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2021 in Review, in Awe: The K-Drama Breakout Stars

We list the up-and-coming k-drama actors that left us awestruck because of their versatility, ability to draw emotions from the audience, or ownership of their characters.

What makes actors memorable? Is it their transformation into several distinct characters across various TV series? The strength of emotions elicited from the viewers? Or the ability to disappear into the characters they portray?

An actor may appear in many shows over several years before they become famous. Sometimes, all it takes is one drama, or even one scene, to embed an actor into the audience's collective long-term memory. In this article, we celebrate this year's k-drama breakout actors whose remarkable performances left us in awe.


Versatility Across Genres

Han So-hee of My Name and Nevertheless

“It girl” Han So-hee could easily coast on her stunning looks, but this 2020 Baeksang Best New Actress nominee is determined to push herself to her limits, proving that she is much more than just another pretty face. After her performance as a spoiled mistress in last year’s phenomenal hit The World of the Married, she took on her first leading roles this 2021, first as an art student in Nevertheless, then as a vengeful cop in the action-packed noir Netflix series My Name. The latter required several months of martial arts training, and allowed her to show off her range.

This breakout star has worked so hard this year that she’s had to drop out of a film project due to fatigue, but is bouncing back soon with the romance drama Soundtrack #1 with Park Hyung-sik, helmed by Vincenzo director Kim Hee-won.

Ahn Bo-hyun of Yumi’s Cells and My Name

Unafraid of physical transformation for a role, Ahn Bo-hyun is becoming more recognized for his realistic portrayals, especially as the bully in Itaewon Class (2020). He was then cast as the male lead this year in the dramas My Name and Yumi’s Cells. He will lead next year’s tvN series Military Prosecutor Doberman as Do Bae-man.

He surprised many viewers when he easily switched from a “bad guy” in Itaewon Class to a police officer in the action thriller My Name. For his role as Jeon Pil-do, he bulked up and made full use of his boxing skills for the action sequence and unleashed his sensuality for the risqué scene with Han So-hee. As a game developer in the animation/live-action romance Yumi's Cells, he was praised for his resemblance to his long-haired character Goo Woong, complete with goatee. He carried Woong’s personality so well – awkward and caring but proud and career-oriented.

Tang Joon-sang of Move to Heaven and Racket Boys

After making an impression on us as a North Korean soldier in last year’s mega-hit Crash Landing on You, Tang Joon-sang declared 2021 as his year with superb back-to-back performances that displayed both his range and depth as an actor.

In Move to Heaven, his powerfully restrained portrayal of a trauma cleaner with Asperger’s syndrome was so nuanced and effective that co-actor Lee Je-hoon credited him for much of the show’s success. He quickly followed this up with a starring role in high school sports drama Racket Boys, where he transformed into a gifted but cocky athlete who discovers friendship and young love in a small town’s scrappy badminton team.

And he’s only getting started: The 18-year-old Korean-Malaysian, who debuted at the age of seven in the stage musical Billy Elliot, is set to hone his talents further as a student at the Department of Theater and Film at Chung-Ang University. Next year, he’ll also star alongside Oscar winner Youn Yuh-jung (Minari) in the film Dog Days.

Koo Kyo-hwan of D.P. (Deserter Pursuit) and Kingdom: Ashin of the North

Koo Kyo-hwan won the Baeksang Arts Awards nod for Best New Actor in Film when he portrayed a transgender in Jane. Although he’s more known as a film director in certain circles, it was his portrayal as the unreliable Captain Seo of the underground fight club in Peninsula that earned him wider recognition as an actor. He then co-starred with Jung Hae-in in the Netflix military drama D.P. and earned raves for his supporting performance as deserter hunter Han Ho-yul. Not one to waste any momentum, he then appeared as a North Korean staffer in the highest-grossing Korean film this year, the award-winning Escape from Mogadishu. We will definitely see more of Koo Kyo-hwan as his profile rises next year, as he is slated to be the lead in the upcoming TVING drama Monstrous.


Strong Emotional Response from the Audience

Lee Bong-ryun of Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha and Run On

2021 Baeksang Best Actress for Theatre Lee Bong-ryun broke viewers’ hearts in her emotionally charged scenes in Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha. Tired of her husband's selfishness and indifference, her character Yeo Hwa-jeong breaks down and divorces her husband for cluttering the house with his used socks. Later, the real heart-rending reason behind the divorce (not the socks!), one of the great mysteries of Gongjin, is revealed.

Lee Bong-ryun also appeared in Run On as CEO Park Mae-yi who treats the female lead as her younger sister. She was also cast in the new romance drama The One and Only.

