When I watch South Korean cinema, I’m usually satisfied with the acting. Rarely have I complained about the performances, even when it’s by former models and pop-stars making their big-screen debut. That doesn’t mean I haven’t seen bad acting, but rarely has an actor been so terrible that it’s killed the film for me. Well, maybe a few films.
Like many other film geeks, I have an affinity to certain actors, and it’s no different in my relationship with South Korean cinema. So as I was compiling this list, I had to make a distinction between best actors and best performances. I plan to make a separate list for best actors a bit later, so stay tuned for that.
I also decided to feature only one performance per actor, or this list would’ve been either too short or way too long. Most of these films are amazing, featuring the best acting the nation’s had to offer, so if you haven’t seen them, definitely check them out.
If a certain role from your favorite male, female, heartthrob, or sexpot is missing from this list, then definitely comment below and mention why you think they’re some of the nation’s best performances. I know for a fact that I missed some beautiful people, so definitely have at it.
20. Jang Dong-gun – “Tae Guk Gi: Brotherhood of War” (2004, Kang Je-kyu)
Jang in recent years has opted for big, international blockbusters instead of smaller, local fare. With “Tae Guk Gi: Brotherhood of War,” Jang is able to have both the intimate performance, as well as the large-scale production. He’s no stranger to action, especially war films, considering that he’s served in the military and has been casted as soldiers before.
Usually playing some form of lone wolf, Jang shares the runtime with his co-star Won Bin. Playing brothers, the two men complement each other quite well, despite Won’s inexperience at times bleeding through. While Jang doesn’t adopt some specific, quirky character trait, he does demonstrate a believable progression from concerned brother to an ace officer, before his character finally becomes completely desensitized and battle-hungry.
It’s a believable and heart-breaking character arc that’s resonated with audiences worldwide, especially veterans of the Korean Civil War. Whether or not these veteran’s actually looked and acted like Jang, you have to admit their connection to the character is something truly special, an achievement all on its own.
Ironically, his most out-there performance is his other role as a soldier in Kim Ki-duk’s “The Coast Guard,” but Jang doesn’t really get to do much in that film than act like a creep who’s descent into madness is somewhat unconvincing. Lately, he might be going the movie star route as opposed to serious acting, but (once again) with the right people and project, Jang can prove to his worldwide fans what’s he’s unstoppable.
Other solid performances: “Friend,” “Typhoon,” and “No Tears for the Dead”
19. Gianna Jun – “My Sassy Girl” (2001, Kwak Jae-young)
This one’s for the fans. I’ve found Gianna Jun to have a larger, international fan-base than her peers. Fans of anime will probably remember her in the live-action adaptation of “Blood: The Last Vampire.” Playing a prototype of what would eventually be described as the “manic pixie dream girl” years later, it’s not hard to see why many love this 2001 film and Jun in the role: she’s infectiously likable, despite the abuse she piles on her co-star.
Charming and volatile, Jun and her co-star Cha Tae-hyun are clearly having fun with the role, especially during the scenes in which they act out the parody movies that the characters are writing.
While Gianna Jun has done some excellent work later in her career, this is the role that really defined her as an actress. She might go for roles to break away from that playful image, but after watching “The Thieves,” a fun Gianna Jun is something that should never be kept hidden. Did I forget to mention that she’s breathtakingly beautiful? Yeah, that too.
Other solid performances: “The Thieves,” “The Berlin File,” “Uninvited,” and “Il Mare”
18. Ha Jung-woo – “The Yellow Sea” (2010, Na Hong-jin)
There’s a good reason why Ha has worked or is going to work with the nation’s best filmmakers. With a distinct, droopy-eyed expression, Ha has played heroes, villains, spies, boyfriends — pretty much all the roles young actor’s dream of playing. If you track his recent filmography, you’ll notice that his roles are only getting bigger and bigger.
When he joined forces Na Hong-jin for “The Chaser” and then “The Yellow Sea,” Ha’s career skyrocketed. Of the two films, “The Chaser” is a great showcase for the filmmaker, but “The Yellow Sea” is all about the actors. Ha plays the Yanbian (a Korean living near the Yellow Sea region) so convincingly, that you buy his wide-eyed wonder and uncertainty when his character sneaks into South Korea.
