Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines…
Just how credible can a bunch of polls be?
I’m not sure. 132 feature dramas either started or concluded their run in 2012. The possibility that a good enough number of voters will have seen at least half of those shows is rather slim, perhaps even non-existent, given the fact that this is still the overseas K-drama blogosphere, and most of you will depend on subtitles (be it in your mother tongue or a second/third language) that might not even be there. Even in my case, I might have at least started all of those 132 dramas and completed a little over 30, but it still wouldn’t be a completely level-playing field. Plus there is the evident limitation of opening a popular vote to an audience which for over ten years has been skewed towards certain genres and tropes (not to mention age and sex) by the pioneers of K-drama consumption in the west — although this site is not visible enough to attract the “mainstream” part of this niche, anyway (something which in this case helps us).
I seriously thought, for instance, about listing all those 132 dramas in the Drama of the Year category, but then it dawned upon me: I would have had to write at least something about every single one of them, and I was already doing that for the year end awards. Redundancy is redundantly redundant. And then there’s another little factor: most people will vote whatever show they’ve recently enjoyed, or in the case of the cheerleading crowd, attract an orde of kiddos to all vote for the same exact thing, making a joke out of any statistics. That defeats the purpose of creating any poll to begin with.
And so that explains my limiting your choices to what I considered to be deserving nominations. First, because if you’re here it’s only because we are more or less on the same wavelength vis-a-vis our appreciation of K-dramas. Second, because no amount of mob-like voting can affect the results: any of the five nominations listed in any of the following categories fully deserve to win. I might already have an idea of who should win some, but if the consensus goes in another direction… it’s totally fine. If they didn’t deserve to be here, they wouldn’t have been here in the first place. There is no shock vote, believe it or not.
So yes, here are your imperfect and fatally flawed nominations for the highlights of 2012. But if you know a better alternative, let me know. I won’t hold my breath because my cat doesn’t like blue all that much.
Potentially Binding Disclaimer: The Fellowship of the Snark solemnly testifies this voting process to be fair and balanced — as in, really fair and balanced, not the Fox News kind.
That, and the poll thingy has all sorts of nifty graphic bling, although the Fellowship takes no responsibility for that. Now go vote and look yourself in the mirror. You’re 1%! Our poopoo don’t stink!
Criteria: was short, aired in 2012, kicked ass
Note: In the interest of fairness, there are still two Drama Special shorts set to be aired
on the 16th and 23rd, so they might eventually be good enough to be in contention
to be added afterwards.
내 아내 네이트리의 첫사랑 (MY WIFE’S FIRST LOVE)
100 WORDS: “Yes, it’s nothing more than the bastard child of 하노이 신부 (Hanoi Bride) and 너는 내 운명 (You’re my Destiny) via your usual rural drama tropes — and sure enough, Jo was a cub writer for 산 너머 남촌에는 (Hometown over the Hill). And yet, this is pleasantly watchable, with a winning performance by Kim Ye-Won (who at this point is good enough to try meatier roles), and the usual reliable work from veterans like Park Won-Sang and our golden granny Kim Ji-Young. Predictable, even to a fault, but lovely stuff. Drama Special has been on fire as of late.”
100 WORDS: “Only the short drama circuit would have the balls to make a mockumentary about a mysterious art flick from the 1980s only seen by a few dozen people, and now heralded as some kind of cinematic Holy Grail. The satire about the relationship between critics and the realities of the film industry is hilariously honest, the performances spot on, and the breezy yet realistic directing inevitably points at what’s become rather clear by now: this formidable furnace of talent has produced yet another youngster on fire. Park Hyeon-Seok has been kicking ass and taking names all over this format. Brilliant.”
스틸사진 (STILL PHOTO)
100 WORDS: “Such a polished, tremendously well shot show. Until the cop-out coda, of course. Kwon Gye-Hong (one of the few female PDs in Korea, along with Kim Kyung-Hee and Lee Yoon-Jung) has been mostly associated with monumental misfires like 못된사랑 (Bad Love), but she’s actually a talented, if uneven, producer. What helps her here is a fantastic central performance by Moon Jung-Hee — her best on TV since her 연애시대 (Alone in Love) days — and a competent cast headlined by Namgoong Min (very limited but effective in these roles) and Shim Yi-Young. Shame for that all-too-hopeful finale, but still good.”
습지생태보고서 (SWAMP ECOLOGY REPORT)
100 WORDS: “This is a fine example of what the short drama circuit has to offer — eclectic storytelling and experimental visuals that never resort to the masturbatory artistic sensibilities that Chungmuro’s indie scene is often saddled with. Acting certainly leaves a lot to be desired, but the effort is there, and in this case the warts even paradoxically contribute to strengthen the message of the show. More than anything, this is a case where style and substance perfectly co-exist, working together to deliver a strong message. Great start to the season, and hopefully a sign of even better things to come.”
칠성호 (THE BIG DIPPER)
100 WORDS: “If Na Hong-Jin had chosen to direct 황해 (The Yellow Sea) as a short drama on KBS, the result would be something like this. An unflinchingly dark, narratively nebulous (but in a good way) descent into the deepest recesses of human weakness, with the kind of frankness you never expect from a TV production. And set aside the show’s amazing look, it’s the carefully constructed cast that takes the cake, with a fantastic performance by the criminally underrated Jung Woo and fine work from Park Hyo-Joo and the rest of this fabulous cast. This is how you make short dramas.”
100 WORDS: “Write down the name Kim Jin-Woo. The man behind the amazing 칠성호 (The Big Dipper) triumphantly strikes again, with an almost equally gritty, uncompromising account of working class decadence. Minimalist directing (with almost no music), visuals that frankly look insane, considering this cost just a little over $50,000, and a command of his actors’ acting roots (most of them have a theater background) that shows exciting progress. And yet KBS insists on castrating the very format that produces young talent of such potential, and just to throw more money at meaningless weekend sageuk and parasites on phony “real variety” shows?”
Criteria: featured in a drama aired in 2012;
hopefully included more than one acting member
(pets might count, unless they’re gnats or something)
인수대비 (QUEEN INSOO)
The easiest mistake you can make in casting a sageuk is spending all your money on a few top stars, and filling the rest of the cast with whomever you can find, regardless of their actual ability to handle the complexities of this genre. That is one of the main reasons why Lee Byung-Hoon’s sageuk have gone down the drain (his patterned success stories and disarmingly populist attitude towards storytelling being the biggest culprit): you get comedians, starlets who have made a name for themselves through everything but their acting, and youngsters who can barely hold their own in a contemporary drama, let alone an historical one (Lee Sang-Woo, I’m looking in your direction). In that sense, Queen Insoo‘s cast might not have grabbed the headlines for being filled with stars (with the obvious exception of its leading lady), but it had everything a sageuk should have to build a cohesive ensemble: youngsters who can carry you over to the adult portion without big shocks (and here the highlight was Jin Ji-Hee, although Ham Eun-Jung and Baek Sung-Hyun did just fine), a solid supporting cast made of veterans with extensive sageuk experience (people like Park Young-Ji, Lee Deok-Hee, Han In-Soo, Jeon In-Taek and Jeon Mu-Song), a few creative choices (Kim Young-Ho, Son Byung-Ho, Choi Ji-Na), and of course some big names (Chae Si-Ra, Jeon Hye-Bin and Kim Mi-Sook). What’s truly wonderful about this cast is that nearly everyone was a protagonist on his or her own merit, and that wasn’t only fruit of Jung Ha-Yeon’s process of narrative legitimization. That final, majestic rush of 20 episodes when everyone was on fire is the perfect example: you cast people who can handle quality material, give them enough space to breathe out their characters, and they’ll inevitably shine.
세상 어디에도 없는 착한남자 (THE INNOCENT MAN)
It’s a long time since the cast of a major mainstream drama felt this focused, despite the obvious interjection of the usual suspects — as iHQ obviously engaged in its usual packaging practices, tossing a good number of contracted clients the drama’s way in return for “allowing” Song Joong-Gi to star in this. Not only because there was no real bad acting in the show (whatever complaints one might have about Lee Yoo-Bi and Lee Gwang-Soo, they should be motivated by shortcomings of their characters), but because everything, for once, felt like the result of a bonafide casting director’s choices, and not the compromise between management agencies, advertisers, broadcasters and producers. From brilliant acting by the three leads to fine supporting work by Kim Tae-Hoon, Lee Sang-Yeop, Oh Yong and Kim Young-Cheol. From brave choices that paid off in a spectacular way, like that of casting Yang Ik-Joon, down to the finest details, like the brief cameo of the talented Shin Da-Eun. For once, it didn’t feel like a bunch of throwaway “second best” choices, but a labor of love by someone who wanted to get the best out of what they could afford. You don’t see that too often these days. But you know what? It makes all the difference. Because some people still make dramas with their soul, not with their wallets in mind.
아내의 자격 (A WIFE’S CREDENTIALS)
Maturity is what comes to mind when I think of this drama. Whereas the vast majority of the industry still seems to be run by adolescent whims, people like Ahn Pan-Seok just take the zen approach and show everyone else how it should, and could be done. He abandoned the network structure to do what he wanted — free from the pressure of ratings and ruthless competition — even if it meant making a little less money and gaining a little less notoriety. Everything was shot on time, without stressing the cast and crew; everything looked competent, in a way that never overstayed its welcome or at times even let its presence be felt, as if even the most accomplished elements of the show had to disappear, blend in the background for the sake of creating a cohesive whole. This wonderful sense of maturity extended to the cast, with acting of such high level as to make all this feel as if we were eavesdropping on reality, and not observing talented actors going at it in a beautiful, harmonious way. I miss dramas shot and created this way, and we were blessed to have been graced with one after so long.