Lee Sang-yi of Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha and Youth of May

Musical actor Lee Sang-yi debuted on television in 2017. After being cast in the family drama Once Again (2020), he earned not only the nickname “The National In-Law'' but also acting awards from APAN and KBS. Previously taking on villain roles, he worked on projects in the romance genre this year, namely, the series Youth of May, Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha, and Yumi’s Cells, and the yet-to-be-released movie Single in Seoul. Next year, he will co-star in the Netflix series Hunting Dogs.

In Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha, his character Ji PD reconnects with his college friend Hye-jin (Shin Min-ah) and finds a new friend in Chief Hong (Kim Seon-ho). Eventually, he and Chief Hong compete for Hye-jin's and even the rest of the Gongjin community's affection. Gongjin folks cannot help but fall in love with him because of his genuine care for them. Lee Sang-yi delicately expressed his love, bromance, and inner turmoil, masterfully subverting the love triangle trope in the process.

Na In-woo of Mr. Queen and River Where the Moon Rises

Historical dramas have turned out to be Na In-woo’s lucky charm and ticket to stardom this 2021. The 27-year-old actor started the year by giving some viewers a case of second lead syndrome in the fusion sageuk (historical drama) / gender-bending rom-com Mr. Queen. While this frankly alarms us over here at GwenchaNoona (so many red flags!), it just goes to show how charming this rising actor can be.

On the strength of his Mr. Queen performance, he was chosen to replace Kim Ji-soo as the lead actor in the Gugoryeo-era sageuk River Where the Moon Rises, as Kim Ji-soo faced bullying allegations. While the drama suffered delays and financial losses from having to reshoot 14 episodes with Na In-woo, things ultimately turned out well for the beleaguered project. Viewership remained steady for the rest of the broadcast, the series was named Best Drama at the Korea Broadcasting Awards, and Na In-woo received a Baeksang Best New Actor nomination and the award for New Wave Actor at the recent Asia Artist Awards.

His latest project, the romance web drama Her Bucket List drops on KakaoTV on New Year’s Eve.

Song Kang of Love Alarm 2, Nevertheless, and Navillera

Dubbed “The Son of Netflix,” Song Kang starred in three new dramas that streamed on the global platform this year. Fresh off the heels of the popular apocalyptic horror series Sweet Home, which was released in December 2020 and earned him his first Baeksang acting nomination, this rising actor took on a variety of roles that showcased his abilities. He reprised his role as a rich but lonely high school student in the second season of the youth drama Love Alarm, played a struggling ballet dancer who develops a heartwarming friendship with an elderly man in Navillera, and a gifted yet commitment-phobic sculptor in Nevertheless.

This coming year, he stars opposite Park Min-young in the JTBC drama Cruel Story of Office Romance.

Ok Ja-yeon of The Uncanny Counter, Mine, and The Veil

Ok Ja-yeon turned more than a few heads with her tall, lithe frame, striking features and strong, villainous performances in two of this year’s biggest hits. After playing an evil spirit in the fantasy series The Uncanny Counter earlier this year, she was offered her biggest role yet – as a mysterious tutor and antagonist to Lee Bo-young’s character in the high society murder mystery drama Mine.

She is currently working on the tvN noir drama Big Mouth starring Lee Jong-suk and Girls Generation’s YoonA for release in the first half of 2022.

Wi Ha-joon of Squid Game

Before Squid Game brought him international recognition, Wi Ha-joon has taken on noteworthy roles as the younger brother of Jin-ah (Son Ye-jin) in Something in the Rain (2018) and the love rival of Dae-young (Lee Do-hyun / Yoon Sang-hyun) in 18 Again (2020). He earned a Baeksang Best New Actor nomination for the series Romance Is a Bonus Book and Grand Bell and Blue Dragon Best New Actor nominations for the movie Gonjiam: The Haunted Asylum (2018). This year, he starred in the movies Shark: The Beginning and Midnight and the recently released series Bad and Crazy. He will join the drama K Project which will start filming next year.

As the only police officer curious and paranoid enough to investigate missing people in Squid Game, his character Hwang Jun-ho lets viewers vicariously discover what the mystery was all about from the perspective of the game operators, not the players. He suspects this is connected to his missing brother somehow, and how Wi Ha-joon showed that personal stake and how he uncovered the mystery endeared the audience to him even more.

