The Premium Oppas (Part 2)
Updated: Nov 12, 2021
Need more Premium Oppas? We gotchu, fam.
The lead roles in a drama series are typically determined early on, with writers and producers wary of making significant changes once filming has started. But for the 2009 k-drama “The Great Queen Seondeok,” Kim Nam-gil’s portrayal of a supporting character, Bi-dam, was so strong that the writers rewrote the script (and ignored history) to give him a more prominent role and more romance with the titular queen.
In fact, Kim Nam-gil has been credited with much of why the historical drama topped TV rating charts almost throughout its entire run, with the show peaking at 44.7 percent. The breakthrough role gave him the Best New Actor award at that year’s Baeksang Arts Awards and made him a household name.
While the drama's success changed his life, it didn’t change who he has always been as an actor — charismatic, versatile, and daring. Early in his career, he took on a gay role with intimate scenes in the indie film “No Regret” (2006) despite South Korea’s conservative attitudes towards homosexuality. Since then, he has appeared in a wide range of genres — action, comedy, romance, period, horror — or even mixed ones like his other wildly successful drama, “The Fiery Priest” (2019).
Beyond acting, he has also tried his hand at producing a mockumentary and directing a short film, recording soundtracks, and releasing a single in Japan. He has even published two books. Amid all this, he found time to set up a non-profit to promote arts and preserve cultural heritage and even launched his own entertainment company, Gilstory ENT, earlier this year.
In 2019, a message he wrote to a female staff of a film he starred in, “The Odd Family,” went viral on social media. After encouraging the staff to prove that camera directing is not just a job for men, he wrote: “It’s not the strong that lasts long; it’s lasting long that makes you strong.” With his sheer versatility and courage to try new things, Kim Nam-gil certainly looks like one to last long in this industry.
He is set to appear next in the disaster film “Declaration of Emergency” and has been confirmed for a new crime thriller, where he will portray South Korea’s first criminal profiler.
Getting in and out of character is a craft that takes years of training to develop. After an actor creates a new persona and inhabits that role for months at a time, they must learn how to shake the character off at the end of each project. The process can be mentally and emotionally taxing, especially for difficult roles, and actors sometimes take months, even years, off in between projects to recover.
So it’s hard to wrap one’s head around how Ji Sung played not just one but seven distinct characters in a single drama, “Kill Me, Heal Me” (2015). As a kind chaebol heir with a deeply traumatic childhood, his character Cha Do-hyun was diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder), a condition that gave him six other identities, including a k-pop idol-loving teenage girl, a suicidal young artist, a violent hothead with a penchant for black eyeliner, and a 7-year-old girl. For his extraordinary ability to tackle each identity convincingly, he earned a Daesang (Grand Prize) at the MBC Awards and several nominations, including the Baeksang.
Born Kwak Tae-geun, Ji Sung is no stranger to challenging roles. Having been inspired to become an actor by Dustin Hoffman’s performance in “Rain Man,” he has taken on an impressively diverse range of roles since his acting debut 22 years ago. His talent was recognized by no less than revered screenwriter Song Ji-na, who created a character just for him when he auditioned for KAIST in 1999. Since then, he has appeared in a new drama almost every year, racking up over 20 dramas, 6 films, and over 20 acting and popularity awards to his name.
His role in the 2003 hit drama “All In,” headlined by Lee Byung-hun and Song Hye-kyo, elevated him to Hallyu star status, and he went on to star in several hits, including “Save the Last Dance for Me” (2005), “Swallow the Sun” (2009), “Royal Family” (2011), “Secret Love” (2013), “Familiar Wife” (2018), and “Doctor John” (2019). His heartbreaking portrayal of a prosecutor framed for the murder of his wife and daughter in the 2017 hit thriller “Innocent Defendant” earned him his second Daesang, cementing his status as one of the best working actors today.
This devoted father of two makes up half of one of Hallyu’s power couples: he has been married for eight years to fellow top star and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Lee Bo-young, whom he met on the set of “Save the Last Dance.” His upcoming drama “Devil Judge” will be taking over the tvN Sat-Sun night time slot of her drama “Mine” on July 3.
In 2004, a historical k-drama about a female Joseon physician was described by the Business Times as the show that swept “through the living rooms of Asia with a tsunami-like intensity.” So popular was "Jewel in the Palace" that it even outperformed the already-beloved “Winter Sonata” in many territories. In Hong Kong, Chinese New Year celebrations were cut short because families had to rush home just to see the final episode. While the show certainly made a star out of its female lead, it also garnered a lot of attention for the man beside her: this gorgeous actor with the "kind eyes” whom she (and the rest of Asia) eventually falls for.
Ji Jin-hee, the said man with the kind eyes, has undoubtedly made an impression strong enough to fuel a productive career in the last two decades. Trained in visual design and photography, Ji Jin-hee only gave acting a chance because he needed to work during the 1997 IMF crisis. He started taking minor roles in music videos and daytime dramas, then started to get noticed when he appeared in 2003’s “Love Letter.” The following year, he was cast as the male lead in “Jewel in the Palace,” and the rest is—as they say—Hallyu history.
