A Girl at My Door
Perhaps one of the most unconventional actresses working today, from the time she starred in Bong Joon-ho’s Barking Dogs Never Bite (00), dashing around an apartment complex trying to save pups, she’s excelled at portraying people who live in their own inner reality while fully capable of taking (often strenuous) action in the real world. Bae made her debut in the horror film The Ring Virus (99) before Bong cast her in his first feature. This was quickly followed by two coming-of-age films, Plum Blossom (00), in which she plays a suicidal obsessive, and Jeong Jae-eun’s Take Care of My Cat (01), in which her character tries to find her way in the world after graduating high school. Next, she was cast as a young kidnapper in Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (02, in which her combination of ethereal ingénue looks and no-nonsense hardcore attitude brought her to prominence, leading to mainstream starring roles in comedies like Saving My Hubby (02), action films like Tube (03), and romantic dramas like Spring Bears Love (03). Japanese director Yamashita Nobuhiro also cast her as the accidental vocalist in a student rock band in Linda Linda Linda (05), which broadened her international reach. But her real breakthrough came when she reteamed with Bong on The Host (06), as a young woman using her archery talents to battle a mutant monster. The film’s world premiere at Cannes put all concerned in the spotlight. She then starred in Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Air Doll (09), playing an inflatable sex toy that develops a consciousness and falls in love. She took on a more physically vigorous role in As One (12), as the real-life North Korean table-tennis champion who teamed up with her South Korean rival to beat a Chinese doubles team. Bae made her Hollywood debut in Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas (12), playing three different characters, before starring in July Jung’s A Girl at My Door (14) as a disgraced Seoul police officer exiled to a country town where she befriends a young girl with an abusive father. Most recently she worked again with the Wachowskis in a supporting role in Jupiter Ascending.
Many said 2014 was Choi Min-sik’s year: he humanized national hero Admiral Yi Sun-shin in Korea’s all-time box-office champ The Admiral: Roaring Currents and exuded menace as the criminal overlord in Luc Besson’s blockbuster Lucy. An actor’s actor, Choi worked his way up from supporting roles and popular TV series, before appearing as the idiosyncratic prosecutor in No. 3 (97) and the uncle in Kim Jee-woon’s The Quiet Family (98), both cult favorites. He attracted critical attention as an inept and then meticulously vengeful cuckold in Jung Ji-woo’s Happy End (99), and as the brutal North Korean covert ops specialist in Kang Je-kyu’s milestone hit Shiri (99). In Song Hae-sung’s Failan (01) he gave a subtle yet stirring performance as a down-and-out thug who learns that the young immigrant (Hong Kong’s Cecilia Cheung) whom he wed in a sham marriage has died, believing him to be “the kindest man in the world.” Reaching new heights, Choi starred in Korean master Im Kwon-taek’s historical drama Chihwaseon (02) as the drunken, womanizing 19th-century painter Jang Seung-eop—and two years later starred as the vengeance-driven victim of an elaborate kidnapping in Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (03). He worked with Park again as the manipulative villain in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (05), and was cast by other prominent directors: for Ryoo Seung-wan, he played an out-of-luck boxer attempting a comeback in Crying Fist (05); for Kim Jee-woon, he was a vicious serial killer in the revenge thriller I Saw the Devil (10); and in Yoon Jong-bin’s Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time (12) he played a former customs officer who uses his connections to build a drug empire in Eighties Busan. Other key roles include the detective chief who runs an undercover operation against a criminal organization in New World (13), the down-and-out trumpet player tasked with saving a rural school band in Springtime (04), and the Korean who brings a Nepalese worker’s ashes to his hometown in Himalaya, Where the Wind Dwells (08)—not to mention voicing a duck in the hit animation Leafie, a Hen Into the Wild (11).
