The 20 Greatest Movie Performances by a South Korean Actor

7. Sol Kyung-gu – “Peppermint Candy” (1999, Lee Chang-dong)

Peppermint Candy

Similar to choice above, Sol Kyung-gu’s performance in “Peppermint Candy” also spans the life of the lead character. Unlike “Ode to my Father,” “Peppermint Candy” operates on a slightly darker, formally different level. While “Ode to my Father” is a hopeful and somber looks at the struggle faced by Korean families during South Korea’s troubled political history, “Peppermint Candy” is almost damning in it’s tone, revealing the corruption of one’s character and soul as a result of the nation’s history.

Entrusted to display such change this time is Sol Kyung-gu. Today, Sol is one of the nation’s most bankable starts, despite being somewhat unknown internationally (unless you like those “Public Enemy” movies). Episodic in structure, the film tells the protagonist’s story backwards, using flashback to events that led to the character running in front of a train at the start of the film. As each flashback shows a different time period and event in the protagonist’s life, almost each scene has a moment in which Sol simply destroys you with his performance.

We not only watch a man lose his soul, but we feel every heartbreaking moment with him. Whether it’s his days as a young soldier, or when he visits an old flame in the hospital, Sol’s performance is heart-rending. Say what you will about Lee Chang-dong’s film and direction, but you can’t deny the man for providing some of the best, naturalistic acting in South Korean cinema.

Other solid performances: “Public Enemy,” “No Mercy,” “Silmido,” and “Cold Eyes”


6. Hwang Jeong-min – “Ode to My Father” (2014, Jk Youn)

Hwang Jeong-min - “Ode to My Father”

Hwang Jeong-min has always been reliable in the grizzled, macho character, playing it naturally when many less fitting performers (read: pretty-faced) have to be convincingly tough and masculine. He’s definitely dipped his hand in other genres, but Hwang’s made a great career playing these tough-guy roles in a lot of South Korean thrillers.

Recently, he’s been a huge box-office draw, culminating to his career-highlight in the recent film “Ode to My Father.” An epic film and drama in it’s own right, “Ode to My Father” shows Hwang playing a man over the span of 60 years, struggling to keep his promise for the father that he lost as a child. In the film, Hwang plays the character from his 20s to his 70s (with old-age make-up and all). While each era feels distinct, Hwang doesn’t lose the fundamental personality of the character, despite the physical changes over time.

Originally, I was going to choose his role in “New World,” playing the Chinese-Korean gangster who’s twisted and fun performance was the standout of the film. I’m glad I caught this film, since it convinced me that Hwang isn’t just more than a one-note performer. It’s an example of when an actor play’s against type and the results are monumentally incredible. He’ll most likely take best actor for this role later this year.

Other solid performances: “New World,” “The Unjust,” and “A Bittersweet Life”


5. Jeon Do-yeon – “Secret Sunshine” (2007, Lee Chang-dong)

Secret Sunshine

Like Song Kang-ho, I had a tough time choosing my favorite Jeon Do-yeon. Director Lee Chang-dong can get some amazing performances from his talent. This one in particular is so incredible that when it played in Cannes in 2007, she took best actress. Jeon Do-yeon’s performance isn’t just great, it’s uncomfortably realistic.

In doing research for the film, I found that Lee pushed Jeon to the brink of utter emotional destruction. Reading about it reminds me of the stories between Kubrick and Shelly Duvall during the making-of “The Shining,” to the point in which the last few shots of the “Secret Sunshine” isn’t Jeon acting, but her staring at during filming with fierce contempt — the camera’s happen to be rolling. Since the film is about her character’s tragedy and the subsequent mourning work, I expected a few scenes of her crying.

Jeon goes beyond the call of duty in that area. When she wails — coupled with Lee’s naturalistic direction — it feels like she’s right next to us. It’s an uncomfortably emotional gauntlet, one in which Jeon’s actual suffering is felt. I say Jeon and not her character, since the featurette’s I’ve seen behind “Secret Sunshine” had one extended sequence that showed Jeon losing her sanity in character (or not) while neck-deep in a lake.

Even after camera’s stop rolling and the crew comes to get her, Yeon hasn’t stopped crying, being far from calm. In “Secret Sunshine” she breaks down constantly, and it’s felt every time. This is a tough movie to watch, but “Secret Sunshine” is an amazing cinematic achievement from the nation’s best female actor.

Other solid performances: “The Housemaid,” “Untold Scandal,” and “Way Back Home”


4. Ahn Sung-kee – “Unbowed” (2011, Jeong Ji-yeong)


For over half a century, Ahn Sung-kee has endured with the South Korean industry through different political regimes and censorships in the arts. He can be found in both classical and modern South Korean cinema, bringing nothing but the best with the role he’s given. And trust me, he’s amazing, even when in some really shit films.

