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The Premium Oppas (Part 1)

Updated: Oct 1, 2023

Due to popular demand after our “14 Days of Oppas” feature last February, GwenchaNoona brings you our second oppa-centric series: the Premium Oppas™.

In his late 30s or older, a Premium Oppa™ has the enviable combination of looks, talent, and an unproblematic reputation both onscreen and off. He may be visible in K-dramas, in the movies, or both. He embodies style and substance. Bonus points are awarded to oppas unafraid to lend their star power to projects beyond the usual commercial feature, such as starring in or supporting progressive movies or supporting humanitarian causes.


Jo In-sung

Jo In-sung would like to get married. Soon. And yet, despite being one of the most handsome men in Korea, love seems hard to come by for this 39-year-old (41 in Korean years) A-list actor. He worries that his status may be too burdensome for the women he dates.

We volunteer as tributes.

In the recently-aired variety show “Unexpected Business,” he and his best friend Cha Tae-hyun ran a small grocery in the countryside. Against the idyllic snow-covered backdrop, the 6’2” former model hunched over a stove to cook bowls of snow crab ramyeon, no doubt setting off a million fantasies of domestic bliss with the elusive bachelor.

Tall, lean, impossibly handsome, and with a smile that can knock your socks off, Jo In-sung has been one of Hallyu’s most in-demand leading men for nearly 20 years. He has starred in some of the most popular dramas and movies of the 2000s: “The Classic” (2003), “Memories of Bali” (2004), “Spring Day” (2005), and “A Frozen Flower” (2008).

His second decade as an actor only solidified his star status further, with the dramas “That Winter, the Wind Blows” (2013) and “It’s Okay, That’s Love” (2014) becoming huge, enduring hits across Asia. His heartbreaking performance as a novelist with undiagnosed schizophrenia in the latter earned him the Daesang at the APAN Star Awards.

Jo In-sung has spent the past few years building his film portfolio. He starred alongside Korean movie star Jung Woo-sung, who inspired him to become an actor in middle school in the political crime movie “The King” (2017). He played a Goryeo-era general in the historical action epic “The Great Battle” (2018). Both were critical and box office hits. His latest film, “Escape from Mogadishu,” based on the true story of Korean embassy officials caught in the Somalian Civil War in 1990, is slated for release this summer, and he has recently started filming the 1970s-set action movie “Smuggling” with Kim Hye-soo and Yum Jung-ah.

K-drama fans will be happy to learn that this Premium Oppa™ has returned to the small screen via the superhuman drama “Moving” with Han Hyo-joo.


So Ji-sub

Becoming a Hallyu superstar was the farthest thing from this former competitive swimmer’s mind when he started modeling jeans. All So Ji-sub was thinking of at that time, he has admitted, was hoping to pose with a famous hip-hop artist he admired and make some easy money.

Of course, it’s only “easy” when you happen to be born looking like So Ji-sub. One wouldn’t exactly describe him as having classical good looks, but his palpable charm certainly makes everyone sit up and take notice whenever he shows up onscreen.

His attractive face can turn somber in one moment and then playful and flirty in the next. His tall, lithe figure is as crushable as an action hero, a romantic lead, and a celebrity on the red carpet.

Like everyone else in the industry, he started with small and supporting roles in dramas and films from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. It was only in 2003 when he nabbed his first leading role in the series “Thousand Years of Love.” Since then, he has been cementing his popularity in films such as “Always” (2011), “A Company Man” (2012), and “Be With You” (2018). He is best loved for his role as the chaebol with the troubled past in the series “Master’s Sun” (2013), the fitness trainer who falls in love in “Oh My Venus” (2014-15), and the secret agent turned nanny in “My Secret Terrius” (2018). Among his many awards are a Baeksang Best Actor on TV for his work in the drama “I’m Sorry, I Love You” (2004) and a Baeksang Best New Actor for the film “Rough Cut” (2008).

Among his peers, So Ji-sub is known to be a considerate professional who shows up to film sets way ahead of time. It prompted a younger co-star to complain jokingly that he had to get on set 50 minutes ahead of time to get there at the same time as the veteran actor.

With that kind of work ethic, it’s not surprising that this modern-day Renaissance Man has published a book, opened a successful café, released rap singles, set up a one-man entertainment agency, and continues to cement his dominance in Hallyu. In 2019, after 24 years of dodging romance rumors with different celebrities, he finally confirmed that he was dating a reporter. They eventually married in 2020.