Star of such hits as The Chaser (08), Take Off (09), and The Berlin File (12), Ha Jung-woo is known for exuding a “guy next door” Korean masculinity that, as in the above three instances, has been poured into the forms of murderous (neighborhood) psychopath, underdog athlete, and desperate North Korean spy. Ha Jung-woo first gained critical attention in Yoon Jong-bin’s The Unforgiven (05), a military service drama that won multiple awards at Busan. He followed that up with the role of the tortured boyfriend in Kim Ki-duk’s plastic-surgery love story Time (06). Ha also starred in Gina Kim’s drama Never Forever (07), playing a Korean immigrant in the U.S. hired to secretly help an American woman (Vera Farmiga) who has a sterile Korean-American husband get pregnant. He rose to box-office prominence in 2008 as the terrifying yet mesmerizing serial killer in Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser, and in the same year played other attractive bad guys in lower keys—a gigolo in Yoon Jong-bin’s The Moonlight of Seoul and the deadbeat ex-boyfriend in Lee Yoon-ki’s stylish My Dear Enemy. He reunited with Na for the dark, brutal thriller The Yellow Sea (10) as a desperate Korean-Chinese who smuggles himself into South Korea to carry out a hit and gets caught up in a bigger plot. He won the Best Actor Paeksang Arts Award for his performance as a ski jumper in the mainstream hit Take Off (09), and when he was nominated again for The Yellow Sea the following year, he pledged that if he won, he would undertake a long walk around the country. That offhand remark became the basis of the 2012 reality comedy Project 577, in which Ha walks 360 miles from Seoul to Haenam, accompanied by Kong Hyo-jin, his co-star in Love Fiction (11) and 16 other actors. He appeared as a dogged attorney in the courtroom drama The Client (11) and as a crime boss in Yoon’s underrated Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time (11), and next came Ryoo Seung-wan’s spy thriller The Berlin File (13), which Ha anchored with his portrayal of a North Korean operative working his way through a web of international deceptions. Ha is also a painter, and has directed two films—the airplane comedy Fasten Your Seatbelt (13) and this year’s Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, a drama about a man who sells his blood to support his family, in which he played the lead role. Most recently he was the ambitious radio news commentator in Kim Byeong-woo’s gripping terrorist drama The Terror Live (13) and a butcher-turned-rebel in his third film for Yoon, the historical action film Kundo: Age of the Rampant (14).
While his rough ruddy looks and Southern dialect–tinged accent may seem to make Hwang unlikely leading-man material, he’s defied such expectations through his commitment and versatility. Hwang was the star of the megahit Ode to My Father (14), as a faithful son, brother, and husband, risking his life laboring in the mines of Germany and going to Vietnam to support his family. Embodying the generation that endured the tragedy of the Korean War, his performance struck a chord in 14 million ticket buyers. (The total population of South Korea is around 51 million.) He’s widely remembered for his Blue Dragon Awards acceptance speech for Best Actor in the romantic drama You Are My Sunshine (05): after the staff and crew has labored to set up wonderful meals, he said of making films, “All I have to do is eat well and enjoy the food. But I get all the spotlight.” This cemented his image as a humble, hardworking actor who audiences root for even in unattractive and villainous roles as in Ryoo Seung-wan’s legal thriller The Unjust (10) and Park Hoon-jung’s gangster film New World (12). Making his debut in a bit part in Im Kwon-taek’s classic Japanese colonial–era gangster hit The General’s Son (90), Hwang honed his skills on the stage and returned to the screen in Kang Je-kyu’s watershed hit Shiri (99) as a government agent. He soon attracted critical notice, first as the drummer in a struggling pop band in Yim Soon-rye’s Waikiki Brothers (01), then in a supporting role as a driven attorney in Im Sang-soo’s A Good Lawyer’s Wife (03), and as a gangster in Kim Jee-woon’s A Bittersweet Life (05). His performance as the sweet love interest in Lee Yoon-ki’s low-budget debut This Charming Girl (04) led to other softer and romantic roles in such films as All for Love (05) and You Are My Sunshine (05), Hur Jin-ho’s melodrama Happiness (07), and the comedy Dancing Queen (11)—completing the actor’s transformation into an all-round talent.
Awarded Best Actress for her turn as a tormented mother and widow in Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, Jeon Do-yeon is known for her versatility. She made her film debut in The Contact (97), a love story about a couple who meet online and followed up that popular success playing a surgeon who falls hopelessly in love with a gangster in the hit tearjerker A Promise (98). She then charmed and intrigued audiences as a young country schoolgirl jealously in love with her teacher (Lee Byung-hun) in The Harmonium in My Memory (98). She transformed again in Happy End (99) as a frustrated wife whose torrid affair incites her husband (Choi Min-sik) to murderous retribution. Her reputation as a chameleon by now established, Jeon went on to play an ever-widening spectrum of roles including an abused former ring girl scheming to make off with a dog-fighting organization’s money in Ryoo Seung-wan’s colorful action drama No Blood, No Tears (02) and as a virtuous widow in Lee Je-yong’s period piece Untold Scandal (03), an adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. In My Mother, the Mermaid (04), she appeared as a woman who travels back in time to befriend her mother (whom she also played), when she was a young haenyeo—one of Jeju Island’s famous sea women who dive for shellfish without oxygen tanks. She also played a prostitute with HIV in the love story You Are My Sunshine (05) opposite Hwang Jung-min, a cool customer set on retrieving her money from a deadbeat ex (Ha Jung-woo) in Lee Yoon-ki’s My Dear Enemy (08), and as the tightly wound and then completely unhinged title character in The Housemaid (11), Im Sang-soo’s remake of Kim Ki-young’s horror classic.
