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Our Ahjussi: Remembering Lee Sun-kyun

Updated: Dec 31, 2023

For people new to Korean cinema, Lee Sun-kyun could be remembered as "the rich dad from Parasite." But millions of longtime K-drama and K-movie fans know him (and his buttery voice) from a myriad of notable works and roles, but most especially in his sui generis performance as the tormented middle-aged man whose world collapses around him in 2018's My Ahjussi.

lee sun kyun

It is not a stretch to say that Lee Sun-kyun was universally loved by K-drama fans, dating all the way back to the classic Coffee Prince, touching countless hearts, including ours at Gwenchanoona. Before he perfected the art of portraying pathos, he was a graduate of the first-ever class of the School of Drama from Korea National University School of Arts. In the next two decades, he would incur an enviable filmography, becoming a  reliable lead and a bankable actor who could deliver box office hits with theater-trained gravitas.

Lee would also become a highly respected industry veteran who was loved by his peers and colleagues. He was also not just any actor — five years before Parasite made history at the global box office and international award shows, he had become the first Korean actor to attend the Cannes, Venice, and Berlin film festivals in a single year for his prolific film work. And when AppleTV decided to diversify with Korean content, he was chosen to headline its maiden offering, Dr. Brain. He was indeed, one of his country’s most decorated talents domestically and abroad, and only a few actors have achieved similar success in both film and television.

Lee Sun-kyun was the actor you turned to when you needed hapless complexity; when you had a role that demanded melancholy and exquisite pain, but could also float a sense of hope that was as sincere as it was bruised. His buttery voice made his performances even more memorable and elevated even the most random dialogue into something more substantial. While he was terrific as a love interest and a leading man, we believe he was at his best when he played the ordinary man who suffered and endured the most extraordinary things.

The day after he is laid to rest, we take a look at some of our favorite performances from our Ahjussi, Lee Sun-kyun. 

Coffee Prince (2007)

Lee Sun-kyun began acting in musical theatre but it would be a television hit that would give him his first big break. It is not easy to transition from live performance to on-camera but he was able to pull it off. He was cast as part of the second lead couple in Coffee Prince, a 2007 gender-bending romance comedy hit. Lee played the role of a bespectacled record producer requiring him to sing in an episode. His pairing with Chae Jung-an as a couple coming to terms with forgiveness and heartbreak was a foil to the heady, giddy infatuation portrayed by Yoon Eun-hye and Gong Yoo.

In the 2020 reunion documentary of the iconic show, Lee visited the house his character lived in to reflect about what the show meant to him and other behind-the-scenes trivia. They also touched on the passing of another cast member, Lee Eon.

My Mister / My Ahjussi (2018)

This workplace slice-of-life drama quietly explores the everyday melancholy of being human, drawing out career defining-performances from Lee Sun-kyun as Park Dong-hoon, a middle-aged engineer who can’t seem to catch a break despite being a nice, upright guy, and from Lee Ji-eun (IU) as a cold and cynical temporary office worker in Dong-hoon’s firm. Through all 16 episodes, Lee Sun-kyun skillfully inhabits the pathos and pain of Park Dong-hoon as he quietly bears the burden of middle age with dignity and strength.

Despite tackling such heavy themes as poverty and depression, My Mister is an uplifting and satisfying healing drama. Its message is simple, clear, and beautiful: that kindness has the transformative power to heal even the most wounded among us, that relationships are precious and amazing, that love in any form--even in ways that are hard to label or define—can help us get through the struggles of life.

In a fiercely competitive year, My Mister beat out Mr. Sunshine and SKY Castle for Baeksang Best Drama and Best Screenplay in 2019 and earned acting nominations for Lee Sun-kyun, Lee Ji-eun, Oh Na-ra, and Kwon Na-ra. 

Pasta (2010)

Pasta is a classic rom-com about the inner workings of La Sfera, a swanky Italian restaurant in Gangnam in need of reform. At its heart is the romance between Seo Yoo-Kyung (Gong Hyo-jin), an ambitious, hardworking assistant cook, and Choi Hyun-wook (Lee Sun-kyun) the belligerent, arrogant Italian-trained head chef who falls in love with her stubborn determination. The pair have plenty of chemistry and are supported by a solid ensemble including Honey Lee, Lee Seung-min, and Choi Min-hyuk, who would all later go on to take on leading roles. Pasta may be a little bit dated with its old-school K-drama leading man, but it’s a classic you’ll want to keep going back to when you need something light to make you giggle like a fool.