응답하라 1997 (REPLY 1997)
A surprising choice? Maybe. And I’m not even nominating this show for its acting per se. There was fine work by Seong Dong-Il, Lee Il-Hwa, Seo In-Guk, Jung Eun-Ji, Lee Si-Eon and Song Jong-Ho, but also barely sufficient work by Shin So-Yool and Eun Ji-Won, for instance. But one thing this show had over a lot of its competitors is that everyone came alive, and that’s something that a good script and tight directing alone cannot create. The kids felt like a close-knit group of friends and not just a bunch of young actors thrown together and haphazardly attempting to act like close acquaintances — 학교 2013 (School 2013) rings a bell? And that’s not to mention their interactions with the veterans. That subtle realism obviously needs a canvas that has to be established first by the writer (with coherent and realistic storytelling, period research that goes all the way to slang, and topical thematic consciousness) and sustained by the director (with all the little details that can improve verisimilitude, from music all the way to the props). But if the actors don’t play along and make it all work, it’s all useless. It all worked here, even when the show was indulging too much on what generated its cult following. Was it great acting? Not really. But it felt like home for a good two months. Not only is that good enough, it even deserves praise.
청담동 살아요 (I LIVE IN CHEONGDAM-DONG)
This show means a lot more to us than the sum of its excellent, record-book-rewriting parts. By “us” I mean the few people who, earlier this year, started pimping this show on Twitter as if there was no tomorrow, completely out of nowhere (you know who you are) — when all it had was a tiny cult following in Korea, and a sparse few viewers overseas treating it more or less like just another sitcom. There’s a good reason: watch this show and you’ll fall in love with each and every single character, from sweet granny Kim Hye-Ja down to people who appear for twenty seconds in a lone episode — like the menacing figure who from the darkest meanders of the night… wonders if he can get away with not paying overdue rental fees. There was a sense of family atmosphere which was only possible for one reason: the cast itself became a sort of surrogate family on the set, as a few cast members often narrated on DC Inside. That’s why treating this gem like just the greatest Korean sitcom of all time is reductive. Hye-Ja, Ji-Eun, the Three Stooges, Manager Jo and Bo-Hee, Cheongdam Invincible, Totoro, Hyun-Woo and his deliriously hyper sister, the grannies of the literary club and the suave seonsaengnim giving lectures. Hell, even Doggy Poo. They’re all family. That goes beyond acting, writing and directing.
Criteria: scored a feature drama aired in 2012; did pretty fucking well at it
최성욱 (CHOI SEONG-WOOK)
[세상 어디에도 없는 착한남자 (The Innocent Man)]
I’m honestly surprised to see Choi here. Not because he was ever bad, but rather because he’s never really been all that great – with one gigantic exception, that glorious ode to Hongdae culture that was the 네 멋대로 해라 (Ruler of Your Own World) soundtrack. He’s always been solid, dealing with big hits like 올인 (All In), 피아노 (Piano) and 미안하다 사랑한다 (I’m Sorry, I Love You). But one thing that always annoyed me about his work was that it was rather assertive (I wouldn’t call it intrusive), suggesting the mood instead of only caressing it, enveloping it gently and almost morphing into it. His work in The Innocent Man didn’t make any U-turns in that sense, but it’s a technically pristine score which well supported one of this year’s better shot dramas. I could complain about the choice of songs (particularly one sung by a certain cast member), but at this point those complaints are useless, and would actually betray a lack of understanding of how this industry works. They were forced on him and Song Joong-Gi. No use complaining.
이남연 (LEE NAM-YEON)
[아내의 자격 (A Wife’s Credentials)]
Maybe the last “pure” soundtrack we’ll hear in Yeouido? At least for the foreseeable future. What I mean by pure is a soundtrack produced old-school, being allotted a budget by the production company — instead of essentially outsourcing everything to a major music label, which will subject you to certain conditions (like a mandatory track or two featuring their contracted artists) and nickel-and-dime people for show’s the entirety, presenting a new single every few weeks. What that translates into in terms of creative control is of tremendous importance, because being able to choose what you can use in the show without any external pressure can make all the difference between a good work and a masterpiece. Lee’s variations were delightful, and her choice of tracks seemed tailor-made for the scenes they supported. How could one forget David Choi’s I Choose Happiness, guiding us through the streets of Seoul as Seo-Rae’s family enters their new, challenging habitat? Or that delightful cover of Daydream Believer. And you know what’s incredible about Lee’s work here? I had a talk with her sister early this year (you meet all sorts of folks on Twitter), and it turns out that being a music director wasn’t even her day job, although she’s obviously in the music industry — she mostly composes in Chungmuro. A virtual hug to her, and to Ahn Pan-Seok for doing things the right way once again.
김상헌 (KIM SANG-HEON)
[우리가 결혼할 수 있을까 (Can We Get Married?)]
There’s Hwang Sang-Joon for Kim Jin-Min, and then Kim Sang-Heon for Kim Yoon-Cheol. The music director who followed Kim almost from day one — on 내이름은 김삼순 (My Name is Kim Sam-Soon) and 케세라세라 (Que Sera Sera) — perfectly exemplifies his style and tone: lounge pop, modern rock (without necessarily being Hongdae sound), eclectic domestic artists like Lee Seung-Yeol, and a more traditional vein when choosing western tracks. Few drama soundtracks have as much personality as PD Kim’s works do, and that is thanks to Kim Sang-Heon — someone who tends to be at his best when he works with PD Kim, as other works of his are rarely this effective. And Can We Get Married? is no different, going from The Feeling to Clazziquai and all the way to classical pieces with disarming ease, and not even once becoming too intrusive. Even if his directing wasn’t this good, I’d still approach Kim Yoon-Cheol’s work for the music alone.
황상준 (HWANG SANG-JOON)
[무신 (God of War)]
Sometimes I wonder whether Hwang’s parents had the perfect artistic genes. After all, giving birth to two children with the amazing talent of Hwang Sang-Joon and Hwang Jung-Min is not your ordinary feat — not to mention how humble and respected the both of them are in the industry. I’d be so surprised to see a best soundtrack category without Hwang that I’d probably be thinking he did nothing that year. He’s just that good. When God of War launched in such spectacular fashion, the amazing score was only one of the elements which made it shine. But even when Lee Hwan-Kyung began reverting to his old habits and the show went off a cliff, his incredible work was still there: passionate, tremendously powerful music that carves itself a place in your memories and yet never upstages the actual show. It’s like an icing on the cake, emotionally punctuating those scenes with subtle and yet disarmingly affecting charm. I’ve long stopped marveling at this man’s talent, and all I’m waiting for is his next work.
이지용 (LEE JI-YONG)
[인수대비 (Queen Insoo)]
Never underestimate the power of composers, and Lee is a pretty good example why you shouldn’t. If you’re wondering why Choi Cheol-Ho has been rather silent as of late, it’s because most of his best work was actually composed by Lee (and Gil Ha-Na, to a lesser extent). I don’t know if the two stopped their partnership last year because they had issues or whether it was just a matter of Lee going solo, but it’s always good to have an additional music director with talent. Queen Insoo was not Lee’s most creative and accomplished work — that would be last year’s 공주의 남자 (The Princess’ Man), with its opera-like verses in broken Italian — as he recycled arpeggios and parts of his older work, like 대왕세종 (Sejong the Great). But the core of his score is arguably the strongest orchestral work he’s done in half a decade — both subtle and yet exhibiting great flair. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Lee work on Jung Ha-Yeon’s upcoming 궁중잔혹사 (Once Upon a Time in the Palace), nor to see him once again be featured in this category, on next year’s awards.
Criteria: Starred in a feature drama aired in 2012;
kinda used to suck; doesn’t anymore (I… think)
이주현 (LEE JU-HYEON)
[Kim Yak-Seon in 무신 (God of War)]
It would be hard to believe Lee was a 16 year veteran based on his performances before God of War, but that also explains why he’s here. He did admittedly show some improvement already by 자명고 (Princess Jamyung), where he was leagues better than his abysmal work in the ridiculously corny 연개소문 (Yeon Gaesomun). But I guess something clicked — be it because of his chemistry with his fellow stars, or because he finally felt some inspiration to go beyond the same two-three formulae he had been using from the very beginning. Kim Yak-Seon was plagued by the same black and white dichotomies that populate Lee Hwan-Kyung’s works, but he did a praiseworthy job in trying to instill some humanity into a character whose flaws were only there to be exploited by the protagonist, and not to round up a three-dimensional character. At this point his career seems to be stuck in a limbo whereby he goes from daily drama to sageuk, but it’s easy to overlook that he’s actually done some decent work on the big screen as well – most notable being his turn as Detective Kim in Jang Joon-Hwan’s 지구를 지켜라 (Save the Green Planet). What would help him considerably now would be taking a path like that of Yoo Joon-Sang, working with auteurs in Chungmuro to broaden his spectrum, and then alternate with a few major weekend dramas or miniseries to improve his range. What’s important is that he’s finally taken that first step. It might only be the start, but there’s nowhere to go but up, even if it’s taken him nearly two decades to do so.
이상엽 (LEE SANG-YEOP)
[Lee Sang-Yeop in 청담동 살아요 (I Live in Cheongdam-Dong), Park Joon-Ha in 세상 어디에도 없는 착한남자 (The Innocent Man)]
Can an actor’s behavior in real life — or whatever image he projects when not acting and outside of his actual private life — affect the way you interpret his acting? I’m not sure that’s the case (at least for me). Jo Min-Gi and Yoo In-Chon, for instance, have proved more than once to be deluxe douchebags, and yet I have no problem acknowledging their significant acting talent (although I’d be more than glad if Yoo abandoned his rather insufferable political career and went back to acting, which is supposed to be his day job). With Lee, it’s a different story: the guy is so goofy, I doubt I could take him playing a serious role in the foreseeable future. He actually used to do so, up until a few years ago. Some of you will remember his role as Munjong in 대왕세종 (Sejong the Great), or as the slick financial analyst in 마이더스 (Midas). He was certainly fine there, but always had this rather stiff barrier you could never overcome — a sort of emphatical glass ceiling inside which he always seemed to be trapped. I Live in Cheongdam-Dong changed it all, perhaps giving us a character that was a lot closer to the real Lee Sang-Yeop than people think — at least judging by his behavior on the set and on social networks. Even when playing the much more serious and meatier Park Joon-Ha, I always half expected him to just break out of his no BS exterior and do something “a la Sang-Yeop.” I don’t know… something changed in there. Has he really improved enough to be here? I don’t think he ever had any serious problem before (as his technique was fine, as was his range). He just needed that extra spark to make his characters feel like breathing human beings. That’s what that glorious sitcom gave us. That final joie de vivre you can’t teach in acting school. I’d say that’s a good enough reason to laud him.