Jun Ji-hyun aka Gianna Jun
The Berlin File
Gianna Jun swept to pan-Asian stardom with My Sassy Girl (01), playing the titular quirky and irrepressible beauty with a secretly broken heart. Something of a phenomenon in Asia, the film led to other similar but more contrived vehicles for Jun such as Windstruck (04) and Daisy (06). Before that, she starred opposite Lee Jung-jae in the romantic film Il Mare (00), later remade in Hollywood as The Lake House. Jun took on relatively more serious roles in the psychological horror film The Uninvited (03) and Jeong Yoon-chul’s The Man Who Was Superman (07) opposite Hwang Jung-min, with mixed success. Hollywood took note of her star power and cast her in such films as Blood: The Last Vampire (09), based on the cult anime, and Wayne Wang’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (11), opposite Hugh Jackman. Choi Dong-hoon cast her in his hit ensemble heist movie The Thieves (12), showcasing her celebrated sassiness to more mature advantage as a duplicitous, sexy-and-I-know-it criminal. Then Ryoo Seung-wan cast her in his espionage thriller The Berlin File (13) as a North Korean interpreter framed for treason. Ryoo famously got his actors and crew to shun the glamorous and popular star in order to help her inhabit the character’s isolation, resulting in what was arguably Jun’s best performance to date. She’s working with Choi on another ensemble film, Assassination, due out this summer. Set during the Japanese occupation in the Thirties, the film follows a band of resistance fighters who re-enter Korea for a covert mission.
One of the few Korean stars to break into Hollywood, Lee is known for bringing his sharp looks, well-honed acting skills, and ripped abs to supporting roles in RED 2 (13), G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (09), and its sequel G.I. Joe: Retaliation (13). But before Hollywood took notice, Lee had already built up a pan-Asian fan base with film and TV roles. One of his early hits was in Park Chan-wook’s seminal J.S.A.: Joint Security Area (00) as a conflicted South Korean soldier who befriends counterparts across the Demilitarized Zone. He worked with Park again as a deluded husband in “Cut,” the director’s segment of the omnibus horror film Three… Extremes (04). The other commercially successful auteur he has worked with most frequently, Kim Jee-woon, cast him as the iconic lead in the gangster film A Bittersweet Life (04), as “The Bad” character in the Manchuria-set Western The Good, the Bad, the Weird (08), and as a secret agent tracking a serial killer (Choi Min-sik) in I Saw the Devil (10). Early on, Lee was a memorable romantic lead in The Harmonium in My Memory (99) and Bungee Jumping of Their Own (00), and as a kind of homme fatale in Addicted (02) and Everybody Has Secrets (04). The actor’s biggest local hit to date was the period drama Masquerade (12), in which he successfully played dual roles: a king beset by court intrigue and his peasant look-alike, who is persuaded to stand in for him. Lee returns to Hollywood this summer as T-1000 in Terminator: Genisys.
Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits
Warm, sometimes glamorous, but always down-to-earth and thoughtful, Moon won the Venice Film Festival’s Best Emerging Actress prize in 2002 for her transformative performance in Lee Chang-dong’s Oasis, in which she played a woman with cerebral palsy who falls in love with a misfit played by Sol Kyung-gu. Moon had only been in one previous film—a supporting role in Lee’s Peppermint Candy (99). She followed Oasis with a bold and powerful performance as a grieving mother who starts an affair with the teenage boy next door in Im Sang-soo’s A Good Lawyer’s Wife (03). Unlike some actresses her age, she has never shied away from playing mothers—as in Yim Soon-rye’s drama Fly, Penguin (09) or The President’s Barber (03)—nor demurred from portraying sexually liberated women, as in the comedies Bewitching Attraction (06), in which she played a promiscuous college professor, and in Kwon Chil-in’s Venus Talk (13), in which she’s the passionate wife with a possibly impotent husband. Adding to the variety of her work, she played an Olympic handball athlete in Forever the Moment (07), voiced an adventurous rule-breaking chicken in the animated Leafie, a Hen Into the Wild (11), and portrayed a shaman in Park Chan-kyong’s documentary/drama Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits (13). She has also worked with Hong Sangsoo in Hahaha (10), In Another Country (12), and Hill of Freedom (14). She and husband Jang Joon-hwan (director of 2003’s Save the Green Planet!) are something of a power couple, and together they led some of the film industry’s most prominent members in a protest last summer over the government’s handling of the Sewol ferry disaster.
