In addition to writing a piece on the best, individual performances, this piece is meant to celebrate the best actors currently working in South Korean cinema. For this list, I chose 20 individuals—a mix of male and female. Most of these people had their start in television and some also work concurrently in both mediums. Don’t expect much young, hot talent from dramas since this is mostly going to feature actors from their work in film.
Furthermore, to provide a challenge, I ranked them based on their film roles (and little T.V.) I’ve seen and read regarding. You can possibly guess a few of the top spots, but I can guarantee that I didn’t include a name or two on the list that matches the sensibility of many readers. Don’t be silent, let me know in the comments below!
20. Gianna Jun (October 30, 1981)
Notable roles: “My Sassy Girl,” “Daisy,” “The Thieves”
As far as female movie stars can go, Gianna Jun is one of the hottest names and stars working today. Already with some light, crossover appeal, Jun’s career is only looking to get bigger. Starting as a film and theater student, Jun found some light success in modeling and acting in television, but truly broke out in much beloved 2001 romantic comedy “My Sassy Girl.”
Since then, Jun has played various different roles in several different genres. Whether she’s a psychic, a painter, thief, or vampire hunter, Jun has demonstrated she’s more than just a pretty face (even though she’s beautiful). She’s currently wrapped two films—a Korean production called “Assassination” and the other a Hong Kong film called “The Ferryman.”
19. Ryu Seung-beom (August 9, 1980)
Notable roles: “Crying Fist,” “The Berlin File,” “The Unjust,” “Bloody Ties,” “No Mercy”
Without any formal training during his early years, Ryu has become quite the versatile performer since debuting in his brother’s first film, “Die Bad.” While many praise Ryu for his comedic sensibility, the man has been able to imbue much pathos to his characters. He can turn his comedic style into something enjoyable or quite menacing, depending on the role.
But films such as “Crying Fist” and “The Beast and the Beauty” have also demonstrated Ryu to being quite capable as a dramatic performer. With Ryu, you never really know what type of performance you’re getting—just expect to smile along with the man, if not uncomfortably.
18. Kim Hye-su (September 5, 1970)
Notable roles: “Tazza: The High Rollers,” “The Hypnotized,” “Kick the Moon,” “The Thieves”
Personally, hearing that a female performer does “adult roles” always came off as a justification for doing slightly risqué parts. While that is applicable to Kim Hye-su, I do believe she’s much smarter than that, ultimately playing to her strengths. She has played the object of affection for many male characters onscreen, using varying degrees of her sexuality.
Even when Kim is playing an average woman like she is in “YMCA Baseball Team” or “Kick the Moon,” one can’t help be drawn to her captivating presence. When she does the opposite and plays a mentally unstable woman in “The Hypnotized,” she’s just as alluring for completely different reasons.
That’s why her role in “Tazza: The High Rollers” is perfect casting, as she owns that film in her role as the femme fatale. She’s not on this list for being simply being a gorgeous human being, but rather for fearlessly reworking that sensual presence per role.
In a culture obsessed with physical perfection, there will always be characters that need simply fit a look, especially women. With Kim, they get so much more.
17. Kim Yun-seok (January 21, 1968)
Notable roles: “The Chaser,” “The Thieves,” “Hwayi: The Monster Boy,” “The Yellow Sea”
When it comes to playing anti-heroes or villains, Kim Yun-seok has proven not only reliable, but quite effective in those roles. Many will recognize Kim as the pimp experiencing his worst night ever in “The Chaser.” Prior to “The Chaser,” Kim followed his theater training with the Yeonwoo Company by playing small roles in television and film.
When it came to features, he would mostly play supporting roles, but it wasn’t until playing the villain in “Tazza: The High Rollers” that audiences, critics, and filmmakers began to take notice. Kim has now become a capable leading man for all kinds of productions, most recently in South Korea’s 2014 Oscar submission “Haemoo.” It’s easy to say that Kim Yun-seok is a one-note actor, but the man is so good at delivering these characters that audiences have seemed to be in favor of his films.
16. Kim Yunjin (November 7, 1973)
Notable roles: “Ode to My Father,” “Harmony,” “Shiri,” “Seven Days,” “Heartbeat”
Western audiences might recognize Kim Yun-jin as Sun from the hit show “Lost.” What most “Lost” fans don’t realize is that Kim has had a successful career prior to the hit ABC show. Her big role came when she starred opposite of Han Suk-kyu in 1999’s “Shiri,” essentially playing three characters. Her career following “Lost” has seen her in mostly dramas and thrillers.
While Kim is an incredibly warm and welcomed presence in purely dramatic roles, her thrillers are especially interesting, since her characters in “Seven Days” and “Heartbeat” seem almost genderless in action. However, her presence in both films adds a level of urgency and an emotional depth that simply wouldn’t have been there if the role was casted male.
Today, Kim is working in America as a television actor—on “Mistresses”—as well as coming of the recent hit “Ode to My Father.”
15. Ha Jung-woo (March 11, 1979 )
Notable roles: “The Yellow Sea,” “The Terror Live,” “The Berlin File,” “Nameless Gangster”
Of all the male actors in South Korea, Ha Jung-woo’s career only seems to be going up at a desirable rate. Boasting a soft scowl, Ha has won over South Korean audiences over the years. I’ve said before in other pieces, but Ha plays character’s that make other young male actors envious, such as his role as a secret agent in “The Berlin File,” the gangster in “Nameless Gangster,” or the martial-arts folk hero in “Kundo: Age of the Rampant”—all in succession of one another.
It’s reminiscent of what’s happening to Chris Pratt in Hollywood right now. On top of these alpha male parts, Ha’s also done superbly in smaller roles, even if it’s only for two scenes like he did for filmmaker Hong Sang-soo. He’s currently working with South Korea’s best actors and filmmakers, and it it’s only a matter of time before he works with someone as big as Kim Jee-woon or Park Chan-wook.