A 73-year-old actor from Hoeryeong, in North Korea¡¯s North Hamgyeong Province has become wildly popular with young South Koreans more accustomed to a computer mouse than a TV remote.
The distinguished actor is best known in these circles not by his real name, Lee Sun-jae, but rather the nickname "Porn" Sun-jae. As one of the stars of MBC's sitcom "Nonstop Highkick", he plays the authoritative president of an oriental medical hospital who constantly berates his jobless son.
The actor's rise to stardom came via one particularly memorable scene. Believing himself home alone, the stern old man was browsing computer files at home when he discovered adult video clips. With a broad smile, he clicked on the video and was soon fully engrossed -- only to discover that he was being watched.
This embarrassing scene, perhaps familiar to many net-addicted Koreans, quickly created an enormous fan base of teenagers and 20-somethings. "Nonstop Highkick", which was pulling in just single-digit ratings in November, has recently exceeded 20 percent ratings.
Lee arrived for an interview with the Chosun Ilbo dressed quite formally, as if he were a professor overseeing a student's wedding ceremony. "Of course I don't believe youngsters should be watching dirty videos," he chuckled when asked about his reputation. "But it's only natural teenagers would be curious about it."
He believes his popularity with Korean youth stems from an affinity with his famous scene. After all, he said, getting caught watching adult videos "is probably something they've experienced themselves."
Although playing the fool is par for the course for a sitcom star, Lee said he was not happy to do the scene. "When they first gave me the script with the video scene, I couldn't believe they really wanted me to do it," he said. But an actor's job is to obey his director, no matter how undignified. "I just resigned myself to doing it," Lee said, "Even though I was sure it was going to make me a laughing stock."
But Lee was wrong and the scene was a huge hit. Young people went nuts for the older actor, even going so far as to recreate their own versions of the scene. Every day sees a new parody of "Porn" Sun-jae involved in some R-rated hijinks posted on the Internet.
¡°Oh, it was strange. I was really surprised. Most of my colleagues are retired and yet here I am getting all this attention from young people," Lee laughed. "My granddaughter even asked for my autograph for her friends. Even during my best years, my daughter never asked me for that."
Many middle-aged actors resort to exaggerated clowning when it comes to sitcoms. Are we going to see Lee follow this path? "Never," Lee promised. "I'm constantly considering my actions and my facial expressions right up until the camera rolls. I want to entertain people, but I don't want to be childish. Every scene that makes people laugh has been carefully choreographed."
There's a difference between actors and comedians, Lee pointed out. "For an actor to be funny, he's got to play things straight. People burst out laughing when they watch 'Nonstop Highkick' simply because no one is laughing on-screen," he explained. "It's about finding the comedy in something serious. Without any superstars on board, we can build that kind of comic tension, and that's what makes our ratings so high."
Starting his acting career as a university student, Lee Sun-jae has been performing for over a half century. Asked if he had any regrets about this career, Lee said he only wished that television had been around when he was younger. "I didn't get the chance to be a teen idol because TV didn't come to Korea until I was in my 30s," he lamented. Perhaps Lee did miss out on dazzling the TV generation, but he's certainly become a hit with the Internet generation.