actor of global renown. “If someone asks Western people, ‘Who is your favourite Asian actor or celebrity?’ they always say Jackie Chan, Jet Li or Chow Yun Fat, and all of them are from China or Hong Kong, never Korea,” he says. “Why? Even if it’s hard work, I want to try to make it happen before I regret it, so maybe in five years, when they ask, ‘Who’s your favourite actor in Asia?’ Siwon Choi, yeah me! That’s my dream.”
PHOTOGRAPHY MOKE NAJUNG
STYLIST KWON HYEMI
MAKE-UP HAN HYOEUN
HAIR KIM HYE YEON