Ellen Gray | 'Lost' breaks rule on language

PASADENA, CALIF. - Of all the rules that ABC's "Lost" has broken over the past few years, one of the biggest is the one that says characters who don't speak English will be lost on an American audience, with or without translation.

It might have been Masi Oka of NBC's "Heroes" beaming in the spotlight at the Golden Globes Monday, but "Lost's" Yunjin Kim, the Korean actress who, along with co-star Daniel Dae Kim, pierced the language barrier on network television two seasons ago, knows that their success helped put him there.

Because until the show came along (it returns at 10 p.m. Feb. 7), the idea of Americans sitting still for a character who spoke almost no English - and had the nerve to converse for long stretches in his native tongue - would have been unthinkable.

Which makes it all the more surprising that "Lost" producers got away with it in the first place.

Yet from the beginning, "the network and the studio . . . embraced this idea," "Lost" co-creator Damon Lindelof said this week.

"And one of the ideas that we had was, if they were speaking to each other and other castaways were around, you wouldn't see subtitles. If they were speaking to each other and they were alone, then you would. So you had the sense of the other castaways who didn't speak Korean of not knowing exactly what they were saying to each other," he said.

"And the fourth episode of the show was Sun's [Yunjin Kim's] flashback story, and we looked at the script and we realized, 'Oh, my God, 40 percent of this show is in Korean.' "

Though their first thought was that "we're going to get nailed on this," the truth, Lindelof said, was "we never got that note: 'Less Korean. Do they have to speak so much Korean together?' "

Nevertheless, this season, "I think one of the things that we want to do for Daniel's character Jin is - he's been on the island now, you know, completely submerged in an English-speaking culture for three months. And Jin's no dummy, so he's going to start speaking a lot more English on the show," Lindelof said.

To which Daniel Dae Kim, a Haverford College graduate who essentially had to relearn his native Korean to be on the show, added, "Thank you."

The two Kims, who are not related, often work on their dialogue together, according to Yunjin, and they'll sometimes tweak it to make it more idiomatic. And, yes, knowing that no one on the set, including the writers, has a clue what they're saying, they've occasionally goofed around with some Korean bad language (then warned that those takes shouldn't be used).

Korean "technically was my first language," said her co-star, Daniel, who was also born in South Korea, "but I stopped speaking it when I was in elementary school, so I had to relearn it for the show," he said. "I'm speaking the very best Korean I've spoken in a very, very long time and I have the show to thank for that."

And though "I'm really proud to be on a show that takes those kinds of risks, and that the risk has been rewarded," he said, "beyond all the racial politics of it all, all any actor wants is a character who's interesting to play: someone who's got some contradictions, someone who's got some conflicts and some drama in their lives, and I think that Jin is definitely one of those characters, and so I feel very lucky, regardless of race, to be playing a character like this." *

Ellen Gray (graye@phillynews.com) is attending the Television Critics Association's winter meetings. Read more on her blog at