He has literally left his permanent mark in his home country—a road named after him in Gangwon province—just as he has undoubtedly left his mark in the hearts of all his fans worldwide.

"Be With You" and "Always" are available on Netflix.


Joo Ji-hoon

In 2014, k-pop star Ga-in released a song controversially titled "Fxxk U." In the music video, a messed-up and helpless Ga-In played a woman trapped in a possessive relationship. The (real-life) boyfriend in the video? None other than a very troubling—but very attractive—Joo Ji-hoon. The video was meant to warn women everywhere, but we couldn't stop watching it. With nearly 20 million views, "Fxxk U" is a certified banger, but it is also a testament to the palpable danger that Joo Ji-hoon had in him that made it so hard to look away.

This intoxicating combination of unusually aquiline features and a carelessly insolent personal life makes Joo Ji-hoon so damn fascinating. From being a Calvin Klein model, he got his break when he was instantly cast as the lead of "Princess Hours" (2006). But as an untrained actor, he was off to a rough start and struggled so severely with the role that fans even asked that he be replaced. Unable and unprepared to cope with the sudden rise in profile, he fell into a severe drug scandal in 2009, which banned him from appearing on TV for five years. Nevertheless, he persisted, and "Princess Hours" catapulted him and co-star Yoon Eun-hye to international fame.

For his comeback, one would think he would now take the "safe" route and expect him to turn into the "Nation's Boyfriend" or whatnot. It would not be the case. In fact, Joo Ji-hoon seemed even more hell-bent on being the "Nation's Dangerous Ex" instead. He would take on darker roles and allowed himself to be cast in movies that the general public didn't find endearing. In 2007, he opted to be in the revenge drama "Lucifer." He then made his film debut in the dark comedy "Antique Bakery" in 2008. After his military discharge, he took on the gritty prince-and-pauper role in "I Am the King" (2012), and later joined the orgiastic "The Treacherous" (2015), the drug melodrama "Asura: City of Madness" (2016), and went full-on psychotic for "Dark Figure of Crime" (2018).

Joo Ji-hoon began his career as the Crown Prince Shin in "Princess Hours" and cemented his A-list status as the Crown Prince Lee Chang in the Netflix zombie series "Kingdom." It is the supreme irony that a career marked by princely roles has been nothing but. Yet his fearlessness has clearly paid off, and nowadays, it's safe to assume that Joo Ji-hoon is happily back in the good graces of the viewing public.

Many Hallyu actors opt to remain in the safe and the unremarkable, trapped by the fear of losing face and the condemnation of an unforgiving public. But something must be said about those who have freed themselves from that fear. Having already lost so much, Joo Ji-hoon has chosen instead to fearlessly lean into his own darkness, crawl his way back, and has come out winning. Some say there is nothing more dangerous than one with nothing left to lose. If so, then Joo Ji-hoon is a truly dangerous creature indeed, and one that makes it so hard to look away.

Joo was last involved in the mountain-rescue drama "Jirisan" with fellow A-lister Jun Ji-hyun.


Lee Dong-wook

New fans can’t help but wonder why Lee Dong-wook's lips are tinted cherry red. They are so red that his K-drama “Bubble Gum” (2015) had to include a scene where the female lead asks if his character wears lip tint. In reply, he wipes his lips with his hand, saying, "They're always like that." Fans may giggle when they discover why—possibly due to “a lot of heat he has in the body”—according to an oriental doctor he consulted.

Lee Dong-wook is arguably best known as the Grim Reaper in Kim Eun-sook’s fantasy-romance “Goblin” (2016). His bromance with the male lead spilled so much off-screen that Gong Yoo, who rarely grants interviews, appeared as his first talk show guest years later. If that wasn’t enough uwu (cuteness), his chemistry with Yoo In-na made so many hearts flutter that it spun off a rom-com led by the couple.

Fame is no stranger to him as Lee Dong-wook earlier starred in “My Girl” (2005), the drama that spawned at least four Asian remakes and catapulted him to Hallyu star status. As “Goblin” also became popular, achieving the fifth-highest rating in Korean cable TV history, he received overwhelming attention and love from his fans. Unfortunately, when "Goblin” ended, the public attention eventually waned. He felt the withdrawal symptoms and admitted that he lost his confidence.

