The Premium Oppas (Part 2)

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Kim Nam-gil


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.

Ji Sung


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.

Ji Jin-hee


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.

Rain


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


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’s first Korean drama offerings.


This tall, handsome, and singularly captivating ahjussi with a talent for creatively whipping up meals (check out his travel variety show, "Trans-Siberian Pathfinders") is married to award-winning actress Jeon Hye-jin, with whom he has two sons.

Namgoong Min


No viewer would call themselves a true k-drama fan and not know who this attractive guy is. But Namgoong Min, he of “Remember: War of the Son,” “Good Manager,” and “Doctor Prisoner,” fame, nearly didn’t become an actor. In fact, he finished a degree in mechanical engineering and was about to start a career in social work. But it all changed when he was cast alongside Hallyu star Lee Byung-hun in 2001, and he took it as a sign to pursue acting more seriously.


Like many young actors, his road to fame was uncertain and lengthy. He started out in films, first in 2001’s “Bungee Jumping on Their Own.” Then, in a bold move, joined the cast of the controversial Kim Ki-duk film “Bad Guy,” which was notorious for its portrayal of prostitution and gangsters. While his profile garnered some attention after, he still had to play bit roles until he hit the jackpot with a performance in the 2004 daily drama “My Lovely Family.” In films, his star rose with fellow Premium Oppa Jo In-sung when both starred in the acclaimed neo-noir gangster flick “A Dirty Carnival” in 2006.


It would seem those darker roles suited Namgoong Min entirely, so his career enjoyed an upward trajectory when he took on the mantle of the villain in the k-dramas “A Girl Who Sees Smells,” “Remember: War of the Son,” and “Falsify.” But not one to be pigeonholed, he quickly pivoted into protagonist roles—but still of the morally ambiguous kind—and enjoyed huge success as the lead of 2017’s “Good Manager,” in 2019’s “Doctor Prisoner,” and finally, in the ratings winner “Hot Stove League.” His efforts at his craft have been justly acknowledged—his performance in “Hot Stove League” earned him a Baeksang Arts Awards nomination for best actor.


In yet another pivot, Namgoong Min has also lent his cooky sense of humor to k-variety, hosting “Saturday Night Live: Korea” for a while, cozying up with Hong Jin-young in “We Got Married,” and even hosting the kpop boyband survival/reality show, “I-Land” last year.


Controversial movies, interesting protagonist k-drama roles, and a k-variety streak. One might say that Namgoong Min’s mechanical engineering degree must have been wasted, seeing that his celebrity with nearly nothing to do with his original path. Yet all this pivoting and risk-taking as an actor seems to be a product of careful design, analysis, development. He’s tested some paths while sidestepped others entirely. Hence, if mechanical engineering is, at its core, the “management of moving parts and the analysis of systems in motion," then we say this man’s interesting career has been quite an exciting system on its own.

Cho Seung-woo


Star in a film called “The Classic,” and become one yourself. That pretty much sums up Cho Seung-woo’s long career not only in the film and TV industry but in musical theater as well. The reason for his career’s longevity? A clear message, no matter the media. In a 2018 interview, he told Korea JoongAng Daily, “I have a solid standard for deciding which film to star in. I don’t like the kind of works that simply follows the trend. I usually avoid works that merely look fancy on the outside.”


A childhood steeped in musicality is responsible for setting this Renaissance man up for the enviable body of work he has made thus far. His 2003 role in the melodrama film “The Classic” garnered some attention. Still, it was not until 2005 that he truly broke out as a special needs runner in the 2005 hit “Marathon.” At only 26 years old, he won his first Baeksang, Grand Bell, and even his first China’s Hundred Flowers award as a foreign actor. The following year, he starred alongside another k-drama classic, Kim Hye-soo, to make “Tazza: The High Rollers,” which is still one of the biggest Korean blockbusters of all time.


After his military service in 2010, he returned to the theater. He sparked a renaissance in the stagnating Korean stage industry by headlining the "Jekyll and Hyde" musical and allayed fears about his “unjustifiably high” performer’s salary by selling out all his performances 15 minutes after tickets went on sale. Until today, Cho Seung-woo's name on the marquee is enough to sell out tickets in less than an hour.


