The 20 Greatest Movie Performances by a South Korean Actor

14. Yun Jeong-hie – “Poetry” (2010, Lee Chang-dong)

Poetry (2010)

When the director was writing the character, Lee wanted someone who was not only from an older generation, but also retained this purity that was ageless, “a little girl on the inside.” For 16 years, Yun Jeong-hie had already retired after a long career in acting, belonging in numerous South Korean classics. After meeting with Yun, Lee thought she was perfect. And she is!

At first glance, audiences will feel sorry for Mi-ja, since she single-handedly takes care of this really shitty grandson. But that doesn’t stop her from loving life and enjoying the world, making the rest of her journey all the more heartbreaking. When a pivotal event changes her family’s future, Mi-ja’s sunny disposition isn’t turned into a completely bleak, hopeless journey in which we spend time feeling sorry for the character (although, some of that happens).

Yun’s performance reveals a tenacious woman who’ll fight to keep her sanity, health, and ideals alive. You realize immediately that Lee didn’t cast Yun for her age, but for her talent and experience. Yun’s performance is powerful and moving.

Other solid performances: “Splendid Outing” and “Night Journey”


13. Lee Byung-hyun – “A Bittersweet Life” (2005, Kim Jee-woon)

A Bittersweet Life movie

Before Lee Byung-hyun became the new Snake Eyes or the T-1000, he’s had an amazing career in his homeland, working with some of the best South Korean filmmakers on some of the best films. When I think of physical performances, I tend to think of the action genre, where guys like Park Hae-il and Won Bin were able to make the physical transformation (i.e. train and bulk up) to complement the more physically demanding scenes.

Lee is no stranger to that kind of stuntwork, but what he does physically in “A Bittersweet Life” isn’t limited to his roundhouse kicks and punches. Here, Lee channels Alain Delon in playing the number two/gang enforcer for his criminal organization. The way Lee controls his movements, expressions, and speech say all that’s needed for the character. It’s a purely physical role that has him speak only when necessary.

Whether it’s a meeting with his boss or when he tries to obtain a gun, Lee’s reaction and nuances in his movement — despite being seated in both scenes — reveal two completely different emotional states. I do understand the criticisms that he and many similar actors get, hired for their popularity rather than actual talent. I can say that Lee is definitely great when working with the right people. If you need more convincing, also check out “Masquerade.”

Other solid performances: “I Saw the Devil,” “Masquerade,” “J.S.A.: Joint Security Area,” and “The Good, The Bad, The Weird”


12. Kim Hye-soo – “Tazza: The High Rollers” (2006, Choi Dong-hoon)

Kim Hye-soo - “Tazza The High Rollers”

Like many other South Korean female actors, Kim Hye-soo is a gorgeous human being, capable of drawing the attention of men and women much like of her characters. The ultimate version of that persona has to be her role as Madam Jeong in “Tazza: The High Rollers.”

Here, she plays the cigarette smoking, femme-fatale who acts as a tantalizing guide in the underground world of high-stakes gambling. Choi’s decision to have her narrate the film was a smart one. Her narration is meant to lure the viewer into the film’s setting, despite the images stating otherwise.

Also, that voice. The performance exudes confidence — both physically and verbally — but it’s quite awesome to see what happens to that confidence when things get somewhat troubling for her character in the end. Despite being a film about men trying to be the world’s best gambler, she’s the clear winner. Similar character types have popped up in recent action and thrillers, but they feel like pale imitations of Kim’s role in this film. Like the best femme-fatales, it’s a character I can’t get her out of my mind.

Other solid performances: “The Thieves,” “The Hypnotized,” and “Kick the Moon”


11. Chun Woo-hee – “Han Gong-ju” (2013, Lee Su-jin)

Han Gong-ju

As the film begins, the camera lingers on the background actors waiting in this school conference room, before finally ending the scene on the uneasy expression on Chun’s face. With one look, she sets the stage for the unrelenting performance and story that’s sure to follow.

Playing the high-school victim of a traumatizing assault, Gong-ju relocates to a different school and city to start fresh. But Chun’s performance conveys the weight of the incident still present in her mind, juxtapose to the care-free teenage personality prior to the tragic incident (and her new classmates).