But so has someone like Morgan Freeman, a comparison that I welcome since Ahn is probably the only South Korean actor who can deliver a line about anything and have the immediate gravitas to back it. He’s so good that his subsequent performances have either maintained his level of talent or topped it in some way.

Even though “Unbowed” is a few years old, it’s a perfect demonstration of Ahn’s abilities. He plays a formerly renowned, but overall disgraced professor defending himself on an attempted murder charge. While his character is perceived as stubborn and arrogant by others in the film, Ahn plays the role like he’s the smartest person in damn city, too concerned with his innocence and injustice to stop and get people on his level.

As an audience, it’s engaging to his character fight the system in that manner. For me, he’s so talented that the last film he’s in that I’ve seen is my favorite performance. Although the last film I saw with Ahn wasn’t this one (it was “The Divine Move,” a serviceable action flick), “Unbowed” is clearly a one-man show, demonstrating South Korea’s master thespian at work.

Other solid performances: “Taebaek Mountains,” “Two Cops,” “Silmido,” and “A Ball Shot by a Midget”


3. Song Kang-ho – “The Host” (2006, Bong Joon-ho)

Song Kang-ho - “The Host”

This was the toughest one. Song is probably the most charismatic actor in South Korea, responsible for many solid performances — both in leading and supporting roles. Believe me when I say I struggled with this choice, as Song himself deserves a short list of his own.

Ultimately, I went with “The Host.” While he broke out a few years earlier with “The Foul King” and “Memories of Murder,” “The Host” took his success and popularity to an international level. Playing on the actor’s more lighter side, Song’s character is a well-meaning, but dumb father who owns of a snack stand by the river. When the river gets attacked by a monster, it escapes while taking his daughter.

The happy-go-lucky idiot then becomes the simultaneous victim and utterly helpless guinea pig of the government, begging for nothing more than a sympathetic ear. Song expertly milks our sympathy until the final act, guiding the audience toward a propulsive finale in which we no longer see his character as helpless buffoon, but a determined force to be reckoned.

It’s only something that can only be done by either a solid movie star, a great actor, or some combination of both. Song is all of that, and audiences love him because he always gives a great performance, regardless of the film. He never lets anyone down, and with “The Host,” he does everything right.

Other solid performances: “J.S.A.: Joint Security Area,” “Memories of Murder,” and “The Attorney”


2. Kim Hye-ja – “Mother” (2009, Bong Joon-ho)

mother 2009

Kim Hye-ja is known as the “nation’s mother.” If you look at her long filmography, she’s played mother’s in many television shows, most notably the drama/soap “Lifetime in the Country,” in which she played the mother role for about two decades (also the longest running series in South Korean history).

When Bong Joon-ho was making his 2009 mystery thriller “Mother,” he knew it had to be Kim. As the titular character, Kim commands of every scene, drawing all the attention. Frail, vulnerable, but fiercely determined, you get that this helpless old woman would move mountains for her slow and disabled son. As Kim said herself, “She isn’t like any other mother. She’s like a beast, who acts based upon her instincts.”

At first glance, you wouldn’t suspect her character to be capable of anything close to that. It’s only a few minutes into Bong’s film that you realize her performance isn’t a variation of what she’s done. It’s a much more troubled and twisted portrayal. Bong and Kim purposefully subvert her image, resulting in one of the best South Korean films and performances in all time.

Other solid performances: It’s mostly Korean television drama that might be hard to track down.


1. Choi Min-sik – “Oldboy” (2003, Park Chan-wook)


Choi Min-sik’s near-iconic performance as Oh Dae-su is one of the many key elements that made “Oldboy” such a memorable and important film. It’s a brave performance — to say the least — doing some of the most unforgettable things for Oh Dae-su’s journey. In the role, Choi is visceral and incredibly thought-provoking.

Regardless of what phase/time in Oh Dae-su’s journey we’re at, Choi always acts accordingly, while simultaneously subduing this inner beast, manifesting itself during the more kinetic moments — something the man would take to the extreme a few years later with “I Saw the Devil.”

Since the film also spans 15 years, the character undergoes some physical changes as well, and Choi’s physical transformation from a drunk slob to a conditioned, yet anguished brute is convincing. He even kept that crazy haircut until filming was over! It’s a performance that builds to an unforgettably raw, uncompromising bit of acting that’s cemented Choi Min-sik as the nation’s best.

It’s no mistake that he’s currently responsible for being in some of the nation’s beloved, most successful films (critically and financially). He’s just that great.

Other solid performances: “Nameless Gangster,” “Failan”, and “I Saw the Devil”

Author Bio: Hanajun Chung is a geek and struggling writer. Once he got his degree, he found work mainly in post-production. But after studying journalism, he gained a newfound appreciation in writing about the things he loves, such as action flicks and South Korean cinema.