Months later, he started to heal and plan for his next projects, carefully excluding fantasy roles to avoid being typecast. He portrayed the role of an ER doctor in the medical drama “Life” (2018). The following year, he starred as a workaholic lawyer in the rom-com “Touch Your Heart” with Yoo In-na and a dentist in the thriller “Hell Is Other People.” In 2020, he decided to break his own rule, accepting a fantasy drama, “Tale of the Nine-Tailed,” where he was cast as a nine-tailed fox living as a civil servant in the present time.

Being multi-talented, Lee Dong-wook became co-emcee of the talk show “Strong Heart” (2012 to 2013), participated in the reality show “Roommate” (2014 to 2015), and hosted the audition/reality show “Produce X101.” To celebrate his 20th career anniversary, he hosted his own talk show, “Wook Talk,” with Gong Yoo as his first guest. He has come a long way from a grand-prize-winning model in 1999 to a talented actor and host.

Watch for his drama “Single in Seoul” and his film "Happy New Year,” which happen to be both romantic comedies.


Jo Jung-suk

Find someone who looks at you the way Jo Jung-suk looks at his female leads.

The very thought of him staring at us with his intense gaze is enough to make us weak at the knees and maybe even let out a (not-so-tiny) squeal. His expressive eyes are just part of the irresistible charm that makes Jo Jung-suk one of Korea’s most sought-after, highly-paid, and adored leading men.

Jo Jung-suk honed his skills in musical theater for nearly a decade, starring in such productions as “Grease,” “Spring Awakening,” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” before jumping onto our screens (and into our hearts) in 2011. In the 10 years since his onscreen debut in the drama “What’s Up?,” he has shown off his immense talent—with versatility that rivals the best of Korea’s celebrated character actors but with the appeal and magnetism of its most popular leading men.

Immune to typecasting, he goes for challenging roles such as a Joseon-era peasant (“Nokdu Flower”), and love-to-hate-them villains (“Hit and Run Squad”). Romantic male leads with a penchant for physical comedy (watch his scene in “Oh My Ghostess,” where he attempts to discreetly—but farcically—get back in bed with his lady love). If you only know him as the goofy yet lovable surgeon from “Hospital Playlist,” please do yourself a favor and watch “Jealousy Incarnate,” where he is at his most physically attractive (with shirtless scenes galore and Gong Hyo-jin squeezing his pecs at every turn) as a cocky news anchor.

He’s also known to bust out his incredibly smooth dance moves and singing voice onscreen. His hit remake of “Aloha” from the “Hospital Playlist” OST made his wife Gummy, a famous singer, remark that he seems to be gunning for her job. As if it weren’t enough that he’s a triple threat, he also plays the guitar, composes songs, and has a knack for comedy improv.

It’s no wonder then that despite being a relative newcomer among the Premium Oppas™, Jo Jung-suk has easily established himself as one of the most eminent actors of his time.

Catch Jo Jung-suk and his fellow 99ers in "Hospital Playlist Season 2."


Lee Byung-hun

The enormity of what Lee Byung-hun has been able to achieve over his three-decade career is difficult to fully grasp, much less summarize in a few hundred words.

He’s been called the “James Dean of Asia” by Western publications. He’s been rightfully described as one of Korea’s greatest screen performers and biggest international actors. His name is on the cast of five of South Korea’s highest-grossing films. He has acted alongside legends such as Bruce Willis and Al Pacino in Hollywood. Nine years ago, he and veteran actor Ahn Sung-ki became the first Koreans to leave their handprints at the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

It’s almost impossible to believe that he only joined a KBS talent audition in 1991 because he didn’t know what he wanted to do. Or that he was so bad in his first role the director told him that would be his last acting job.

But Lee Byung-hun was instead motivated to learn and improve until his breakthrough big-screen role in the critically acclaimed film “Joint Security Area” (2000). In 2005, his powerful performance in the neo-noir action film “A Bittersweet Life” caught the attention of Hollywood casting agents at Cannes, leading to his big Hollywood break—the role of Storm Shadow in the action movie "G.I. Joe" (2009) and its 2013 sequel.

Though he’s known in the West for his action prowess, it is in dramas where the mastery of his craft truly shines when he’s given the space to explore and dive into the complex emotions of multi-layered characters. Take, for example, his performance as a depressed fund manager in “A Single Rider” (2017), as a conflicted Korean-American soldier in “Mr. Sunshine” (2018), or as the president’s assassin in "The Man Standing Next" (2020).

He does have life experiences to draw from for these roles. When his career started to take off in the late 1990s, his father suddenly passed away, leaving the family with almost a million dollars in debt. As the eldest son, he took it upon himself to pay off everything, taking on as many jobs as possible. While he managed to pay it off, he has admitted he suffered from depression. He has also been embroiled in controversies involving former girlfriends and was even the target of a blackmail attempt by a K-pop singer.