백성현 (BAEK SUNG-HYUN)
[Lord Dowon & King Seongjong in 인수대비 (Queen Insoo)]
I always saw raging machismo in actors as a sign that they needed to compensate for something they lacked. Back in the (allegedly) glory days of Chungmuro, people like Namgoong Won would ooze so much of it, it would envelop everything else like a gigantic straitjacket from which nothing but testosterone emerged. Then whenever they tried their hand at something slightly softer — or left of beefcake territory — all the warts would begin to rear their ugly head. The overwhelming majority of Baek’s career felt exactly like that, a seemingly endless succession of poseur roles punctuated by the kind of machismo nobody in the 2000s would realistically need. I could only be worried then, upon hearing that the early portions of Queen Insoo were going to be handled to him and Ham Eun-Jung. And now I sit here corrected, after witnessing the performance which launched Baek into acting adulthood. Perhaps he just needed someone like Jung Ha-Yeon (and his strong feminine and feminist artistic sensibilities) to exfoliate all that obsolete machismo that had lingered on for all those years. But playing two very distinctive characters, for the first time in his career Baek went from one end of the spectrum to the other while at the same time following a smooth trajectory, and looking believable in nearly everything he did. It’s an impressive improvement, and yet another miracle by Maestro Jung — although of course he’s nothing more than a coach with great tactics. Taking the ball to the court is up to the stars.
정겨운 (JUNG GYEO-WOON)
[Choi Hang-Woo in 샐러리맨 초한지 (History of the Salaryman)]
He did show a little spark, back in 달콤한 인생 (La Dolce Vita)‘s days. All his evident problems aside, he exuded his characterization through what seemed to be nothing more than screen presence — the idea that he could only be Kang Seong-Gu, and only he could play him. That’s something you obviously cannot teach, and that even the best of actors might have a hard time conveying. But then again, it’s not exactly something that can carry your acting career either, particularly when you continue to make rather dubious choices. The next four years would be a collection of roles that felt handpicked by his management for no other reason than the fact he was available at the time, and the pay was good enough. History of the Salaryman felt a little different, as did his performance here. He’s still a little rough around the edges, and a solid base of serious acting in a couple of dramas certainly wouldn’t hurt — because his characters always seem to have a certain playful tone to them, occasional bouts of makjang aside. But his delivery has become much more confident, and added to his considerable screen presence this can turn into pretty effective acting most of the time. The point now is choosing what can help you improve, and not only what will merely pad your bank account. He’s old and hopefully mature enough to start making that transition.
성준 (SEONG JOON)
[Jung-Hoon in 우리가 결혼할 수 있을까 (Can We Get Married?)]
Eclectic short dramas; eclectic “auteur” dramas — what I would best categorize the Park Yeon-Seon/Kim Yong-Soo 8 episode mini 화이트 크리스마스 (White Christmas) as; even an eclectic, as flawed as it was, musical drama. And now the most eclectic romantic comedy in what seems like ages. This young model-turned-actor might have not been blessed with innate talent, and still seems to struggle a little with technique, but this year he’s been showing a little fire inside him, which did start in 닥치고 꽃미남 밴드 (Shut Up and Let’s Go) but truly found its confirmation in the lovely Can We Get Married?, particularly as of late. What’s charming about this growth as an actor is that he shows a good understanding of his characters, even if the skills at his disposal might not always get the job done. So, for instance, he embodies Jung-Hoon with every inch of his body, and the character felt believable even at the beginning — when his delivery felt stilted. And you know what? His choice of projects could be a lot worse, with only 내게 거짓말을 해라 (Lie to Me) standing out as an obvious misstep. And now he’s even starring in a indie film by Cannes winner Shin Su-Won. Not bad at all.
Criteria: Starred in a feature drama aired in 2012;
kinda used to suck; doesn’t anymore (I… think)
함은정 (HAM EUN-JUNG)
[Han Jeong in 인수대비 (Queen Insoo)]
I’d argue she had the last laugh, all things considered. After being thrown out of 다섯 손가락 (Five Fingers) by advertisers (showing who “wears the pants” in the industry) for the T-ara scandal (which she might have had an involvement with, but should have been dealt with by her management and the group itself, not a bunch of hypocritical middle-aged men who are destroying the industry year after year), she witnessed the latest Kim Sun-Ok “tour-de-force” turn into a raging bonfire of makjang vanities — something that would have become a blemish in Jin Se-Yeon’s career, if she hadn’t already starred in the insufferable 각시탈 (The Bride Mask) to begin with. So at the end of the day, despite the gigantic loss of image her musical career went through, she still has her work in Queen Insoo to fall back on — in which she showed some fire for the first time in her career, be that before she moved to singing, or after her return. Is this another Jung Ha-Yeon miracle, after Park Si-Yeon in 2008? I don’t know quite yet, as we’ll have to see what kind of projects she chooses from here on in. But what nobody can question is her improvement here, in a role which finally let her find whatever thespian sincerity she had concealed for all these years. Whatever happens to T-ara, I wouldn’t mind seeing her take a trajectory similar to that of Shim Eun-Jin, because lacking talent is not the end of the world. Put some effort, choose good projects, and this is how much you can get out of it.
한그루 (HAN GROO)
[Dong-Bi in 우리가 결혼할 수 있을까 (Can We Get Married?)]
The living proof that daily dramas still can help, particularly when you’re as rough around the edges as Han was in her badass debut 소녀K (Girl K). And I’m not suggesting she’s become polished enough to erase all those initial doubts, but acting every single day for months amongst talented veterans like Kim Gap-Soo helped her pick up a little technique, improvement which clearly shows in Kim Yoon-Cheol’s latest breezy, realistic romantic comedy. But if you add her explosive screen presence to the mix, then you have someone who, with the right choice of projects, could seriously make a mark in the next few years — assuming of course that she’s serious about this acting thing, although choosing a drama like Can We Get Married? promises good things in itself. After all, wasting her time as a sub-lead in an ordinary trendy drama on network TV would have done her no good. This is the kind of projects she need to work in, challenging material that can put some meat around that volcanic energy of hers.
오지은 (OH JI-EUN)
[Oh Ji-Eun in 청담동 살아요 (I Live in Cheongdam-Dong), Seong Min-Ah in 드라마의 제왕 (The Lord of Drama)]
And to think that, just a few years ago, she was only known for a sexy dance in a shitty Moon Young-Nam drama. Oh has come a long way, even though her career is made of a lot more than that drama — she’s been in many short and indie films in Chungmuro, has acted in sageuk, comedies, short dramas and dailies. But up until meeting that little jewel that redrew the map of Korean sitcoms, she was little more than a pretty face to most people. Even early this year, when she starred in the maligned sageuk 광개토태왕 (King Gwanggaeto the Great), there was no sign of what would eventually become the role of her career. Mixing cuteness with the kind of dramatic acting she’d never shown before, Oh finally showed that spark that had been lacking all those years. Perhaps she only needed a catalyst, as she’s doing quite well in The Lord of Drama too, with a role that’s not as multilayered as her Ji-Eun in I Live in Cheongdam-Dong, but that is nonetheless nuanced beyond what the script suggests. The first step as a serious actress has been taken, now all that’s left for her is improving project after project.
김민경 (KIM MIN-KYUNG)
[Kang Hyo-Joo in 무자식 상팔자 (Childless Comfort), Min Hyo-Sook in 빠담빠담 (Padam Padam)]
If it weren’t for jTBC, this former Miss Korea would have continued what was a three-year-long hiatus, as she was last seen in Kim Soo-Hyun’s 엄마가 뿔났다 (Mom is Dead Upset). What she’s shown this year though is the kind of versatility she never displayed before, essaying two completely different characters — the impulsive and coarse Hyo-Sook in Padam Padam, and the assertive (to a fault) daughter-in-law Hyo-Joo in Kim Soo-Hyun’s brilliant Childless Comfort. The latter so far is only a relatively minor role, but it’s ripe with complexity and as multi-layered as anything Kim has played before. With the jTBC home drama breaking new records every weekend, there’s a good chance the added notoriety will translate into more frequent small screen escapades in the future, which would only do her a world of good. She still has a long way to go — exactly because of her lack of experience — but the potential to become a nice actress is there.
정려원 (JUNG RYEO-WON)
[Baek Yeo-Chi in 샐러리맨 초한지 (History of the Salaryman), Lee Go-Eun in 드라마의 제왕 (The Lord of Drama)]
Was it 자명고 (Princess Jamyung) that changed her? I’m not entirely sure, but other than finally gaining some weight and regaining her old looks (although it’s not because of her looks that her all-too-thin figure was worrisome), Jung has clearly turned the page this year, both in terms of acting and choice of projects. In History of the Salaryman, she showed the energy and pizzazz she for so long had lacked, and in The Lord of Drama, better dramatic acting and a lot more sincerity that anything she played before. I always believed she had more to show than what we were getting, but it was mostly down to the fact she often chose material that would never take advantage of what she had. These last two choices, albeit only one of them gained any success, show a more focused Jung Ryeo-Won. And it’s from that focus that the kind of thirst for acting that makes you choose better projects can emerge. Now if she added better films to the proceedings it would be even better, but making good choices on TV is certainly a start.