Kwak Dong-yeon of Vincenzo

If we tried to define "breakout star" as someone new in the industry, Kwak Dong-yeon may not fit the bill. In fact, he has been slumming it out in the industry since 2012 and has garnered some recognition for his work. But for some insane reason, his name continued to be overshadowed by other bigger names in the industry. So logically, his stint as the inept Chair Jang Han-seo in the blockbuster drama Vincenzo would have only impacted his career ever so slightly. After all, he was sharing the screen with Song Joong-ki and Ok Taec-yeon — powerhouses of acting and charisma. But we, as viewers, were pleasantly surprised by how he brought the younger Jang's sad existence to life. His emotionally charged performance showed his character's faults and charms to such an extent that we wanted to protect Han-seo — we even recoiled and mourned at how the character arc ended. (Cue collective wailing.) He later admitted that, to him, Chair Jang's story ended with Han-seo experiencing love and joy for the first time in our precious boy's life. (Cue the sound of our hearts breaking.)

Kwak Dong-yeon is confirmed to star alongside Koo Kyo-hwan in TVING's supernatural drama series Monstrous. He is also reportedly in negotiation to star in the slice-of-life drama Gaus Electronics. Lastly, he is currently working on the tvN noir drama Big Mouth in a supporting role.


Dissolution of the Actor into the Character

Jung Ho-yeon of Squid Game

There is perhaps no one else in this list who has had a bigger breakout year than Jung Ho-yeon. In the time it took for Squid Game fever to take over the world, her Instagram following skyrocketed 6,000 percent from a respectable 400,000 to almost 24 million — easily making her the most followed South Korean actress on the platform.

Before her debut and breakout role as a North Korean defector playing a deadly game to save her family, she was a successful yet relatively unknown runway model; today, she is a global ambassador for Louis Vuitton, has a campaign with Adidas, and has appeared on the cover of almost every major fashion magazine.

As Vulture puts it, Jung Ho-yeon is the world’s current “It” girl. Now signed on to Creative Arts Agency, the same American talent agency that represents the likes of Brad Pitt and Tom Hanks, it is clear we’ve only just begun to see what she can offer.

Shin Hyun-been of Hospital Playlist 2 and Reflection of You

Even if Shin Hyun-been technically debuted in 2010 and even won the Best New Actress for Film at the Baeksang Arts Awards the same year, it took nearly a decade for her to become recognized globally, thanks to being the other half of the popular “Winter Garden'' couple of the tvN hit Hospital Playlist Seasons 1 and 2. But she really came to her own when she played an artist who has heavy issues to settle against k-drama legend Go Hyun-jung in the JTBC melodrama Reflection of You. Critics have raved about her uncanny ability to disappear into any role she’s given, from being sweet and casual, to downright obsessive and disturbing. Next year, she’s slated to star in the upcoming drama The Youngest Son of a Chaebol with Song Joong-ki and in Monstrous with Koo-Kyo-hwan and Kwak Dong-yeon.

Jo Byeong-gyu of The Uncanny Counter

Jo Byeong-gyu played the mischievous twin in SKY Castle (2018), an abused slave in Arthdal Chronicles (2019), and a gopher of a troubled pro baseball team in Hot Stove League (2019). He won Best New Actor in the 28th SBS Drama Awards for Hot Stove League, prompting adoring greetings from “Mama” OCN, “auntie” tvN, Netflix Korea, CJ ENM, and KBS on Instagram.

In his first lead role in The Uncanny Counter as So-mun, an orphan recruited to fight evil spirits, he has proven his great acting chops whether in dramatic or action-packed scenes. He won the Rising Star Award in the 16th Asia Model Awards while the webtoon adaptation became the most popular OCN series and such a top-rated Netflix show that season 2 has been confirmed.

Jeon Yeo-been of Vincenzo

Jeon Yeo-been’s professional acting career may have started relatively late for someone her age, but she quickly established herself as one to watch. Her performance in the 2017 mystery film After My Death earned her a whopping 11 acting awards, and she became known to the industry as “Rookie Monster” and “Freaky Newcomer.” This year, she landed the enviable role of the female lead to Song Joong-ki in his comeback drama Vincenzo and gained quite the fan following as sassy lawyer Hong Cha-young. Recently named Best Artist-Actress at the Asian Artists Awards, there’s no stopping Jeon Yeo-been. She is slated to star in the upcoming Netflix comedy-thriller Glitch with Lee Dong-hwi and Nana.


Youth of May, Mr. Queen, River Where the Moon Rises and The Veil are available on Viu while Yumi's Cells may be streamed through iQIYI. My Name, Move to Heaven, D.P. (Deserter Pursuit), Love Alarm, and Squid Game are part of the Netflix Original Series. You can also watch the rest of the series mentioned in the headings on Netflix.

Watch for the breakout actors' upcoming k-dramas in the GwenchaNoona Forum.


Which 2021 performance did you find most riveting? Whose star shone the brightest this year in your opinion?

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