Not one to rest on his laurels and wanting to make the most of his pan-Asian popularity, Ji Jin-hee continued to hone his craft and took on varied roles in Chinese and Taiwanese dramas. He also deviated from his “good guy” roles by starring in unconventional films such as 2005’s “Bewitching Attraction” and in “Old Garden,” which was about the Gwangju Uprising. In 2010, he returned to his sageuk (historical drama) roots and reunited with the “Jewel in the Palace” director to make “Dong Yi.” He has always played leading roles and villains in k-dramas since then. Still, he veers to other Asian territories every now and then by regularly starring in Chinese movies or Japanese remakes.
In his latest k-drama, “Undercover,” Ji Jin-hee plays an ex-spy who has to protect his wife as she takes on a new and difficult government role. She goes about her day taking down corrupt officials as he secretly hovers around her, protecting her from all who wish her harm. It is such a quintessential Ji Jin-hee role, no matter how he tries to deviate from it. Whether he is playing the kind Joseon scholar Min Jeong-ho or the self-sacrificing ex-spy Lee Suk-kyu, Ji Jin-hee will forever remain the gorgeous man with kind eyes who upholds all that is right in the world.
It's hard to believe that Rain (born Jung Ji-hoon) was once rejected at an audition, not for his singing nor dancing, which they claimed was great, but for not looking the part, i.e., not having double eyelids. It's a good thing he didn't listen and worked his way up from backup dancer to world-renowned performer.
He debuted at 16 as a member of a boyband named Fanclub, but the group failed to make any financial gains. Undaunted, four years later, in 2002, Rain debuted as a solo artist and released his first album "Bad Guy." And the rest, as they say, is history.
However, most k-drama fans know this Premium Oppa from playing the prickly, reticent star with a soft heart who eventually falls for the innocent and kind-hearted Song Hye-Kyo (and her three bears song) in 2004's hit "Full House." He won the Best Actor Award for the KBS Drama Awards for the role. In 2006, he starred in his first film, "I'm a Cyborg, But That's Okay," a film that went on to win the Alfred Bauer Award at the 57th Berlin International Film Festival. His performance in the film won him the Best New Actor award in the prestigious Baeksang Arts Awards.
Not content with performing in only Korean productions, Rain starred in the Hollywood films "Speed Racer" (2008) and "Ninja Assassin" (2009). Then he went on to star in his first Chinese drama, "Diamond Lover" (2015), which reached an astonishing 3.3 BILLION views online.
His success in acting is only a quarter of his success in the music industry, where he has left his most significant mark. He has released seven albums and close to 30 singles and has sold millions of records worldwide. This multi-awarded performer has sold out concerts in his native Korea, Japan, China, and the United States. In 2006, Time Magazine listed him as one of the "100 Most Influential People Who Shape Our World."
In his 2019 drama "Welcome 2 Life," Rain plays a ruthless, successful, but dissatisfied lawyer who gets a glimpse of an alternate life where he lives as an honest, hardworking public servant who is married and has a child. It's hard to imagine the real Rain wanting to change anything about his life since he is married to actress Kim Tae-hee and raises two daughters. Between the two of them, they are one of the wealthiest couples in Hallyu. They shocked their fans in 2017 when they married in a private Catholic ceremony and did not even hire professional photographers. They manage to keep their private lives away from the public eye and only recently starred in a TV ad together.
Rain continues to make his mark both in acting and in music. He is expected to star in a series this year, although details have not yet been finalized.
After breaking barriers and paving the way for Korean performers to succeed on the world's stage, no one can stop Rain from reigning in his own parade.
Lee Sun-kyun could mount a performance where he reads the phone book, and crowds would gather to listen to his uncommonly deep and buttery voice. So distinct is it that many Korean actors try to mimic it—much like how Christopher Walken’s signature cadence is oft impersonated in Hollywood.
Although his voice undoubtedly brings an extra measure of gravitas to his performances, it is just one aspect of what makes Lee Sun-kyun such an enigmatic, powerful on-screen presence.
Lee Sun-kyun became a household name in 2007 thanks to the classic rom-com “Coffee Prince” and medical drama “White Tower," for which he received his first Baeksang Arts Awards acting nomination. While he has also appeared as the lead in the popular dramas “Pasta” (2010), “Golden Time” (2012), and “Miss Korea” (2016), his pathos-steeped portrayal of middle-aged melancholy in the slice-of-life drama “My Mister” (also known as "My Ahjussi," 2018) is his most acclaimed work on the small screen.
His film work is even more impressive, having cut his teeth early on under the renowned auteur Hong Sang-hoo in several arthouse films. He is best known for "Paju" (2009), the mystery thriller "Helpless" (2012), and the black comedy "A Hard Day" (2014). His role in Bong Joon-ho’s "Parasite" (2019) catapulted him to international fame and earned him the distinction of being one of the first Korean actors to win at the US-based Critics Choice Awards and Screen Actors Guild Awards. He is now in talks to lead the medical thriller “Mr. Robin,” one of AppleTV’