Criteria: Starred in a feature drama aired in 2012;
and now you know his name. Big fucking achievement
정만식 (JUNG MAN-SHIK)
[Oh Jin-Wan in 드라마의 제왕 (The Lord of Drama)]
Here’s a lesson the industry could learn: if you’ve got little money to fill your ancillary roles, look at the indie film circuit (or the theater scene). It’s in fact not much of a surprise to see three indie mainstays on this list: they’re generally cheap, far removed from the usual shenanigans of management agencies (so no packaging deals a la iHQ, since most of them don’t even have a manager), and most importantly can deliver quality acting regardless of the role. Jung is only the latest of a long list of additions to Yeouido’s sphere of attention that should be further expanded. Oh Jin-Wan is not exactly a well developed character, but he managed to instill some vibrant life into it, making it much more than the one-dimensional power-hungry villain type. Jung has gone from indie fare like 똥파리 (Breathless) all the way to silly project films like 가문의 위기 (Marrying the Mafia 4) and auteur flicks like 은교 (A Muse), displaying impressive range and versatility. And this role adds yet another shade of gray to the acting spectrum of someone who should grace our screens a lot more often.
최무성 (CHOI MU-SEONG)
[Choi Mu-Seong in 청담동 살아요 (I Live in Cheongdam-Dong)]
I’m guilty myself of putting a name to Choi’s face a lot later than I should have — in last year’s 공주의 남자 (The Princess’ Man). But this is someone who’s been playing bit roles in Chungmuro for over a decade, blending in the background like all good supporting actors do. And that quality carried over to his glorious little role in I Live in Cheongdam-Dong, as the next-door-ajeosshi who ends up having to board to save a little money for his wife and kids in the States. Very small theater-like (think early Jang Jin) in scope and delivery, his performance added a layer of humanity to a character that was already multi-faceted to begin with. I’m not going to delude myself we’ll see Choi more often than the little we’ve been used to, but his was one of the most memorable performances of 2012, in what might be the most memorable show of them all, when it comes to leaving a void in our little black hearts after it was gone.
김철기 (KIM CHEOL-GI)
[Kim Gyeong-Son in 무신 (God of War)]
A look at all the dramas produced in-house by KBS, and you’ll find a bonafide roster of actors who more or less only appear there (TV Novels, evening dailies, rural dramas, Drama Special and the like). They obviously don’t have exclusive contracts, as that practice died down with the advent of SBS in 1991, but they’re certainly frequent flyers. Kim was one of them for the longest time, having starred in an array of TV Novels, shorts and dailies for years. The funny thing is that he’s actually an alumni of MBC’s now defunct talent contests (debuting in 1999, which makes him a veteran). He’s always risen above the little his roles entailed, but this time he went far beyond. It’s notoriously hard to play characters written by Lee Hwan-Kyung, because they’re often nothing more than ciphers who embody the writer’s political agenda — and ironically he’s had a previous experience with Lee, in 2004’s 영웅시대 (The Age of Heroes). Adding humanity and sincerity to a one-dimensional character like Kim Gyeong-Son, he managed to make him stand out from the pack of screaming old (and young) men with fake mustaches, even when the narrative took a nosedive in the second half. Hopefully a sign of bigger and better things to come, he certainly deserves it.
조정석 (JO JUNG-SEOK)
[Eun Shi-Gyeong in 더킹투하츠 (The King 2 Hearts)]
Transitioning from musicals to TV (or even film) is arguably the trickiest of crossovers, even more so than going from music to acting. That’s because the habit of punctuating and emphasizing emotions that plagues the majority of singer-turned-actors is something that dominates the work of nearly every musical actor, on a daily basis. Mitigating that tendency is the first and hardest thing anyone who approaches TV has to do, and unless you’ve got raw talent to begin with, it’s a steep learning curve — proved recently, for instance, by musical star Ryu Jung-Han in 러브 어게인 (Love Again), and his thunderous gravitas constantly munching on every last shred of realism his characterization ever had. You do see the rare exception confirming the rule from time to time, like when Oh Man-Seok debuted with a bang in 신돈 (Shin Don). And Jo Jung-Seok. After stealing the show away from Lee Je-Hoon in the lovely 건축학개론 (Architecture 101), he breathed life into a character that had little going for it on paper. Jo has the immense versatility that comes with the job when you’re a musical star, but he also displays enough technique to be able to tame it down, make all that raw power fit within the confines of the TV frame. Great things ahead for him.
양익준 (YANG IK-JOON)
[Han Jae-Shik in 세상 어디에도 없는 착한남자 (The Innocent Man)]
When I interviewed the man last year, I only mentioned dramas as an afterthought, as I never imagined he’d star in one so quickly — after the success of his impressive feature debut 똥파리 (Breathless). But casting him as Jae-Shik was probably the idea of the year, as he took what could have been a simple annoying jerk and turned him into an adorable pastiche of flaws and well concealed charm — a “loser” the likes of which you’d easily find in one of Kim Woon-Kyung’s glorious working class dramas. But interpretation aside, it’s how quickly he adapted to TV acting that impresses, as it has a completely different tempo than what he was used to in his indie and occasional commercial film escapades — although Kim Jin-Won’s cinematic touch should also be lauded for it. He’s got some of the same vibes you could feel from Yang Dong-Geun’s acting in 네 멋대로 해라 (Ruler of Your Own World): controlled chaos, improv jazz-like delivery and screen presence, but also a surprising degree of technique. I don’t even know if he’s interested, but I’d love to see him more often on TV. I wouldn’t call it a revelation after all the impressive things he’s done on the big screen, but his debut on TV was great fun.
Criteria: Starred in a feature drama aired in 2012;
and now you know her name. Big fucking achievement
황정민 (HWANG JUNG-MIN)
[Hwang Jung-Min in 청담동 살아요 (I Live in Cheongdam-Dong)]
It’s hard to make it in showbiz when people mistake your for someone else. Think of all the Kim Soo-Hyun (the veteran writer, the boytoy, the actress, the Ryu Seung-Wan regular), or the fact that people like Han Ga-In had to adopt a nom de plume because someone else had already taken hers (Kim Hyun-Joo). But Hwang Jung-Min is cool like that, even if most of the time people will think she’s a man, and a lot more popular one at that. Like just about everyone else, I first noticed Hwang through her role in 지구를 지켜라 (Save the Green Planet), where she played Shin Ha-Gyun’s girlfriend. That, of course, was only the tip of the iceberg, as Hwang has dabbled in theater, starred in indie films and had bit roles in major films before. But who could ever imagine she’d adapt to a sitcom so well, with one of the most adorable characters of the year? Jung-Min epitomizes the deconstruction of the posh Gangnam lady that populates one too many a Korean drama — and one of the drama’s strongest points is the peeling of all those layers of vanity and status symbol she seems to be embodying at the beginning, to eventually reveal all the humanity within. Will this role lead to more visibility for her on TV? Of course not. It was nothing more than a little sitcom with a cult following, and she’s already back to the theater circuit and being cast in independent films. Still, for a debut on TV (although she did star in a few shorts in the past), that was pretty memorable. I miss you, Totoro.
신다은 (SHIN DA-EUN)
[Kang Myung-Hee in 빛과 그림자 (Light and Shadow), Han Song-Hee in 아들 녀석들 (The Sons)]
This is the kind of actress that can go a long way, with a little luck and a lot of patience in choosing projects — and she’s still largely unknown as well, so she’ll still have a few years to improve her technique before any opportunity to make it big knocks at her door. What she’s shown throughout this year is great versatility, in spite of the seemingly limited spectrum of the roles she’s played, particularly in Lights and Shadow. Seeing how she went from kitty-like aegyo to much meatier and fiercer acting with disarming ease, it looks like the perfect step in her continued progress would be a little sageuk (even if it’s not a top 4 role), to see whether she can handle the poise and delivery associated with the genre. Judging by what she’s shown us so far, I’m willing to bet she’d do great, because she’s got all the ingredients: looks, range, screen presence, and — although it still needs to be worked on — technique. It was already clear by the time she debuted in 뉴하트 (New Heart) in 2007, but for this young lady the sky is the limit: she’s at a point in her career, like Lee Min-Jung before 꽃보다 남자 (Boys Over Flowers), where the right role can give her stardom, but it would also make her trajectory of improvement as an actress derail — because, sure enough, the idea of “arrested development” stardom gives you has made Lee regress in the last three-four years, whereas she had the potential to be in the Top 10 actresses of her generation, talent-wise. Hopefully Shin won’t have to make that decision quite yet, she’s too good for all that talent to go to waste playing leads in frivolous trendy dramas.
정은지 (JUNG EUN-JI)
[Seong Si-Won in 응답하라 1997 (Reply 1997)]
The biggest obstacle a K-pop star faces in crossing over to the acting world is her formation itself: most of these starlets are given “acting lessons” while their management grooms them, acting which mostly consists of the kind of emoting they’ll need in their performances and music videos — where every emotion is punctuated enough to eliminate the need for any verbal representation of such states of mind. The problem is that this kind of acting goes against everything you’d get taught to do when approaching the world of TV and film — where emoting has to be finely calibrated, and at times only subtly suggested. K-pop stars often become terrible actors not because they’re children of an artistic Minor God, but exactly because of this almost physiological “original sin.” Only a selected few manage to either re-train themselves through dedication and years of paying dues (Shim Eun-Jin and Lee Ji-Hoon are good examples), but it’s hard to do so when performance is not the issue. Yet, there are also exceptions to the rule like Jung Eun-Ji, who on her very first role has shown that this should be her day job, not fluffy K-pop numbers that have no chance of lasting past the time Jung reaches the age of 30. I wouldn’t be surprised if her next performance — in Noh Hee-Kyung’s upcoming show — highlights a rather lackadaisical technique. But that can always be learned. What you cannot teach is that screen presence and inner fire she showed in Reply 1997 — standing toe-to-toe with veterans like Seong Dong-Il and Lee Il-Hwa and holding her own in pretty impressive fashion. From her management’s point of view, she might be just another commodity to exploit, but what we have here is a true discovery: someone with raw acting talent, in spite of all the bad habits her formation might have tried to teach her. If even after all that she can act like this, what will happen in 4-5 years, when she’ll have picked up a little technique and range as well?