Now married to actress Lee Min-jung, with whom he has a son, the 50-year-old’s life is no longer the subject of tabloid stories. But his career shows no signs of slowing down. You can watch him next in two disaster films, “Emergency Declaration” and “Concrete Utopia.”


Song Seung-heon

They say a happy home is a parent’s best gift to their child. That may be true, but an excellent genetic pool has to come a close second. In interviews, actor Song Seung-heon sometimes comments that he’s not the best-looking member of his family. After seeing the photos of his father and mother, which he proudly posts on his social media accounts, his fans often teasingly agree.

Unsurprisingly, Song Seung-heon’s finely chiseled features and tall, lean frame got him an offer for a modeling stint. It was something the then 19-year-old was not serious about. At the urging of friends, he eventually decided to try it out and found himself in the final round of auditions with the likes of So Ji-sub and Won Bin. (Talk about stiff competition!) He debuted as a model in 1995 and an actor in 1996. By 1999, he had starred in his first film “Calla.”

In late 2000, Song Seung-heon, along with Song Hye-kyo and Won Bin starred in “Autumn in My Heart,” a melodrama that was ratings gold in Korea and catapulted its stars into pan-Asia superstardom and launched the “Korean wave” in many countries.

Although he received many advertising deals across Asia after the show, several of his film projects did poorly at the box office. That, along with a scandal that involved him trying to evade military duty, set him back on his superstardom trajectory. But just like how a few years’ time gap in a K-drama series magically heals all wounds, Song Seung-heon’s hiatus and low profile helped him regain his footing in the public’s good graces.

By 2011, he managed to curry much of the public’s good graces and even landed a rather wholesome lead role opposite Kim Tae-hee in “My Princess.” In 2014, he surprised everyone by starring in the erotic tragedy “Obsessed,” where he played an officer in love with his subordinate’s wife. By then, he had also begun to enjoy a higher profile in China and in no time, was cast as the lead in the Chinese hit “Third Way of Love” (2015) and “Wonderful Nightmare" (2015).

Although his film roles are edgier, he is known for more conventional roles in K-dramas. He has played gangsters in “East of Eden” (2008) and “When A Man Falls In Love” (2013), and conversely as a detective in “Black” (2017) and a conman who solves crimes in “Player” (2018). More recently, he was in a family drama, “The Great Show” (2019) and “Dinner Mate” (2020).

As the eligible bachelor continues to make his fans swoon at his on-screen characters, he also keeps us guessing who will eventually inherit his incredibly good genes and talent.

Fans can see him in Season 4 of “Voice.”


Jang Hyuk

In 2011, a Korean actor was nominated for a Best Actor trophy at the International Emmy Awards. The show? "Slave Hunters," the smash historical hit whose ratings peaked at nearly 35% each night it broadcasted. The actor? Busan-born Jang Hyuk of "Windstruck," "You are my Destiny," "Tazza," and "Voice" fame.

Debuting in 1997, Jang Hyuk played bit roles until 2000, when he was cast opposite Shin Min-ah in the movie "Volcano High." His popularity continued to climb when he starred in the 2002 drama "A Successful Story of a Bright Girl" with Jang Nara. But while he took on conventional romantic roles in dramaland, his film trajectory was different. In movies, he would opt for the quirky and the strange. Among his most memorable roles were as a quiet physics teacher in the smash hit "Windstruck," a martial artist-turned-ballroom dancer in 2008's "Dance of the Dragon," and as the unnamed "Man" looking for urban erotic thrills in 2009's "Five Senses of Eros."

His career hit a snag in 2004 after being found guilty of draft dodging mandatory military service. After that, he served a full two-year term and even appeared in the army k-reality show "Real Men" to prove he had put it all behind him. When asked by interviewers what he liked most about himself, Jang Hyuk quickly points out that he is confident in his diligence, and the amount of work he put out after returning from the army proves this. He received critical acclaim for his role in the smash historical "Slave Hunters" in 2010 and headlined 2013's action K-drama "Iris 2." He continued his winning streak again with Jang Nara in "You Are My Destiny" and then in "Money Flower," for which he earned a nomination for Best Actor in that year's Baeksang Arts Awards. In 2017, he broke records again as the lead of OCN's "Voice" and later lent his star power to increase the viewership of "My Country."

