7. Yun Jeong-hie (July 30, 1944)
Notable roles: “Poetry,” “Taebaek Mountain,” “Splendid Outing,” “Night Journey”
Of all the women working in South Korean cinema, few have made an impact as Yun Jeong-hie. A household name for several generations, audiences will remember Yun for her most recent role in Lee Chang-dong’s 2010 film “Poetry,” coming out of her 15-year retirement to play a grandmother suffering the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
Prior to that film, Yun has had approximately 200 roles that go date back to the late-60s. While she’s played the conventional female role, Yun is also responsible for playing characters that were ahead of their time. In doing research for a previous article, I discovered two films—1978’s “Splendid Outing” and 1977 “Night Journey—in which Yun took on a roles that subvert conventional female characters, challenging the masculine cultural norms of South Korea.
While Yun hasn’t made any strict commitments for future projects, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if “Poetry” was a one-time deal. I feel Yun’s is more than deserving of a quiet retirement. That said, I’m sure many wouldn’t complain if she returned for one more.
6. Kim Hye-ja (September 15, 1941)
Notable roles: “Mother,” “Lifetime in the Country”/“Country Diaries” (T.V.)
While I would rank Kim Hye-ja higher on this list, most of her work as an actor has mostly been through television, most notably playing the mother roles several times. She’s earned the nickname as the “nation’s mother,” even going as far as playing the same role on television for two decades on MBC’s “Lifetime in the Country” (the longest running program in South Korea).
Many people overseas will recognize her playing the titular role in Bong Joon-ho’s 2009 mystery thriller entitled “Mother.” She and Bong received worldwide love and recognition for their work on that film. In an interview with Arirang Culture, she stated was immensely grateful for everyone’s response, especially winning opposite of Colin Firth in the 36th Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards in 2010.
Since “Mother,” Kim has stuck mostly with theater and television, with a small supporting role in a 2014 “How to Steal a Dog.” While there aren’t any new projects lined up for the aged actor, it doesn’t seem like she’s stopping acting anytime soon. The fact that she played 11 different roles during her 2013-2014 production of her one woman show, “Oscar, Letters to God,” shows she still pushing herself as an actor.
5. Sol Kyung-gu (May 1, 1968)
Notable roles: “Peppermint Candy,” “Public Enemy” series, “Cold Eyes,” “Silmido,” “Oasis”
Sol Kyung-gu is a huge box-office draw in South Korea. Incredibly versatile, Sol has played all kinds of characters in many different genres. He’s had movie star roles such as his work in “Cold Eyes,” “Tidal Wave,” and “The Tower,” but is also responsible for being great incredibly memorable in some new-wave favorites such as “Peppermint Candy” and “Silmido.”
Sol has even done subtle or noticeable body transformations for roles such as the wrestler in “Rikidōzan” or the manic detective in the “Public Enemy” films. The man took a temporary break from acting to teach the subject at Hanyang University—his alma mater—only to return with the upcoming Korean-war film entitled “Western Front.”
Personally, I’ve seen Sol in films in which he does more posturing and scene-chewing than acting, but with admission that the performance fit the personality of the character he’s playing. As cliché as it sounds, at his best, Sol disappears into the role. Whether it was “Peppermint Candy,” “Oasis,” and “Silmido,” Sol is completely unrecognizable and engaging. His collaborations with Lee are some of the best acting I’ve ever seen, and for that, he gets a spot high on this list.
4. Jeon Do-yeon (February 11, 1973)
Notable roles: “Secret Sunshine,” “Way Back Home,” “The Housemaid,” “Untold Scandal”
A little more than 20 years ago, Jeon took roles early in her career that’s found her both praise and controversy, especially for her promiscuous character in “Happy End.” However, the minor backlash seemed to work in her favor, as she’s recognized today as somewhat of a pioneer for females in film, urging young performers to negate the distractions and simply commit to the role.
Today, Jeon Do-yeon is probably one of the best—if not the best currently working female actor in South Korean cinema. Also known as the “Princess of Cannes” in South Korea (for her role in “Secret Sunshine”), Jeon is the recipient of constant praise from both local and international circuits. She’s great in whatever role she’s given, elevating certain films she’s in as well.
One-woman shows such as “Secret Sunshine” and “Way Back Home” are where Jeon truly shines. While I’d urge everyone to check out those films—understand that the films are emotionally draining, especially “Secret Sunshine.”
Actor Song Kang-ho has teased Jeon in the past for peaking early, stating that no one will hire her in her old age. Deep down, I think Song knows she’s got quite the career ahead of her. Regardless, South Korea is fortunate to have someone as talented as Jeon Do-yeon.