With his boyish features, Park is known for his ability to shift from pure and innocent-seeming to dark and twisted merely by changing the expression in his eyes. His most memorable performances are shaded with such ambiguity, like the suspected serial killer in Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (03), whose demeanor confounds both his police interrogators and the audience. Park worked again with Bong on his sci-fi mutant blockbuster The Host (06), creating an idiosyncratic screwball character whose unusual skill set help him save the day. With his talent for portraying angry, alienated, and reluctant heroes, Park also tapped into box-office gold playing a skilled archer in Kim Han-min’s period action film War of the Arrows (11). While Park also excels at playing educated losers who try to talk or whine their feckless ways into a woman’s bed—as in Park Chan-ok’s Jealousy Is My Middle Name (02), or Zhang Lu’s more introspective Gyeongju (14)—he’s also believable playing decent, well-meaning guys in romances like The Scent of Love (03) and My Mother, the Mermaid (04). Most recently he has been lauded for his portrayals of a celebrated elderly poet trapped in a triangle of desire in Jung Ji-woo’s A Muse (12), a down-and-out filmmaker in Song Hae-sung’s comical Boomerang Family (12), and a driven investigative journalist in Yim Soon-rye’s Whistle Blower (14).
After stage work and supporting roles in films such as Jang Sun-woo’s A Petal (96) and Im Sang-soo’s Girls’ Night Out (98), Sol Kyung-gu found his break-out role in Lee Chang-dong’s Peppermint Candy (99) as a tortured man whose whole life has been tainted by the blood on his hands after the Gwangju Massacre. The image of Sol standing on a bridge with his arms held up facing an oncoming train bellowing “I want to go back again!” became one of the iconic images of the Korean film renaissance. Sol went on to star in Lee’s Oasis (02) as a developmentally challenged man who falls in love with a young woman with cerebral palsy (Moon So-ri). He is also noted for his portrayal of the legendary Korean-Japanese wrestler who overcame prejudice and discrimination to become a national hero in Song Hae-sung’s Rikidozan: A Hero Extraordinaire (04). Sol has acquitted himself well in lighter roles—the ordinary bank employee in the romance I Wish I Had a Wife (00), or the unlucky prisoner in Kim Sang-jin’s comedy Jail Breakers (02). But it is in the darker characters tinged with depravity and inner torment that he shines, as in Kang Woo-suk’s Public Enemy crime series and his blockbuster hit Silmido (03), in which death-row inmates train to become an elite squad tasked with assassinating North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung. Sol also stood out as anguished fathers in Park Jin-pyo’s Voice of Murderer (06), in which he plays a television anchorman whose son is kidnapped, and in Lee Joon-ik’s Hope (13), as a man caring for a daughter traumatized by sexual abuse. A proven audience draw, Sol has also played his share of good guy heroes in blockbusters like the tsunami film Haeundae (Tidal Wave, 09) and The Tower (12).
In a country torn between sociopolitical extremes, Song is the rare actor capable of achieving box-office success with controversial material—as demonstrated by The Attorney (13), based on the life of the often polarizing late ex-president Roh Moo-hyun. Song has the ability to get viewers to identify with and root for his underdogs and reluctant yet driven heroes. He made his big-screen debut in Hong Sangsoo’s The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (96), and his career mirrors the development of the Korean cinema renaissance. After appearing in the gangster comedy No. 3 (97), Lee Chang-dong’s Green Fish (97), and Kim Jee-woon’s horror comedy The Quiet Family (98), he had key roles in two landmark late-Nineties hits, Kang Je-kyu’s Shiri (99), as a South Korean operative on the trail of North Korean spies, and Park Chan-wook’s J.S.A.: Joint Security Area (00), as a hardened North Korean soldier who, despite himself, befriends the young South Korean guards on the other side of the DMZ. (In 2009, he starred in another North-and-South political thriller with reconciliatory tones, Jang Hoon’s Secret Reunion, as a maverick South Korean agent who eventually teams up with a spy from the North.) Song worked with Park again in the kidnapping thriller Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (02) and as the vampire priest in Thirst (09). He also worked with Bong Joon-ho, playing a rural detective trying to close a serial-killing case in Memories of Murder (03), which in turn led to his role as the off-kilter father trying to save his daughter from a Han River mutant in The Host (06) and his appearance in Snowpiercer (13). He also played a supporting role in Lee’s Secret Sunshine (07) as well as starring in two Han Jae-rim films, the gangster drama The Show Must Go On (06) and the hit period drama The Face Reader (13).