홍아름 (HONG AH-REUM)
[Wol-Ah & An-Shim in 무신 (God of War)]
Only four years in the business, but already showing hints of potential greatness down the line. She hasn’t had much luck in picking projects — although God of War would have looked great on paper to most people, and 락락락 (Rock Rock Rock) is one of the greatest overachievers in K-drama history — but proved from day one that she has everything to become one of the finest actresses of her generation, now going all the way to a dual role in a sageuk (albeit she was a lot more convincing as damsel in distress Wol-Ah than the tomboyish An-Shim). Going for a TV Novel next is a step in the right direction, as she would only waste time by playing second fiddle in a miniseries — unless it’s something along the lines of what Park Si-Yeon did in 세상 어디에도 없는 착한남자 (The Innocent Man). She’ll improve her technique, gain some more notoriety with a format that always does well in the ratings, and possibly get a chance to play much more important roles — hopefully in Chungmuro as well, where she could gain that extra edge that is perhaps missing as of yet.
김소현 (KIM SO-HYUN)
[Lee Su-Yeon in 보고싶다 (Missing You), Jung Yoo-Ri in 러브 어게인 (Love Again), Yoon Bo-Kyung in 해를 품은 달 (The Moon Embracing the Sun)]
While all the others on this list have to settle for ifs and maybes, we can be absolute about her: Kim So-Hyun will become a star — and the only thing separating her from a lead role in a miniseries is her age (she’s a, gasp, 1999). Actually, she’s been so busy in 2012 (six dramas, one film, one variety-sitcom hybrid), I worry she might suffer from over-exposition in the long run. But when you act this well, it’s always a pleasure to watch you. The spark that ignited her year was her impressive acting in “that scene” from Missing You — although Yeo Jin-Gu did just as well. Playing a rape victim in a scene which banks nearly everything on suggestion and reaction isn’t easy, even for a veteran, let alone someone who’s been playing childhood roles for half a decade. But if you stop empathizing with the character’s predicament for a second and actually look at how she approaches that scene on a technical level, you see that it’s all there already: delivery, facial expressions, body language, technique, screen presence. She’s got all the tools to live up to that “Little Son Ye-Jin” moniker the press forced on her — and what’s more, she experienced a wider range of genres already, something Son is only compensating for now. The last obstacle is perhaps the most challenging one: transitioning from child acting to more mature roles and performances — not necessarily in terms of growth as an actor, but rather for what concerns acceptance, as you can see people like Moon Geun-Young are still struggling to strip themselves of their child actor aura. I’d say she’s got everything to smoothly make that transition, and 2012 was a pretty explicit proof of that.
Criteria: Starred in a feature drama aired in 2012;
Is less than 35 years old, or has less than 10 years of acting experience on TV and Film
송중기 (SONG JOONG-GI)
[Kang Ma-Ru in 세상 어디에도 없는 착한남자 (The Innocent Man)]
You could argue that tests never end for an actor, from the moment he goes through his first auditions down to the moment when his popularity allows him to obtain any decisional power at all. But it’s perhaps that crossroad many people of Song’s age and status reach that is most stressful: will you be a star, or a serious actor, with all the repercussions any of the two decisions will entail? It’s never a black and white issue, obviously (as there are stars who can seriously act like Son Ye-Jin, and serious actors who have star power, like Ha Jung-Woo). But these are the years that will direct one’s compass in one direction and generally make him stick to it most of the time, and this young actor seems to take the matter as seriously as anyone I’ve seen in the last half decade. He has shown last year, in 뿌리깊은 나무 (Tree with Deep Roots), that he could easily become one of the finest actors of his generation, if he only wishes to. But with his role in The Innocent Man, he’s added a third pathway to that crossroad: performing like a serious actor even in star vehicles that might not always warrant such nuanced portrayals. Son Ye-Jin has let her guard down on occasion, such as in fluffy, throwaway pap like 개인의 취향 (Personal Taste). So has someone as monstrously talented as Gong Hyo-Jin. But I haven’t seen Song do that yet. No matter how throwaway the role might be, you always see him strive to make a million bucks out of a role worth two pennies. That, regardless of which path he will decide to take in the coming years, is a quality that will support him for decades, even when his star might begin to wane. Something to build on.
엄기준 (EOM GI-JOON)
[Jo Hyeon-Min in 유령 (Phantom)]
Seeing the turn Eom’s career took after his first year as a TV regular (2008) was quite painful to witness. He obviously always performed above and beyond the roles he was given, such as his solid turns in 여인의 향기 (Scent of a Woman) or as a reporter in 히어로 (Hero). But there was always the feeling you were getting second best, simply because the dramas (and films) weren’t good enough to let him go full force. Now of course Phantom was no masterpiece, far from it. But it was at least a quality effort that allowed Eom to go all the way, and take advantage of his seemingly limitless versatility — mixing the innocent and naive early days of his career with the ruthless and calculating “second life” he enjoyed. What’s more, his portrayal was so nuanced, it even legitimized a good portion of Hyeon-Min’s actions, although the means by which he tried to fulfill his revenge were obviously problematic. The hope now is that someone will recognize how monstrously talented he is, and finally give him the canvas to turn that opportunity into a career-making performance. How about a significant sageuk role, for instance? All he needs is a chance.
여진구 (YEO JIN-GU)
[Han Jung-Woo in 보고싶다 (Missing You)]
I deliberately leave his role in 해플 품은 달 (The Moon Embracing the Sun) out, not to soil his achievement by associating him with one of this year’s most infuriating dramas — but then again, Missing You is only marginally better. Although starring in Jang Joon-Hwan’s long-awaited sophomore feature effort might change that, we’re still for all intents and purposes dealing with a “child actor,” at least in the eyes of the industry. But what he’s shown throughout the last few years is how — along with a couple of other actors, like Noh Young-Hak — he can be the antidote to a generation of male actors that is being smoked on a daily basis by their overwhelmingly more talented female counterpart, perhaps because TV demands a lot more from its actresses and a pretty face or a sixpack can go a long way in Yeouido — still subjected to the whims of an audience dominated by women. Yeo, like Kim Yoo-Jung and Shim Eun-Kyung, already acts like an adult, with all the complexities and nuances that it entails. And when he was asked to deliver in what remains the only real highlight of Moon Hee-Jung’s latest “gentle makjang,” he did so in an explosive way, aided by his partner Kim So-Hyun and by solid work from PD Lee Jae-Dong. I’d generally lament the fact that adult actors have once again been unable to carry over the fine work of their childhood counterparts, but Park Yu-Cheon is not even the problem. Can you see a male Korean actor under 30 able to compare favorably with this little barrel of acting dynamite (except, I guess, Song Joong-Gi)? Give him five years and a bit of luck in choosing projects, and see what comes out of all that raw talent. Just wait and see.
이희준 (LEE HEE-JOON)
[Go Jae-Hyo in 난폭한 로맨스 (Wild Romance), Cheon Jae-Yong in 넝쿨째 굴러온 당신 (My Husband Got a Family), Gang-Rim in 전우치 (Jeon Woochi)]
Admittedly I’m kind of cheating here, as this is more a sort of reward for his consistently excellent work across the board than praise that singles out particular performances. Still, he’s earned his place here by almost literally melting into his characters regardless of the visibility of the role, or the quality of the script. And it’s not even the kind of versatility I talked about when referring to Eom Gi-Joon: it’s a bit more like what characterizes people like Song Kang-Ho and Kim Yoon-Seok. So whether it’s a Taoist Master prancing over trees and throwing CG bombs out of his palms or an opportunistic journalist with a troubled past, you always get that humane fourth dimension that at times even the script would not be able to add. And finally, after years of receiving attention only from a few fools who first noticed him in his tiny but eye-turning performances on a few short dramas, he’s now beginning to gain that popularity that he deserved from day one. There are dozens of great mostly unknown actors taking similar trajectories as Lee’s, but he’s the proof that at times it does work. You just have to keep going for it and hope Lady Luck will knock at your door.
진태현 (JIN TAE-HYUN)
[Prince Yeonsan in 인수대비 (Queen Insoo), Jin Yong-Seok in 오자룡이 간다 (Here Comes Mr. Oh)]
Jin is by all accounts a bonafide veteran — with the only exception that based on my criteria of needing at least 35 years of age, he won’t make it to the “other side” for another few years — spending most of his career as Kim Tae-Hyun and only recently changing his nom de plume. Admittedly they’ve mostly been rather anonymous roles, with a few sparks here and there that suggested otherwise — like his role in Min Gyu-Dong’s 내 생애 가장 아름다운 일주일 (All For Love). He’s starred in everything from commercial films to short dramas, sleazy sex comedies on cable TV and a seemingly endless array of home dramas. But then came the chance of a lifetime, that of playing the controversial Prince Yeonsan — a role essayed in the past by people like Yoo In-Chon, Yoo Dong-Geun, Lee Min-Woo, Ahn Jae-Mo, Jung Tae-Woo and Jung Jin-Young. And under the majestic prose of Jung Ha-Yeon, Jin transformed from a constant also-ran to a protagonist, spitting fire from every pore for his short but truly memorable performance — one of the most eclectic Yeonsan seen on the small screen, part tortured mama’s boy and part ruthless, conniving politician. It’s back to daily dramas for him, regrettably, but his acting in Here Comes Mr. Oh has been excellent so far, to the point that his arc with Seo Hyun-Jin is one of the few things sustaining a show plagued by a hopeless script. He’s still in no position to choose his roles, but he definitely deserves more recognition after his most spectacular year to date.