When she says or hears something from an interaction that clearly affects her, Chun’s gaze feels like the character is struggling to contain herself. The moments in which she does seemingly start to break down are some of the hardest scenes to watch, commanding our sympathies through an incredibly minimal performance.

A lesser filmmaker would’ve had a moment in which the character just unleashes her emotions and verbally expounds to the audience her inner psychology. Here, it’s what Chun doesn’t do that’s equally, if not more impressive. As an up and coming actor, Chun hasn’t really done much. But after here memorable role here, I’m definitely interested in seeing what she does next.

Other solid performances: “Mother” (I guess she has a small role in that film)


10. Shin Ha-kyun – “Save the Green Planet” (2003, Jang Joon-hwan)

Shin Ha-kyun - “Save the Green Planet”

Shin’s a very popular actor in South Korea. Versatile and sporting a memorable smile, Shin has played all types of characters in big movies that I’m sure even fans worldwide will recognize him from his work with filmmaker Park Chan-wook. While the choice came down between this and “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” I ultimately went with “Save the Green Planet” based on what Shin was asked to do for that particular film.

With “Mr. Vengeance,” Shin was heartbreakingly great as the Ryu, the troubled mute who’s dire situation only gets worse after a botched ransom. With “Save the Green Planet,” both Shin and the director Jang had the monumental task of balancing between crazy and sympathetic regarding the portrayal Shin’s character.

He plays it unhinged and crazy, but you can’t help but feel incredibly sorry for the dude. You feel so bad that by some miracle, you kind of want his crazy scheme to be validated: that the business executive in his captivity is actually an alien from Andromeda.

I’m not going to spoil the film, and if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to check it out. Tonally, “Save the Green Planet” goes in many different areas, but Shin shifts accordingly. It’s a gonzo movie with an equally gonzo lead performance that I feel many will find this film sticking with them long after it’s over.

Other solid performances: “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “The Frontline,” “No Mercy for the Rude,” “Thirst,” and “J.S.A: Joint Security Area”


9. Yoon Yeo-jeong – “The Housemaid” (2010)

Yoon Yeo-jeong - “The Housemaid”

Although Yoon Yeo-jeong has had a long career filled with several leading roles, she hasn’t affected me as she did in her supporting role as the elder housemaid who (with much contempt) guides the titular character through the twisted home of the rich family.

Yoon’s performance is fantastic. She’s stoic, hard, and no-nonsense when it comes to doing work for this uncaring family, but her performance suggests something hidden deep down in her character. While she’s great onscreen with the other cast members, it’s when she’s alone that the hidden resentment comes out at full force. It’s both comedic and surprising, but also informs much of what the character and film are trying to say about the punishing frustrations that come with working under some immoral and wealthy people.

I loved it, since her past roles are usually quite gentle. In a film designed to sell audiences on sex, scandal, and heightened drama, it’s amazing that the thing I remember most (other than the boning) is the journey/sub plot of a senior housemaid. When the character finally stands up for herself, Yoon’s delivery is unexpected and awesome.

Other solid performances: “Actresses,” “The Taste of Money,” “Hahaha,” and “Woman of Fire (1970)”


8. Moon So-ri – “Oasis” (2002, Lee Chang-dong)

Moon So-ri - “Oasis”

Moon So-ri is one of South Korea’s talented, yet under-appreciated performers. She’s a character actor who’s been in indie films as well as big-budget blockbusters, rarely gunning for the spotlight like other performers her age, respectively. With “Oasis,” Moon plays a woman with cerebral palsy, trapped inside her own home by her family.

Moon’s performance is not only incredibly convincing, but must act in keeping the condition in mind while the character undergoes discrimination, attempted rape, and intimacy. On top of all that, Moon’s performance takes a complete left-turn during some of films most brilliantly inspired “dream” sequences that are designed to melt hearts. It’s a gut-wrenching performance that earned Moon several awards — both local and international.

Of all the people on this list, I feel that Moon deserves to be in bigger and better films. Her work has been stellar so far, but in a leading role like this, I truly believe she can amaze audiences.

Other solid performances: “Hahaha,” “The President’s Barber,” “Peppermint Candy,” and “A Good Lawyer’s Wife.”