Cha Tae-hyun established himself as a leading Korean Wave star with his comic act in My Sassy Girl in 2001. So powerful was his innocent-yet-playful image in the Asia-wide hit that most cinema goers tend to associate him with comedy.
But a lesser known fact about Cha is that he has formal credentials as a singer. Previously, he released two music albums, and got a couple of songs climbing high on the local music chart for a while.
The unexpected problem for Cha is that no one takes him seriously when he sings; a far from pleasant development for the talented actor.
However, hope is at hand with a turning point looming. In Highway Star (Bokmyeon dalho), to be released on Feb 15, Cha does not have to worry about the unintended and unwanted blending of his comic image and serious singing talent. His primary role here is to sing as comically as possible — and this is not a joke.
The movie, co-directed by Kim Sang-chan and Kim Hyeon-soo, pushes Cha to a throat-vibrating terrain of melodramatic Korean popular songs – a genre known here as "trot" that is quite similar in melody and words to Japanese melodramatic enka songs.
Cha plays Dal-ho, a seemingly clueless rock star wannabe in a rural area. One day, a recording company head (played by Im Chae-moo) sees potential in this young man and encourages him to take a chance by becoming a trot singer.
The qualifications for a trot singer, however, are tough. One has to don overly gaudy costumes, learn special body gestures and capture the emotion overflowing from trot music. Thanks to the genre’s characteristics – most leading tot singers and fans are in their middle age – Dal-ho is forced to break with his creativity.
The answer he finds is to put on a mysterious mask, conjuring up an image of the unknowable among starry-eyed middle-aged trot fans. The movie, to make a long trot music drawl short, is unlikely to be truly creative because the plot has few surprises and the focus is, as always, placed on the comedy instinct of Cha.
Late Wednesday, Studio 2.0 and its joint production partner In & In Pictures held a showcase for the press at a culture center in eastern Seoul. In recent months, a growing number of film productions offer showcase events to increase the odds of box-office survival amid intensifying competition.
Following some warm-up sessions by other cast members, Cha emerged on centrestage with his trademark sheepish smile and playful eyes, and quickly showed off his newly acquired ability to sing a throaty trot song.
"To tell you the truth, I really loved rock music and my own experience helped me forge the Dal-ho character," Cha told reporters at a news conference. "But adapting into a popular melodramatic music genre was very challenging because I tried to imitate other leading trot singers but that’s impossible."
The solution: Cha decided to be faithful to his own image and style. "When I first got this scenario, I liked the situation-oriented comedy. Personally, I love playing a role in a movie that can offer a dose of two-hour-long fun to the audiences," Cha said.
Pulling off a box-office success might be more daunting than learning one or two melodramatic trot songs, largely because Cha’s public appeal has been steadily declining, and Highway Star does not attempt to radically redefine his image. A series of films – My Girl and I, Two Guys, Happy Erotic Christmas – relied on Cha’s trademark comic talent in recent years, but failed to win laughs in the end, especially with movie executives reviewing lackluster ticket sales.
Together with Cha’s bid to revive his sagging popularity, media attention is trained on Lee Kyung-kyu, a television comedian and co-producer of Highway Star. He was at the showcase stage, but tried to avoid the media spotlight throughout, as if distancing himself from memories of his first film that turned out to be a huge flop.