Criteria: Starred in a feature drama aired in 2012;
Is less than 35 years old, or has less than 10 years of acting experience on TV and Film
박시연 (PARK SI-YEON)
[Han Jae-Hee in 세상 어디에도 없는 착한남자 (The Innocent Man)]
Seeing such improvement makes you proud. Not because I’ve suddenly become a fan, but rather because it reinforces the idea that abandoning all ulterior motives and pouring heart and soul into what you do always makes a difference. The turning point was obviously Jung Ha-Yeon’s 달콤한 인생 (La Dolce Vita), but she’s been growing out of that improvement phase on her own and blossoming into what I’d have no problem calling a good actress. That is pretty impressive, if you consider that only 6-7 years ago you’d most likely laugh at the mere mention of her name next to anything even remotely related to acting. This drama was the perfect canvas to prove her maturation: Han Jae-Hee was wonderfully vulnerable and charmingly weak, but Park managed to add nuances on top of Lee Kyung-Hee’s work — tiny details that might not be explicitly written, but can only emerge when you actually think about whom you’re playing, what she’s become, and where she wants to go. I’d even argue that she was one of the crucial pillars sustaining the show, as good acting from Song Joong-Gi and (to a lesser degree) Moon Chae-Won was pretty much a given, but a great performance from Park wasn’t exactly guaranteed. Once again, she proved she’s turned the page. Not as “most improved” or “breakthrough,” but as a bonafide actress who can fight it out with the rest of her generation’s top names. That in itself is a victory.
전혜빈 (JEON HYE-BIN)
[Lady Yoon in 인수대비 (Queen Insoo)]
Here’s another alumni of the “Most Improved” award from a few years ago — so it kind of means someone is picking the right names, I suppose? Already by 왕과 나 (The King & I), it was pretty evident that Jeon could deliver a lot more than all the fluffy roles she played before had shown. But there was always a tendency to bank too much on technique and gravitas, which resulted in overacting in shows like 신의 저울 (The Scale of Providence). And mind you, it’s not that this role offered her the chance to prove that her range has improved — since it was on the extreme end of the gravitas scale. Still, in her amazing turn as the deposed Lady Yoon (mother of the controversial Prince Yeonsan), Jeon added nuances of humanity and layers she had never even hinted at before, turning an often stereotyped historical figure into the vibrant, pulsating struggles of a woman, a mother and a wife — with all the consequences that entails. When you don’t get completely smoked by goddesses like Chae Si-Ra in a sageuk that’s built around them, then there is clearly some fire inside you. And the incredible crescendo her character went through is the proof that Jeon only needs a little experience and variety. The fire is there, and when the writing allows it, it erupts like a volcano. Now she just needs a few roles that can tame it, and just give us warmth. She needs to keep working with good writers.
홍수현 (HONG SU-HYEON)
[Cha Woo-Hee in 샐러리맨 초한지 (History of the Salaryman)]
Hong is a seemingly eternal underachiever who finally blossomed last year with her wonderful performance in 공주의 남자 (The Princess’ Man). Saying I wasn’t satisfied with her arc (and how her relationship with Jung Gyeo-Woon’s Hang-Woo developed in the second half) would be an understatement, but she gave a terrific performance nonetheless, full of that excellent range she’s been building over the years (going from one end of the emotive scale to the other with ease). She’s one of the few actresses of her generation who can look sexy or cute without overplaying it, thanks in no small part to her considerable screen presence. What should change for her to truly make a mark, though, is her choice of projects. She’s still in no position to decide every role she can take — which is why you still see her play the lower end of leading quartets. But for every History of the Salaryman there is a 굿바이 마눌 (Goodbye Honey), in which her range didn’t suddenly disappear out of the blue, but was virtually rendered useless by what turned out to be one of the worst dramas of the year. Even her choices in Chungmuro look like a rollercoaster made of good — 영화는 영화다 (Rough Cut) — and rather questionable — like 인사동 스캔들 (Insadong Scandal). You’d think The Princess’ Man would be enough for her to land a leading role in a major miniseries, but for that it will take something that has been increasing for Hong as of late: luck. We’ll just have to wait and see, while she continues to impress regardless of her shows’ quality.
서현진 (SEO HYUN-JIN)
[Ha In-Joo & Song Yeon-Woo in 신들의 만찬 (Feast of the Gods), Na Jin-Joo in 오자룡이 간다 (Here Comes Mr. Oh)]
One of the little known truths about this tremendously talented young lady is that she actually used to be a singer — she was even featured in the soundtrack of 궁 (Princess Hours), for instance. But the moment she joined the acting world, she made a pretty damn good argument for why generalizations are never all that reliable (track records are). First with 황진이 (Hwang Jin-Yi) and later 히트 (HIT), she managed to out-perform those dramas’ leading ladies to an almost embarrassing extent (particularly Ha Ji-Won). Then with 짝패 (The Duo) she proved she had everything it takes to carry a drama on her shoulders. And here is the final icing on the cake, that extra dose of professionalism that forces her to give it her all even when the material she’s dealing with is not exactly up to par. Both Feast of the Gods and Here Comes Mr. Oh are risible, hackneyed makjang, but she made deliriously cliched characters look like a million bucks by acting as if she was in a bonafide masterpiece. And in the latter’s case, her acting (alongside partner in crime Jin Tae-Hyun) is actually good enough to make that portion of the show passable. This is a phenomenal talent, up there with the Son Ye-Jin and Gong Hyo-Jin of the world, and she keeps proving it year in and year out. It’s time Chungmuro and Yeouido realize it, and finally give her the top billing she deserves — especially after the last two years’ exploits.
문채원 (MOON CHAE-WON)
[Seo Eun-Gi in 세상 어디에도 없는 착한남자 (The Innocent Man)]
Remember her early days on 바람의 화원 (Painter of the Wind)? That she had the looks is something nobody will question. But her acting was obviously very raw, with one significant exception: poise. Moon’s voice and posture, the way she used her body as it related to the frame and how she captured the camera was already well above what someone with only one year (one short-lived drama, really) of experience would be able to exhibit. Her choice of projects took a nosedive for the following two years — despite the fact she did fine on all those dramas — but 공주의 남자 (The Princess’ Man) confirmed that positive first impression. Her Seryeong was what Ha Ji-Won’s Hwang Jin-Yi could never be: fierce yet vulnerable, very feminine yet never feeling like a flower vase or the fruit of male fantasies, and with the spontaneity and passion to make her every emotion ring true. In her now trademark “diesel engine”-like belated way, she jumped into Eun-Gi with what looked like a little hesitation, but by the fourth-fifth episode she was already firing on all cylinders, showing great chemistry with Song Joong-Gi and plunging into the pitch black darkness created by Lee Kyung-Hee’s glorious little monsters. After last year’s exploits on the small and big screen — she was wonderful in 최종병기 활 (War of the Arrows) — it’s pretty clear that sageuk is her natural habitat. But this is the kind of role that does her justice: meaty, multi-faceted and giving her the opportunity to take full-advantage of all that screen presence. And you know what? She keeps improving. Give it a few years, and we’ll laugh at Painter of the Wind, looking back at what will be the misleading first chapter of a pretty impressive career.
Criteria: Wrote a feature drama concluded in 2012, and did it like a champ
정성주 (JUNG SUNG-JOO)
[아내의 자격 (A Wife’s Credentials)]
I always felt Jung was never given the resonance she deserves — not only among overseas viewers (obviously), but also at home. Throughout her twenty-year-long career, she’s written important pages in the history of home dramas with shows like 장미와 콩나물 (Roses & Beansprouts) and 아줌마 (Ajumma). But she’s also shown her largely underestimated versatility, giving a realistic spin to age-old Cinderella tropes in — inevitable pun — 신데렐라 (Cinderella), not to mention delving into the oft-ignored legal drama genre with 변호사들 (Lawyers). A Wife’s Credentials continues her terrific work by adding a much-needed sense of realism to the dreaded adultery drama world, with the kind of effectiveness that nobody since Kim Soo-Hyun’s early 90s escapades were able to display. But she did so with her trademark, that soft and subtle touch that envelops the entire narrative — even when things get rather nasty in the second half. Once again joining forces with Ahn Pan-Seok, Jung has yet again constructed one of the most compelling stories of the year, one that talks about the world of today without ever forgetting that we’re dealing with human frailty, and not a circus of rabid beasts. Brilliant, as always.
정하연 (JUNG HA-YEON)
[인수대비 (Queen Insoo)]
If 2012 was a year of surprises — not only in terms of new and exciting writers appearing nearly out of nowhere, like someone in this list — it was also one of disappointments, as the debacle of two writers with a great track record like Kim Ji-Woo and Noh Hee-Kyung and their disappointing work in 발효가족 (Kimchi Family) and 빠담빠담 (Padam Padam) has shown. But there is one man who still sits on top of the mountain as if nothing ever concerned him. He’s been vilified by irresponsible actors with a peculiar sense of discernment — as I suppose 대풍수 (The Great Seer) and 다섯 손가락 (Five Fingers) make more sense than 욕망의 불꽃 (Flames of Desire) in a certain talented douchebag’s mind — and dragged to court by a veteran indie for – God forbid — working with someone else outside the confines of a contract which was only verbally exclusive. But no, he’s totally zen about it, and he goes out and writes his best work since 2005’s immense 신돈 (Shin Don). Forget any hackneyed, intellectually risible argument that Queen Insoo was a mere recycling of 왕과 비 (The King & The Queen): it is, if you forgive the rather strong term, the “dechauvinization” of the traditional sageuk canon, removing all the stoic and somber machismo that never went anywhere — made of old men with fake mustaches screaming platitudes in each other’s faces, nationalism devoid of any humanity and beefcake sentimentalism — and offering what is pretty much a feminist rendition of one of Korean history’s most controversial figures, one that at the same time erases the infuriating hypocrisy of supposedly “feminist” sageuk like 황진이 (Hwang Jin-Yi). This drama has the most complex and subtly drawn female characters in sageuk history, something that would only be surprising if it didn’t come from the pen of Korea’s most feminist male writer. And from the man on top of the mountain, who once again confirms he has no intention of coming down any time soon. Don’t you ever stop writing, Maestro Jung.