He got a coach to help with the region’s dialect that it almost sounds like he’s speaking a different language. His character starts the film telling a story about a rabid dog that gave rabies to his neighborhood, which is actually a fitting description of the tone of the film and the performances.
Ha is a lose dog being chased and trapped by gangsters, policeman, and authorities, nailing that desperation in both his acting, but also the action (a huge highlight in “The Yellow Sea”). On a side note: South Korean variety shows have also noticed that Ha has a distinct way of eating on camera, changing it per role. I thought it was interesting.
Other solid performances: “The Berlin File,” “The Chaser,” “Time,” and “The Terror Live”
17. Ryu Seung-beom – “No Mercy” (2010, Ryu Seung-beom)
When it comes to comedy, Ryu Seung-beom is one of the best. He excels in all his comedic roles as he does dramatic, which is impressive considering he started his career without any formal training. He has a look that can instantly make you laugh, but can also turn that same look into something much more sinister — whether in the same or different film. With “No Mercy,” Ryu opts for the latter while taking the performance to a degree that’s equally extreme and subdued.
The film itself is aggressively average for a South Korean revenge thriller, but Ryu’s antagonist is the highlight of the entire thing. His pitch and intonation hardly change (save for one line), and the character himself seems borderline catatonic. He actually reminds me of Brian Cox’s take on the Hannibal Lecter character in “Manhunter,” casual and calm without overacting.
At first glance, Ryu doesn’t come off as a psychopathic mastermind, but the actor understands what the role demands and takes it deathly serious. It can come off as cartoony (he has a limp and a cane) and might not work for some, but I think it’s his best performance outside of “The Unjust.” It’s definitely different, something I’d like to see Ryu do in future films. Let’s just hope the films turn out better than “No Mercy.”
Other solid performances: “The Unjust,” “The Berlin File,” “Conduct Zero,” and “Arahan.”
16. Kim Sae-ron – “A Girl at My Door” (2014, July Jung)
I didn’t think I was going to fit a child actor onto this list, but this young lady has impressed me in every one of her roles. Many will recognize her from playing the little girl that needs saving by Won Bin in “The Man From Nowhere.” Even though it was essentially the damsel-in-distress role, she did a fantastic job in making you connect with her playful and rascally persona.
In “A Girl at my Door,” her character is on the receiving end of beatings, insults, and harassment even from her own family — and if you’ve seen beatings in South Korean films, you know that it’s rough. It would be fair to say that this is a role she’s done before, as I’ve personally seen about three other films in which she does emote similarly. But Kim is excellent in gaining our sympathies, and the look of fear and worry on her face throughout is affective.
Even though she’s done this type of acting before, the finale requires Kim to go the extra mile. In the film’s climactic moment, Kim is asked to perform a scene that I feel most kids — hell, even most adults couldn’t pull off. Audiences will find it difficult to witness what happens to her character, but it’s a powerful scene, and clearly the film’s most memorable moment. If I can compare it to another performance, than it would have to be the children from “Silenced,” arguably doing some quite mature work there as well.
Other solid performances: “The Man from Nowhere,” “A Brand New Life,” and “Barbie”
15. Lee Eun-shim – “The Housemaid” (1960, Kim Ki-young)
As the film begins, Kim Ki-young spends time setting up the main family and their home in all it’s intimate detail. As soon as Lee Eun-shim’s titular character arrives, audiences can sense something’s off. Filmmaker Bong Joon-ho had described the character as a monster in a horror movie.
As Lee’s housemaid starts affecting the home in negative ways, the house warps into something much creepier. Rat killings and other horrors aside, Lee’s two-faced performance is an interesting and different for the time. She can act like a lost child when it comes to other characters, but when she’s busy seducing the father, her gaze and demeanor become much more menacing. For the 60s, it was pretty bold to see this type of sexualized performance.
I was already going to include her on this list, but this next bit of information sealed the deal: Her performance was so good that producers couldn’t cast her for future roles out of safety, ending her career before it ever took off. It’s been reported that audiences had such a visceral reaction to her performance that it would incite anger in certain crowds. Nowadays, this type of portrayal seems like a given but to see this done half a century ago makes this South Korean piece of art far ahead of its time.
Other solid performances: Well, at least she crushed it in one of the most important films in South Korean history.