Celebrity: A Hunk O' Love

Asian women are flipping for 31-year-old South Korean film and TV star Bae Yong Joon. They have mobbed Bae in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and named a hybrid orchid after him in Singapore. Inspired by Bae, Japanese women are taking up the study of Korean language and history. In his first movie, "Untold Scandal," a Korean remake of "Dangerous Liaisons" set in 18th-century Korea, Bae's portrayal of a Casanova earned critical acclaim. His TV drama series, "Winter Sonata," is an Asiawide hit. Bae spoke with NEWSWEEK's Hideko Takayama in Tokyo. Excerpts:

There are hundreds of women downstairs waiting for a glimpse of you. How do you feel about that?

More and more TV dramas deal with transient pleasures. "Winter Sonata" is different. This Korean drama makes the viewers remember their first love, a kind of genuine love that they had experienced a long time ago.

Many of your fans are married and middle-aged. As a young man, how do you feel about being a center of their attention?

It is a difficult question. Of course, age and nationality have nothing to do with falling in love or admiring someone. I think it is the role that I play in the drama that is making them remember the kind of warm and pure feelings that they once felt for men when they were young. I meet a lot of fans who are married and have families. When I look into their eyes what I see are teenage girls. If I am making them awaken to such long-lost passion, I must say that I feel very honored.

Some say you are bringing Japan and South Korea closer than diplomats ever have. How do you see your influence?

We cannot deny that there have been unpleasant emotions between the two countries based on our history. Now the Japanese people are showing an overwhelming interest in my country through the Korean TV dramas. If I played a role to trigger such enthusiasm, I am glad.

You are popular all over Asia. Do you see yourself as a cultural ambassador?

For that, I feel a certain amount of responsibility. It seems that my fans in Asia are beginning to mingle among themselves. In the past most South Koreans were so eager to study English, but an increasing number have begun to study Chinese and other Asian languages. I'm happy to be a part of these big moves, as Asians get to know themselves.

Were you interested in Japan before you came here?

Yes, I was interested in the Japanese animation films, games and food. I saw Akira Kurosawa's movies, like "Rashomon" and "The Seven Samurai," and more contemporary films like "Hana-bi" and "Love Letter." I have been studying the Japanese language.

You once said you liked actors like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Is there a particular role you want to play?

I admire them because they have some quality that I don't seem to have. Some elements that I cannot play or imitate. Likewise, I may be able to act a role that they cannot.