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(Yonhap Feature) Musee Grevin Seoul wants to be more than wax museum

All Headlines 09:00 September 24, 2015

By Park Sojung

SEOUL, Sept. 24 (Yonhap) -- Stepping onto the fourth floor of Musee Grevin Seoul, where the three-story exhibit of the wax museum begins its downward path, you'd run into a wall of text that explains the history of the building; located in the heart of Seoul, the structure used to house the local branch of Mitsui Commodities, a Japanese conglomerate, during the colonial era. Now, it's one of the rare 1930s edifices that dot the city.

"That's a neat little piece of information," you'd tell yourself before turning left to proceed down the corridor. Except you'd notice something odd about the foreigner standing next to you -- he's not real. Neither is he a celebrity you'd anticipated to encounter in great numbers like they said on the website. Surprises like this bewilder and haunt throughout the museum, which opened in Seoul, its first Asian location, in July.

Musee Grevin is the brainchild of journalist Arthur Meyer and caricaturist Alfred Grevin who wanted to make politicians appearing on the front page of the French newspaper Le Galouis, for which Meyer worked, more accessible to ordinary citizens. Since its opening in Paris in 1882, it has expanded its coverage to entertainment, science, sports and more, like the non-specific foreigner mentioned above.

Seoul marks only the fourth city to host the museum after Montreal and Prague. The reason Seoul made the cut is rather straight-forward: the plethora of "hallyu" stars who represent the growing popularity of Korean culture worldwide and who make for perfect wax figure subjects.

"Hallyu is the next big thing," Min Ji-hye, marketing and communications manager of Grevin Seoul, said. "We finished our market research three years ago and CDA, the holding company of Musee Grevin, was impressed by the wealth of cultural content in Seoul."

Despite the still nature of the life-size dolls, there is something greatly theatric about the way they're displayed. At the end of the aforementioned corridor is an opaque door on which a shadow of a Korean scholar sporting a traditional Korean cap is cast. To anyone familiar with Korean TV shows, it's clear the man behind is Do Min-joon, an immortal from another planet played by actor Kim Soo-hyun in the sci-fi rom-com drama "My Love from the Star."

Like any museum, Musee Grevin Seoul is divided into sections, each with a theme, and all of them are carefully planned to bring inanimate figures to life.

The first room hosts the early generation of hallyu stars, the likes of Bae Yong-joon, Jang Dong-geon and Ahn Jae-wook. Here, you'd realize photos do such terrible justice to their eerily authentic appearances. The coiffures, even the eyebrows, are made from actual human hair. Heights and body sizes are replicated from real measurements of stars. There is also a dedicated army of maintenance professionals who retouch their hair, make-up and clothings daily.

The resemblance is no coincidence. Each figure costs tens of thousands of dollars and the process is so specialized and intricate that only a team of 15-40 people in the world are capable of making them.

Sculptors, stylists and make-up artists join hands in the effort. The first step involves scanning the subject's body, either in person or from photographs, to create a three-dimensional image. The sculptor then uses this image as a reference to create a mold into which beeswax heated to 70 degrees Celsius is poured to create the prototype.

Experts of each body part design the eyes, teeth and hair. About 500,000 strands of natural hair are implanted one by one for a tailored yet compelling rendition. Professional fashion designers then create an outfit -- sometimes, the clothes are donated by celebrities as a touch of authenticity.

The display doesn't end at just wax figures. Musee Grevin's motto has been to offer a holistic experience in which visitors vicariously live a historic moment or a scene from their favorite movies. As such, next to the figure of Bruce Lee, a scene from "Enter the Dragon" is screened. There is also a cloned Louis Restaurant, a cafe restaurant where Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, shoots Virgil Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey in the 1970s classic "The Godfather."

Corporate sponsors have collaborated on the exhibit as well. Asiana Airlines, South Korea's second-largest full-service carrier, helped design the Presidential Aircraft room whose walls buzz and vibrate like an airborne flight. Beyond its windows is another layer of walls whose lighting changes depending on the time of day. Here, you'd meet Queen Elizabeth II, along with her extensive hat collection, U.S. President Barack Obama, his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

What's particularly unique and smart about the Musee Grevin franchise is that it strives to highlight the culture of its host countries. In Seoul, you'd run into "Gangnam Style" rapper Psy, figure-skating champion Kim Yu-na, football player Park Ji-sung and, of course, dozens of K-pop stars like G-Dragon and Jang Keun-suk. Oh, and did I mention Kim Soo-hyun? All to be found in the last room, Hallyuwood.

For the budget-conscious, the entrance fees of 23,000 won (US$20) for adults and 15,000 won for children may appear steep. But consider the video games and Grevin Atelier, a studio in which visitors can simulate wax figures of themselves, that are included. They really punctuate what could be a long-winded, tedious collection of lifeless forms. In the Inventors zone, for instance, you are challenged in your knowledge of science-related trivia. You may also play roulette next to Brad Pitt and George Clooney in the Ocean's Casino zone modeled after the film "Ocean's Eleven."

"It's nice that there are many interactive components at the exhibit. We're able to touch and take pictures of some of the displays," Cho Yobo, a 30-year-old tour guide from Hong Kong, who was leading dozens of Chinese visitors, said.

Even for locals, it offers a chance to see their childhood celebrities from up close.

"It was amazing to see foreign movie stars I've grown up watching on TV," a 51-year-old South Korean woman, who only gave her surname Lee, said. She'd brought her mother who couldn't join her 10 years ago at the Madame Tussaud, another wax museum brand, in Hong Kong. Lee said this time, she was able to get a closer look at Korean celebrities whose wax figures didn't exist back then.

Now may also be the perfect time to visit, as the museum has special offers for the upcoming Chuseok holidays, the Korean fall harvest festival. From Saturday to Tuesday, all visitors will receive a fortune cookie and may take photos at a special photo zone in hanbok, or traditional Korean costume, for an immediate print. Those who upload photos with the hashtag #Grevin on social media will also enter a raffle for prizes. If you're feeling extra adventurous, you may also show up in your own hanbok and get 50 percent off the regular ticket price.

There is much more in store for the museum, which currently holds about 80 wax figures. Museum officials said the collection will be expanded by five to six figures a year, with no limit having been set for now.

"We don't have a set number in mind. We believe the museum can fit in as many figures as we wish," PR manager Min said. At Grevin Paris, which is similar in size to its Seoul counterpart, there are 250 figures on display.

Grevin officials didn't rule out the possibility of opening another branch elsewhere in Asia, but remained cautious.

"We first want to see how well this one fares before considering our next move," Min said.

sojungpark@yna.co.kr
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