박경수 (PARK GYEONG-SOO)
[추적자 (The Chaser)]
Writing political dramas on Korean TV used to mean narrating the somber tales of a succession of dictatorships now (in the mind of its makers) long gone by. You got your 공화국 (Republic) series from 1981 to its latest installment in 2005, or SBS’ generally misguided attempts to put a foot in the door with shows like 코리아게이트 (Korea Gate). Then you had a few cases where writers had actually the balls to talk about politics indirectly, through powerful means like allegory and re-enactments that only dealt with certain events tangentially — the best examples being Kim Gi-Pal’s 땅 (My Land), forcibly truncated via government intervention — and of course the glory days of the Song Ji-Na/Kim Jong-Hak collabo, which gave us things like 여명의 눈동자 (Eyes of Dawn) and 모래시계 (The Sandglass). But it’s hard today to see similar fervor amongst writers, perhaps because the industrialization of Yeouido has rendered politics a much too polarizing subject to produce something profitable. It’s perhaps for that reason that political dramas like 프레지던트 (President) — as good as it was — tend to paint a picture of hope that in a way feels distanced from the core reality of today’s Korean peninsula. Enter Park Gyeong-Soo, and his bottom-up “Sixth Republic.” I’ve already narrated this man’s fascinating story, but another one of The Chaser‘s achievements was bringing politics back to the forefront in a direct way, without merely banking on subliminal messages or tangential thematic consciousness. The reality of politics and the impact of populism on Korean society this show portrays are so powerful, they remind of the Gwangju arc in Song Ji-Na’s 1995 masterpiece — and, as you know, it’s not exactly a coincidence, given Park’s roots as a writer. A formidable debut for what looks to be like one of the few, great hopes this industry has for the future. I can’t wait to see 황금의 제국 (The Golden Empire).
박연선 (PARK YEON-SEON)
[난폭한 로맨스 (Wild Romance)]
It would be great to live in a world where the artistic fruit of your creativity doesn’t have to be filtered through any compromise, and you could benefit from the best the industry has to offer in terms of talent behind and in front of the camera. But you know that, more often than not, that is only a pipe dream — and something that is increasingly rare. Reality means that a great producer like Kim Jin-Min (or his substitute while on strike, Kim Heung-Dong) has to improve upon yet another one of Lee Hwan-Kyung’s deliriously kitsch scripts. And it means that the creative vision of one of the most talented writers in the industry, like Park Yeon-Seon, has to depend upon the fallacies of a journeyman director who should have never been paired with someone this eclectic. That Wild Romance managed to maintain that kind of quality despite all the lackadaisical production that surrounded it is a statement to how talented a writer Park really is — as her prose managed to shine even when Bae Gyeong-Soo was pretty much shooting another, inferior drama within the drama. And the curse for her seemingly continues: back in the 얼렁뚱땅 흥신소 (Evasive Inquiry Agency) days she did have everything down to the finest details, but got record-low ratings in return. With 화이트크리스마스 (White Christmas) she had great visuals, but the wrong cast. And now it’s production, at times compromising what was one of the most meaningful and well structured tentatives to defy all the conventions of the trendy drama canon of recent memory. Park continues to write with great flair, to love all her characters and even her viewers, in a way — because respecting their intelligence enough to create complex, multi-faceted characters is in itself a sign of respect and love for her audience. I just wish Lady Luck would knock at her door and finally give her a project that’d represent the “tranquility” her career needs. People, start watching her damn shows, already.
박해영 (PARK HAE-YOUNG)
[청담동 살아요 (I Live in Cheongdam-Dong)]
Everyone loves a surprise. But I’d honestly have to look back at the annals of K-drama history (which… uh, don’t exist. Yet) to find such a shocking one. Korean sitcoms did have their share of highlights, mostly when they were still considered dramas — so anything before the advent of Kim Byung-Wook in the mid 1990s would do. But in the last decade they had become nothing more than an excuse to give work to unused employees, and toss idols and former comedians at the screen, hoping something or someone would stick. The situation got so bad, even daily dramas looked accomplished in comparison. But then comes this utterly unassuming show, with only one name star (Kim Hye-Ja) and plenty of names that could mean everything or nothing, based on the strength of the script. But Park Hae-Young, who had a past in sitcoms like 올드미스 다이어리 (Old Miss Diary) but never really wrote anything that was in the same galaxy as this, managed to create the most rewarding and best structured sitcom of all time — even more so than old classics like TV손자병법 (TV’s The Art of War) and 한지붕 세가족 (Under the Same Roof). It was genuinely funny, with characters that will stick with you for years, a veneer of social commentary that was pungent but always subtle, and that irresistible atmosphere (aided by the acting and directing, of course) that always made you feel at home. That’s what those 170 episodes were. Everyday life, and everyday characters in everyday situations. But we could never take that for granted. Especially now that it will never leave our memories. From here on in, sitcoms are divided into what came before I Live in Cheongdam-Dong, and what will come after.
Criteria: directed a feature drama aired in 2012
김윤철 (KIM YOON-CHEOL)
[우리가 결혼할 수 있을까 (Can We Get Married?)]
Caught up in the “Sam-Soon Syndrome,” people tend to forget just how accomplished a producer Kim Yoon-Cheol is. And to a degree it’s even understandable, as what 내 이름 김삼순 (My Name is Kim Sam-Soon) did for the trendy drama canon concerned themes and their social impact a lot more than simple visuals. But it cannot be denied how this (still young) producer’s eclectic touch has helped the genre step out of its greasy and all too simplistic pre-Hallyu past. His upbringing in the industry could partly explain this, as he got to witness seminal trendies like 마지막 승부 (The Final Jump) and 사랑을 그대 품 안에 (Love in Your Embrace) as an assistant producer. That’s because he’s definitely “trendy,” but not in a puerile, poseur-like way (unlike schlockmeisters a la Kim Byung-Soo and Kim Hong-Seon). He’s never flashy but his camera always makes you feel its presence in a charmingly enveloping way. He’s got a keen ear for great music, but only when it can truly accompany the visuals and surround the sentiments required, never feeling intrusive. His biggest talent, though, is that of adding that final je ne sais quoi that makes what would likely be ordinary scenes feel a lot more real. Leaving MBC did Kim a world of good, as now at Dramahouse he might finally get the chance to prove once again that he’s one of the trendy drama genre’s greatest, and perhaps last, hopes.
유인식 (YOO IN-SHIK)
[샐러리맨 초한지 (History of the Salaryman)]
Although the situation has clearly improved — particularly in the last half decade — SBS was never really known for fostering young producers behind the scenes, perhaps because their business creed had always been that of entrusting a good chunk of their production to the indies, and their short drama circuit was never anything more than an afterthought. Still, one of the exceptions which for much too long confirmed the rule was Yoo In-Shik, who might not excel in anything in particular, but has all the skills you’d want from a capable producer: he’s got a good hang of visuals without losing himself in needless bling, is excellent at creating mood regardless of the quality of the script he’s working with — which haven’t always been spectacular, admittedly — and without compromising his flow. But what’s become quite clear after their second consecutive collaboration is that Yoo has met his perfect partner in crime in Jang Young-Cheol (and his wife Jung Gyeong-Soon). History of the Salaryman might be nowhere near as good as 자이언트 (Giant) was, but if there is anyone who can perfectly enhance Jang’s writing style, that is certainly Yoo. They’re now working on 돈의 화신 (The Face of Money) which is set to debut in February, and I wouldn’t be all that surprised if we see Yoo make another appearance in next year’s best producer category.
김진민 (KIM JIN-MIN)
[무신 (God of War)]
I’m not sure whether I should be happy that someone at the MBC board of executives finally recognized Kim’s contribution to the channel in promoting him to Director of Planning of the drama department, or disappointed to see his immense talent squandered yet again. Kim is one of the few producers in the industry who will deliver the goods even when subjected to a subpar script, but when you see what he can do with people who can write (Jung Ha-Yeon? Obviously), it almost feels like a waste to witness him once again turn irritable pap into brilliance. Those first eight episodes of 무신 (God of War) – let me reiterate it – are downright LEGENDARY. If you’d shown that footage to HBO and told them that he shot all that in a couple of weeks for a little over 200 grand an episode, they’d be wondering why they don’t have someone like him — why, think a Game of Thrones by Kim Jin-Min wouldn’t be ridiculously great? This is a world class talent, who deserves world class scripts. Seeing him shoot battle scenes in a couple of days, with just a few dozen extras, no time and little money but still make something captivating out of them was almost poignant. Hats off to his chosen replacement Kim Heung-Dong as well (who admirably took over reigns while Kim joined the strike against president Kim Jae-Cheol), but the glory belongs to him. This is a master in his prime, and it’s about time MBC recognize it. Let Lee Byung-Hoon retire and give Kim a Mon/Tue night sageuk written by people who know a little history, already. It’s like letting David Simon shoot Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.
안판석 (AHN PAN-SEOK)
[아내의 자격 (A Wife’s Credentials)]
One of the most unassuming and down-to-earth folks in Chungmuro, and yet one of the most talented: he comes, does his magnificent work without much fanfare, and leaves the scene for a while with Patrick Stewart-like aplomb. His works are always topical, even when the genre seemingly suggests he might go for lightweight fare — some will remember his early ventures into home drama, like 장미와 콩나물 (Roses & Beansprouts) and 아줌마 (Ajumma). The last thing I expected from him after that tour-de-force known as 하얀거탑 (The White Tower) was that he would go for an adultery drama — what on paper might have sounded like your ordinary makjang drama to some. But 아내의 자격 (A Wife’s Credentials) was so much more, particularly in terms of production values. Ahn brought back that soothing, mature aura that characterized dramas of this kind in the early 1990s: that quiet, unassuming (here’s that word again) realism and sense of place (both geographical and cultural); the wonderfully enveloping and yet subtle music; the delightfully long takes, giving the fabulous cast all the space they needed to breathe out their characters. It was like a textbook lesson on how to frame, shoot and edit a realistic drama about realistic issue — the kind of approach to filmmaking this industry is in sore need of. So once again hats off to this great veteran, for yet another exhilarating ride.
