14. Han Hyo-joo (February 22, 1987)
Notable roles: “Always,” “Masquerade,” “Cold Eyes”
While she got her start in mostly sitcoms and dramas, Han would slowly break into films, playing roles that other female actors would get during their transition from television to film. Unlike other female actors, Han was leaving television with a bit more at hand, receiving awards and accolades for her roles playing a young woman in “Brilliant Legacy” and “Dong Yi.”
With many female actors in their 20’s struggling to break through in film, Han’s early onscreen roles were great, but mostly lumped together in praise of the films themselves, such as “Masquerade.” It wasn’t until “Cold Eyes” that she really made her mark, playing the tomboyish rookie for South Korea’s top surveillance unit.
It was a role completely against type, and she somehow stole the show while working alongside movie stars such as Jung Woo-sung and Sol Kyung-gu. With a handful of films coming out in 2015, Han doesn’t seem like stopping anytime soon. Still under 30, she’s definitely going to have a solid career in the next several years.
During the refinement of this list, I came across Han’s name on three separate occasions. It wasn’t until the third time that I realized that several of my favorite female characters were done by her. Of all the young, gorgeous and talented female actors in their 20s, Han is the one worth championing.
13. Lee Byung-hyun (July 12, 1970)
Notable roles: “A Bittersweet Life,” “J.S.A.: Joint Security Area,” “I Saw the Devil”
Lee Byung-hyun is probably the actor who’s crossed over most successfully. Audiences worldwide have already seen him in the “G.I. Joe” films, but they’ll soon be seeing him playing the iconic T-1000 in the upcoming “Terminator Genisys.”
Before making films overseas, Lee had a huge career in South Korean film and television. With an icy cool persona and exterior, he’s worked with some of the best filmmakers such as Kim Jee-woon and Park Chan-wook, as well as acting in many successful films in South Korea. His role as the existential gangster in “A Bittersweet Life” has become quite beloved by both fans and filmmakers alike.
It seemed for some time that Lee would find trouble getting casted in South Korean films due to certain controversy regarding his personal life (hence his work in Hollywood), but Lee’s currently scheduled for two big Korean productions, so it doesn’t seem like he’s completely shunned from the South Korean industry.
12. Jeong Jae-yeong (November 21, 1971)
Notable roles: “Broken,” “Confession of Murder,” “Castaway on the Moon,” “Silmido”
When it comes to underrated male actors, Jeong Jae-yeong face immediately comes to mind. A great character actor, Jeong’s career (like many others) started out in mostly supporting roles. Even after starring in several successful films years later, Jeong will still take supporting roles and completely own them. He’s done in it both “Silmido” and “Moss,” even as far as earning awards for the his supporting role in the latter.
Yet, when’s leading a film, Jeong can become truly affecting. His role in the recent indie thriller “Broken” is one of the most raw and uncomfortable performances from his entire career, deserving of all the praise and future roles.
He’s proven himself as quite the comedic talent in “Going by the Book” and “Castaway on the Moon,” but done so in a mostly grounded and character-driven manner. Filmmakers need not to cast Jeong in the lead role, but from what I’ve seen, having the man in their film is far better than not.
11. Yoon Yeo-jeong (June 19, 1947)
Notable roles: “The Taste of Money,” “The Housemaid,” “Hahaha,” “Actresses”
Spanning over four decades, Yoon has made quite an accomplished career in both film and television—especially television. While she’s mostly playing roles reserved for the elderly, Yoon does more than just the grandmother routine.
I’m convinced she’s down to almost anything that she finds interesting. She’s played a quirky crime boss in “Hindsight,” or a the mistress of a successful CEO in “Taste of Money,” all without losing a sense of grace and softness in her persona, even when her characters are objectively hardened in some form or the other.
It’s also worth noting that Yoon switches between indie and big-budget film more freely than other actors, especially when indie filmmaker Hong Sang-soo is making a picture. Admittedly, the films she performs in might be far from masterpieces, but one should at least expect Yoon to deliver.
10. Doona Bae (October 11, 1979)
Notable roles: “A Girl at My Door,” “Cloud Atlas,” “The Host,” “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”
Never in a million years did I think that the girl who played the telekinetic high-school student in the 90s would have such an amazing career today. Doona Bae started out in television, playing mostly teen roles in primetime genre thrillers. As she got older, so did her characters, playing young adults in film such as “Barking dogs Never Bite” and “Take Care of My Cat.”
Yet, her performance in “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” was a huge leap from the roles she was known for doing. She would then later take part in some Japanese productions before getting casted in the Watchowski’s “Cloud Atlas,” playing multiple roles.
Even though she did “Juptier Ascending” for the Watchowski’s a few years later, it was her role in South Korea’s 2014 film “A Girl at My Door” that she really wowed audience as an alcoholic police captain. Playing against type, Bae provides a career highlight with that film. Before going back to Korea, expect Bae to aid the Wachowski’s one more time for their television series “Sens8.”
9. Moon So-ri (July 2, 1974)
Notable roles: “Peppermint Candy,” “Oasis,” “A Good Lawyer’s Wife,” “The President’s Barber”
Truly underrated and under-appreciated, Moon So-ri should’ve had a bigger career. The character actor actually found most of her success early in her roles, earning awards for her collaborations with Lee Chang-dong on “Peppermint Candy” and “Oasis.” The following decade saw her either leading indie films or getting small parts in big-budget productions.
Personally, I find that filmmakers in the latter fail to utilize her strengths. Her work with indie filmmaker (once again) Hong Sang-soo feels like a low-budget retread of her work with Lee, but Moon is still fantastic in playing these everyday women who one could easily see in real life. In past couple years, Moon seems to be getting casted in more leading roles, so it’ll be interesting to see what that means for the actor in the future. I’m hoping we get to see more of her.
8. Hwang Jeong-min (September 1, 1970)
Notable roles: “Ode to My Father,” “A Man Who Was Superman,” “New World,” “The Unjust”
Hwang Jeong-min’s somewhat rugged exterior has made him the go-to guy in casting these masculine roles where a pretty-face wouldn’t cut it. This makes him perfect for characters such as the ex-fighter in “Fists of Legend,” anti-hero cop in “The Unjust” and “Bloody Ties,” or the charismatic gangster in “New World.”
Aside from doing well playing these alpha males, Hwang is simply a fantastic actor, even doing roles that are completely opposite of his rugged persona. He’s proven great in comedic roles such as in “YMCA Baseball Team,” and isn’t shy in playing insecure and self-deprecating characters in films such as “A Bittersweet Life,” “You are my Sunshine,” and “A Good Lawyer’s Wife.”
It’s only recently that South Korean audiences have been noticing Hwang’s talent, since his latest film “Ode to My Father” was a massive success, making it the second highest-grossing film in South Korea history. There’s no doubt about it, Hwang is having a great year.