As King Yi Bang Won in "My Country," Jang Hyuk portrayed him as a man forever teetering between violent swordplay and charming diplomacy. One could say the same about the actor himself. Long trained in Jeet Kune Do and Taekwondo, Jang Hyuk easily brings immense physicality to his roles. But when asked to sit on a throne and eschew physicality, he allows his sensitivity and eccentricity to emerge. This unexpected combination, honed by decades of training, has produced an interesting actor who gets the job done without much strain. Jang Hyuk embodies all his roles with a certain sense of calmness and heat, always comfortable but never slack, as if he were present without being so loud. When working and promoting, he's often known to be on set earlier than anyone else and can be quite the fun co-host, but he is extremely guarded about his family and privacy.

Comforting yet unsettling in equal measure, Jang Hyuk is a truly fascinating Premium Oppa™ to watch.

In 2022, Jang Hyuk played the manipulative vizier in the sageuk The Bloody Heart. In the same year, he returned to his violent actions roots in the film, "The Killer." He rthen reunited with Jang Nara this year to play a secret spy in the -drama "Family: The Unbreakable Bond" (Disney+)


Lee Joon-gi

Beyond Lee Joon-gi's chiseled face and expressive eyes lies a modern Renaissance man who is passionate and successful at every aspect of his career: an actor, singer, dancer, model, and martial artist.

Watching “Hamlet” in high school sparked his interest in the performing arts. After finishing high school, he moved to Seoul to pursue his dream. While auditioning, he worked as a waiter and on other part-time jobs.

In 2001, he debuted as a model and took on small roles in dramas and films. Following his success in “The King and the Clown” (2005), he received a full-tuition scholarship from the Seoul Institute of the Arts and graduated in 2007.

Before landing the iconic role as an effeminate Joseon-era clown in “The King and the Clown,” the Busan-born actor went through three auditions and competed against 3,000 other actors. To stand out, he did a handstand and a split, an exact scene in the movie. This break-out role elevated him from a relatively unknown actor into one of the pillars of Hallyu and earned him several prestigious acting awards.

The movie’s success thrust him to “the forefront of this ‘pretty boy’ trend”—a “foot chain" he feared would lead to typecasting. Nevertheless, his rom-com series “My Girl” (2005) cemented his Hallyu star status. He diversified his roles and worked with international productions in his subsequent movies. He shed his “kkonminam” (flower boy) image in “Time Between Dog and Wolf” (2007), later becoming one of the most sought-after action stars, rarely using a stunt double.

A committed actor and passionate martial artist, he learned Muay Thai for the 2007 drama and showed off his skills in the Russian martial art Systema and the French sport Parkour for the drama “Criminal Minds” (2017). He knows Brazilian jiu-jitsu and is a black belt in various Korean martial arts: a fourth dan in Taekwondo, a first dan in Hapkido, and a first dan in Taekkyeon.

He started his mandatory military service in 2010. During this time, he was cast in the army musical “Voyage of Life.” He performed on opening night with head bandages after suffering from a severe forehead injury during rehearsal right before the show. Despite receiving 50 stitches, he went on with the musical out of duty.

After completing his military service in 2012, he held a series of events to connect with his fans in Korea and Japan and promoted his single "Deucer” in the latter. He then released an album almost every year until 2018.

The Seoul International Drama Awards, APAN Star Awards, Taiwan’s KKTV Awards, and Asia Artist Awards continued to recognize the “King of Sageuk” (historical dramas) in the following roles: a masked thief-hero (“Iljimae,” 2008), a magistrate who can see ghosts (“Arang and the Magistrate,” 2012), a father charged with murder (“Two Weeks,” 2013), a gunner out for revenge (“Gunman in Joseon,” 2014), a scholar-turned-vengeful-vampire (“Scholar Who Walks the Night,” 2015), a fearsome and aloof prince (“Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo,” 2016), and a criminal profiler (“Criminal Minds,” 2017).

Despite the accolades, he continued to challenge himself, cast as the villain Commander Lee in the Hollywood film “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter” (2016), earning praises from Director Paul W.S. Anderson and the female lead Milla Jovovich. In his most recent role as a serial killer’s son in “Flower of Evil” (2020), he was nominated for Best Actor (TV) in the 57th Baeksang Arts Awards. He returns to fantasy-sagek goodness in "Arthdal Chronicles" The Sword of Aramun."

Outside of his projects, he supports his previous co-stars and takes care of his chihuahuas Ggabi and Jjoonie.


More Premium Oppas™ in Part 2!

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