3. Song Kang-ho (January 17, 1967)
Notable roles: “The Host,” “J.S.A.: Joint Security Area,” “The Attorney,” “No. 3”
Immensely charismatic and likable, Song Kang-ho is one of the must successful actors on this list. His face and name alone can fill theaters in South Korea. A consummate performer, Song commits to every role he’s given. Even though he gives off a lively demeanor in his acting, Song takes each role seriously, purposely favoring darker roles over comedy when the opportunity rises.
It may not seem that way, but if you consider his past five films—“The Attorney,” “The Face Reader,” “Snowpiercer,” “Howling,” and “Hindsight”—the statement rings somewhat true, since none of these films are objectively comedic. Yet, Song’s acting can evoke humor even without ruining the tone and pacing of the scene. More often that not, he improves them with his impeccable timing. Whether his performance is grounded or over-the-top, it’s hard not to have fun with Song in his films.
Actor Jeon Do-yeon has teased Song in the past, saying that he has everything a male actor needs minus good looks. While the last statement is arguable, there’s no denying that Song does indeed have everything else to his advantage today. He’s a modern star that’s destined to become an icon for the nation, assuming he already hasn’t.
2. Ahn Sung-kee (January 1, 1952)
Notable roles: “Silmido,” “Chilsu and Mansu,” “Unbowed,” “White Badge”
Ahn Sung-kee is the most respected living actor South Korean cinema. Acting since he was a child since the late-1950s, Ahn has worked with many of the nation’s best directors, actors, and producers.
With a career lasting over a half-century, Ahn has also endured cultural censorship and a few regime changes, playing characters in films that also reflected such transition. He’s so prolific that the local press has given him the nickname “the Nation’s Actor,” playing roles ranging from the lowest of society to the President of South Korea (unsure if he’s ever played a god, but that wouldn’t surprise me).
Today, if there’s a role featuring a wise, elderly character, you can bet that most filmmakers would pick Ahn in their heads. The man is able to convey wisdom and gravitas in several different ways, making his characters usually worth the audience’s full attention. You can bet that he’s the safest choice for delivering exposition.
Between Lee Byung-hyun and Ahn Sung-kee, most American or worldwide audiences would recognize the former as opposed to the latter. Yet, in 2012, both men were honored as the first two Koreans to leave their handprints and footprints on the forecourt of the Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, California. While Lee was chosen by Korean affiliates in Hollywood, Ahn was suggested by the Korean Film Producers Association.
Active in the industry and still in great physical condition for his age, unless the future of South Korean cinema is going to be purely melodramas, Ahn doesn’t see himself stopping anytime soon.
1. Choi Min-sik (April 27, 1962)
Notable roles: “Oldboy,” “Failan,” “I Saw the Devil,” “Crying Fist,” “Shiri”
If Ahn Sung-kee is “the Nation’s Actor,” then “Oldboy” himself is the nation’s fire. Known for his explosive, volatile style of acting, Choi Min-sik is an unstoppable powerhouse of a talent that’s still affecting the nation’s cinema in a big way.
After introducing most of the world to South Korean cinema with his breakthrough role and film “Oldboy,” Choi has only been rising to the top of his profession. His work in films and television were still quite noticeable prior to his career-highlight collaboration with director Park Chan-wook, but the man was able to surpass those achievements almost a decade later.
After completing “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance,” Choi stopped acting for a few years in protest of the South Korean studio’s methods of production. While most actors might find it tough to recover from years of absence, Choi came back to the mainstream starring opposite of Lee Byung-hyun in Kim Jee-woon’s 2011 revenge-epic, “I Saw the Devil.”
Since his return, his roles and films have only gotten better—with “Nameless Gangster” as quite possibly his best performance in recent years. In 2014, he starred as the renowned Admiral Yi Sun-shin in the period blockbuster “The Admiral: Roaring Currents,” eviscerating the competition in sales, destroying box-office records months after its release. A big film with an equally big lead performance, it will be tough for Choi to top what he’s done with “The Admiral: Roaring Currents.”
While I’ve said this about other actors on this list, it also applies for Choi: his name will get an audience. While I think he hasn’t done anything as bold as “Oldboy,” the fact that Choi can still be a beast of a performer after ten years is an exciting thing for fans of South Korean cinema.
Even though his role in “Lucy” was a variation of what he’s done before, he’s still pretty fun to watch in that nutty film. While a role like Oh Dae-su might never come again, Choi doesn’t seem content in taking things easy. As long as he has that fire inside him, we’ll be treated to some interesting films.
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.