Miss Korea (2013-14)

1997. It’s the year of the IMF crisis in Korea, and a bunch of underdogs are on a quest to change their fate. Kim Hyung-joon’s (Lee Sung-kyun) cosmetic factory is about to go under and he’s being chased by several loan sharks. But he doggedly believes in the product he’s just made—BB cream. He just needs a way to market it. He enlists the help of Oh Ji-young (Lee Yeon-hee), his first love, who works as an elevator attendant at a department store. He convinces her to join the Miss Korea competition despite her “advanced” age of twenty-five as a marketing ploy for his product. And between them, they take on a system that’s out to crush their dreams. 

While easily a romcom, the show is also a hopeful love letter to people who’ve had to make sacrifices just to survive and encourages them never to give up despite the odds. Lee gains the audience's sympathy as he hard carries his little team to a future that only he can dare to hope for.

My Wife is Having an Affair/Listen to Love (2016)

In yet another turn as an ordinary middle-aged man enduring an extraordinary crisis, Lee shines once again in this Korean adaptation of the 2007 Fuji TV Japanese drama. As a reality TV producer, Do Hyun-woo (Lee Sun-kyun) believes he has it all – that is until he finds clues that his wife Jung Soo-yeon (Song Ji-hyo) may just be cheating on him. Desperate and too ashamed to turn to friends, Do resorts to asking an internet forum for advice. The internet, in turn, goads him into investigating the affair himself. What starts as an arduous wait at a hotel lobby turns into the confirmation of his worst fears and the beginning of an arduous divorce.

While the drama deserves every accolade for its realistic portrayal of the pains of divorce and its effects on all parties involved, it is Lee’s performance as the beleaguered husband whose life slowly implodes that takes the cake. Wait for the scene where he breaks down and sobs into a near-empty refrigerator as the reality of divorce finally bludgeons him. It predates his exquisitely painful breakdowns in My Ahjussi by a couple of years. 

Dr. Brain (2021)

As the first Korean show produced for AppleTV, Dr. Brain doesn't break any new ground in the body horror genre (a neuroscientist invents a way to read and absorb the memories of others, dead or alive), director Kim Jee-won makes this well-worn sci-fi path still worth watching by drenching this thriller in pure Hong Kong-style neon glory. And it doesn’t hurt to have Lee Sun-kyun as the tortured neuroscientist who’s too convincing for comfort: he is convincing, grounded, and easily holds your attention until the bittersweet, neon-charged end. 

His notable film roles include:

Parasite (2019)

While Lee had already enjoyed respect and top-billing in Korea and the rest of the K-drama-watching world, it was his role as a high-society tech entrepreneur whose family employs another family of grifters that introduced him to the rest of the casual movie-going public. Alongside another screen legend Song Kang-ho and under the direction of Bong Joon-ho, Lee and the rest of the cast propelled the dark comedy into the Oscar-winning disruptor that it has become and further cemented Korean cinema as one of the most exciting films to watch.

A Hard Day (2014)

In this blockbuster, Lee Sun-kyun plays a detective who is having – well, a very hard day. What starts as an attempt to cover up his hit-and-run quickly spirals into a very bad situation involving gangs, guns, and the tail-end of a massive crime operation. As Go Geon-soo, Lee brings a sense of survivalism and dark humor to his character, while making you root for him even if he’s not the most likable of protagonists. 

To date, the hit has been remade four times: in China as Peace Breaker (2017), in the Philippines as A Hard Day (2021), in France as Restless (2022), and in Japan as Hard Days (2023). An Indian remake is also in the works.

Kingmaker (2022)

Lee Sun-kyun stars opposite another screen legend, Sol Kyung-gu, in Kingmaker. As sharp election strategist Seo Chang-dae, we witness Lee at his clever best, maneuvering the dirty realities of politics to enthrone his candidate into the highest echelons of power. 

Sleep (2023)

Screened at Cannes this year, Sleep is one of Lee Sun-kyun’s final film appearances. In this thriller, Lee plays Hyun-soo, a bit actor and newlywed husband who suffers from a mysterious sleep disorder that causes him to act dangerously at night. His pregnant wife, Soo-jin (Jung Yu-mi), works desperately to find the reason behind his condition, resorting to extremes in medicine and shamanism to keep her family safe.  

In a harsh and unforgiving society that demands insane levels of perfection from its entertainers and celebrities, Lee Sun-kyun's untimely and tragic passing stands as a reminder to be wary of the dangers of cancel culture, as well as the importance of offering a space for artists who struggle in the liminal space between allegations and formal conviction. May we always be careful of what we say, strive for nuance and understanding, and remember that the artists who depict our humanity onscreen are painfully human, too.

Rest now, our Ahjussi. 

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