Even more success awaited him when he returned to film, with hits such as “Perfect Game.” He has also met success as the lead of the stage musicals "Zorro," “Doctor Zhivago,” “Hedwig,” and “Sweeney Todd.” He then made the political film “Inside Men,” which also met resounding box office success. All these platitudes and awards paved the way for him to star in Netflix’ first big gamble in k-drama: 2017’s “Stranger,” and in predictable Cho Seung-woo style, took home the Baeksang Best Actor award for the role, while the drama itself won the highest award (Daesang) in the same night.


All of Cho Seung-woo’s performances—whether on camera or on stage—have met so much success that he has remained in the Top 30 List of most influential Koreans in pop culture for four years. For someone who still admits to deep stage fright and unease with cameras, it is nothing short of amazing that he has managed to carve out such a multi-awarded career. But battling this dilemma is part of the work demanded from all true artists, and at only 40, Cho Seung-woo has only ever won in big ways. This classic is only just getting started.

Kim Rae-won


When his fans called him a “kiss expert,” Kim Rae-won was quick to attribute the fluttering kissing scenes in his popular drama “Doctors” (2016) to good camera angles, the director, or the OST.


Though we have Chung-Ang University to thank for his theater and film acting training, if he did not suffer from an ankle tendon injury, we would have seen him on the basketball court as a professional athlete instead.


At 16 years old, he debuted as a television actor in the drama “Me” (1997). He shot to popularity and won awards after portraying an indolent law student in “Cats on the Roof” (2003). The following year, he was cast in the second-highest-grossing domestic film “My Little Bride.” For his role as a college student in an arranged marriage with a 16-year-old girl, he won the 2004 Grand Bell Awards Best New Actor and the 2005 Baeksang Arts Awards Most Popular Actor.


While his work in TV gravitated towards rom-com, he broke this mold in 2011 by starring in the hit melodrama “A Thousand Day’s Promise,” where he played an architect who marries a 30-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s. He then starred as a terminally-ill prosecutor atoning for his sins in the legal thriller “Punch” (2014). He appeared as a CEO betrayed by his first love in “Black Knight: The Man Who Guards Me” (2018).


In stark contrast to his small-screen roles, he portrayed dark and edgy characters in films. For his gangster role in “Gangnam Blues” (2015), he even lost 15 kg in a month! He was cast as a detective-turned-convict in “The Prison” (2017), a movie invited to compete in the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival. In 2018, he starred in the action movie “Long Live the King” as a kingpin who becomes a politician.


He returned to rom-com with the film “Crazy Romance” (2019) as a heartbroken man, dumped by his fiancée. His latest work is a mysterious man with a special power in the sci-fi drama “L.U.C.A.: The Beginning” (2021).


While Kim Rae-won is a prolific actor, we seem not to get enough of him. Catch him in his latest role as a navy commander in the movie “Decibel” which began filming on April 20.

Jung Woo-sung


Decades after being scouted as a model, he is still as gorgeous and as hardworking as when he started out. He continues to possess most of the traits that have kept his reputation as a leading man steady in an industry where the next new thing awaits in the wings and beauty is a commonplace virtue. So what else is there to be said about an actor whose career is as long and as impressive as Jung Woo-sung's?


Apparently, still a lot more.


Hailing from one of the poorest districts of Seoul, Jung Woo-sung was first recruited to be a model because of his height and lanky build. After taking some small acting gigs, he broke through in the 1997 gangster movie "Beat." A couple more movies on, he then slowly expanded his appeal abroad, starring in "Musa" with Chinese superstar Zhang Ziyi and "Reign of Assassins" with Michelle Yeoh. Not one to shy from eccentric roles, he has appeared in "Mutt Boy" and in the cowboy romp "The Good, the Bad, and the Weird." He also met great success in TV, leading in noteworthy k-dramas such as "Athena" and "Padam Padam." But it is as a romantic lead where he really made his name as an actor, especially after making everyone swoon in the tragic "A Moment to Remember" with Son Ye-jin, and then with "Daisy," "Sad Movie," and the fantasy-romance "The Restless."


Today he continues to star in many more blockbusters, the latest of which is "Steel Rain 2: Summit." He is also an accomplished director outside of acting, having latched some art and commercial films under his belt. He is also an ambassador for the UNHCR and lends his star power for refugees in Nepal, South Sudan, and Lebanon.


Many actors strive to be classics. Others simply are.

If you enjoyed our profiles, do check out the rest of our website as well as our 14 Days, 14 Oppas piece!


14 Days, 14 Oppas Part 1

14 Days, 14 Oppas Part 2

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