김진원 (KIM JIN-WON)
[세상 어디에도 없는 착한남자 (The Innocent Man)]
No creative industry can survive without a constant influx of new blood. And despite all the indirect and direct efforts to stifle the growth of all those youngsters, Yeouido is no different. Of course calling someone “young” even though he got his chance to direct his first solo drama after numerous years in the company — like Kim Yong-Soo with 적도의 남자 (The Man from the Equator) — sounds like a bit of an oxymoron, but better late than never. The shocking feature debut by Kim Jin-Won is another proof — if any was needed — that the KBS short drama circuit is still working wonders despite all the obstacles the stations puts in its way (for instance, I’d keep the names Kim Hyung-Seok and Park Hyeon-Seok in mind if I were you). Son of the late, great Kim Heung-Gi, his work in 세상 어디에도 없는 착한남자 (The Innocent Man) was as polished as something you’d expect from a Kim Jin-Min or Ahn Pan-Seok, and not someone who’d only directed a few shorts and a 4 episode mini-drama. His tremendous fundamentals, the welcome lack of bling, the maturity with which he approaches emotions (detached but sincere)… it’s all a beautifully, carefully calibrated harmony of sounds and sights that only the best could achieve. Along with Park Gyeong-Soo on the writing side, his is this year’s greatest and most welcome discovery. And hopefully just the first of many quality works he’ll bring us. He’s making his father proud, and this industry as well.
Criteria: At least 35 Years of Age;
at least 10 years of acting in film or TV;
appeared in a feature drama aired in 2012;
성동일 (SEONG DONG-IL)
[Seong Dong-Il in 응답하라 1997 (Reply 1997)]
There’s a fine line between being typecast a la Park Cheol-Min and successfully sticking to what’s your forte with a few occasional detours, and the red sock ajeosshi from 은실이 (Eunshil) still seems to fall in the latter category. The moment you think he’s going overboard with the silly roles, he shocks you with a Cheon Ji-Ho in 추노 (Slave Hunters) – which is certainly silly, but has so many shades of gray to look like a miserable rainbow. And after roles that barely took advantage of his talent like 아부의 왕 (The Suck-Up Project: Mr. XXX-Kisser), here he goes again. Coach Seong is not only a spot-on rendition of your snarky provincial ajeosshi, but also a beautiful mix of realistic human frailties and bombastic energy the likes of which only people like Seong could pull off. Jung Eun-Ji might have been responsible for 응답하라 1997 (Reply 1997)’s breakthrough performance, but one could argue that it was Seong and his partner in crime Lee Il-Hwa that held everything together. Simply brilliant.
손현주 (SON HYUN-JOO)
[Baek Hong-Seok in 추적자 (The Chaser)]
When I talk of actors who are “in it for life,” this is usually what I mean. Son is the only one of these five without a theater background, but he’s been acting since 1990, playing just about everything – and no matter how big or small the role was, he’d always do great, even when the drama didn’t really warrant it. My first real memory of him was his memorable role in the megahit 첫사랑 (First Love), where he played penniless but hardworking guitarist Ju Jeong-Nam, complete with an irresistible Jeolla Province inflection. Many years have passed and his cachet might have risen tenfold, but he still keeps playing those small and big roles with the same verve and energy. 추적자 (The Chaser) might not be his best performance of all time or the highest rated of his shows, but he got paid 6 million per episode and brought 6 billion to the table, and what was one of the biggest surprises of the year. Energy, technique, versatility, and respect for his craft. That’s what it’s all about. I want to see this guy act until he’s 100. And I’m sure he wants to do the same.
이성민 (LEE SEONG-MIN)
[Go Jae-Hak in 브레인 (Brain), Choi In-Hyeok in 골든타임 (Golden Time)]
It’s a trajectory a lot of Korea’s representative actors have taken – that of building fundamentals in theater or musicals, and then slowly fighting their way up the ladder of stardom with their acting skills. So did Song Kang-Ho and Kim Yoon-Seok on the big screen, and people like Eom Gi-Joon and Oh Man-Seok on TV. Lee Seong-Min has for years been one of those faces you can’t help but remember, but you can’t easily associate a name to – exceedingly talented character actors who would always blend with the scenery like a chameleon. I suppose the first time I seriously began to notice him was in 2007’s 마왕 (The Devil), when he began stealing one scene after another in the show’s second half with his magnetic expressions and that made-for-genre mask of his. But 2012 might finally mark the year people begin remembering his name and not only his face, after a seemingly endless rush of incredibly diverse performances – even within the same genre, performances for which we pick him here. Go Jae-Hak and Choi In-Hyeok couldn’t be more different, and yet there is something they had in common, despite all the characterization seemingly defining their personality: they were given a soul by one of Korea’s most criminally underrated veterans. At least until now.
손병호 (SON BYUNG-HO)
[Han Myeong-Hwe in 인수대비 (Queen Insoo)]
Yet another former theater mainstay turned actor – in what is becoming a recurring theme of these nominations – and those roots certainly come to the surface whenever people give Son a chance. He’s done everything from playing miserably glorious gay characters in Song Il-Gon’s 꽃섬 (Flower Island) to marvelously insane soldiers in 알포인트 (R-Point). But his work as Han Myeong-Hwe is memorable not only because of Jung Ha-Yeon’s majestic script. Joseon’s own Zhuge Liang was one of the most astute and politically ruthless kingmakers in Korean history, but in Son’s hands he becomes an affable man of the world, a gentleman strategist who would beat the devil at bluffing. It’s a tremendously variegated performance, going from Han’s early days as a petty villain to his final walk down Sunset Boulevard as one of history’s most fascinating figures. A fantastic performance for a fantastic character.
곽도원 (KWAK DO-WON)
[Kwon Hyeok-Joo in 유령 (Phantom)]
What still separates the film industry from TV is that a single, eclectic role – even if you’re not the lead and the film doesn’t sell ten million tickets – can catapult you into semi-stardom overnight. Kwak had been like most people on this list groomed by the theater circuit, and spent rather anonymous years playing bit roles – without admittedly making much of a mark, not because it was bad acting but rather because it never really stood out. But his turn as Jo Beom-Seok in Yoo Jong-Bin’s tremendous 범죄와의 전쟁 (Nameless Gangster) awakened the industry to that talent that had been lying dormant for years – just like what happened to Kim Yoon-Seok until the mid 2000’s. His “Mad Cow” Kwon Hyeok-Joo is a bit of an offshoot of that role, with similar acting vibes and dynamics, but he’s stellar across the board (even when he’s forced to act in scenes that he probably wouldn’t have shot even if at gunpoint over in Chungmuro). He would have taken the “Male Breakthrough” category by storm, but his acting in 유령 (Phantom) was too good for that. He deserves to be here with all the best of the year.
Criteria: At least 35 Years of Age;
at least 10 years of acting in film or TV;
appeared in a feature drama aired in 2012
채시라 (CHAE SI-RA)
[Queen Insoo in 인수대비 (Queen Insoo), Chae Young-Rang in 다섯 손가락 (Five Fingers)]
It takes a mixture of guts and perhaps a little insanity to play the same character twice, particularly when you give life to an actual historical figure. Tang Guoqiang has done Mao Zedong a million times, Yoo In-Chon made a career out of playing Prince Yeonsan, and people like the late, great Kim Mu-Saeng have played Lee Seong-Gye more than once. There are even women who did the same, such as Choi Myung-Gil doing Queen Wongyeong twice. But when it comes to Chae Si-Ra and Queen Insoo, the iconic role she played in 왕과 비 (The King and The Queen) 14 years ago, a lot of people felt it unnecessary to reprise past accolades — simply because she had run the whole gamut from the bottom up, namely the final confrontation with Prince Yeonsan. But what Jung Ha-Yeon and particularly Chae did was giving an entirely new dimension to a character that, at least on paper, only needed one thing: something, someone who could take her iconic image from the pages of history, and making a pulsating, vulnerable and terribly fascinating human being out of it. During those exhilarating eight months, Chae showed the incredible range she made a name for herself with, but also “played” with her character, in ways that the stoicism of the sageuk of yore would never allow her to. If you combine that with her role in deluxe makjang 다섯 손가락 (Five Fingers) — the usual lugubrious collection of histrionics by Kim Sun-Ok — you have yet another proof of what a monumental talent she truly possesses.
김혜자 (KIM HYE-JA)
[Kim Hye-Ja in 청담동 살아요 (I Live in Cheongdam-Dong)]
Typecasting is something that veteran actors, particularly women, cannot easily escape in this industry. For instance, because the roles they can play as they age are severely limited, unless they make a conscious decision to choose roles with some eclecticism from the very start. But even that is a luxury few people can have. And let’s be honest: sometimes it’s much easier for a Go Doo-Shim or Jung Hye-Seon to play just what people expect you to play. In Kim Hye-Ja’s case, that was the “national mother.” The maternal figure you could easily find next door. This has continued throughout the last few decades with only a few exceptions — her rare sageuk role as Queen Munjeong in the 조선왕조 500년 (500 Years of Joseon) franchise, and her role in Princess Hours — until her two last roles, arguably the most important of her career. Bong Joon-Ho’s 마더 (Mother) took all those mother figures Kim played and gave them a slap in the face, going beyond the old patriarchal vestiges that had trapped them for so long (as someone’s wife, mother and daughter-in-law). But this miraculous sitcom added yet another layer: the childlike Kim Hye-Ja, feeling which perfectly manifested itself in that glorious finale. This was a side of Kim’s acting we rarely ever got to see — at times oozing with the wisdom of an old Buddhist monk, and other times the playful mischief of a child. Her ability to make a fool out of herself without ever losing dignity, and that smile on her face as she played what was arguably this year’s most memorable character is one of the highlights of a fabulous career. One which has finally come full circle. So all is well. All is well.
김희애 (KIM HEE-AE)
[Yoon Seo-Rae in 아내의 자격 (A Wife’s Credentials)]
It certainly hadn’t always been this way, but Kim Hee-Ae’s performances had been marked by a rather somber tone, at least for the better part of the last two decades — her most sprightly role dating back to 1995’s 연애의 기초 (Love Formula). It’s not that her gravitas affected the quality of her acting, but in spite of being a great performer, you’d always feel a certain distance — that lack of 사람냄새 (smell of people) that only Jung Ha-Yeon was able to get out of her with his 아내 (Wife) remake. Yoon Seo-Rae breaks that fourth wall and gives us Kim at her most charmingly vulnerable, cheerful and perhaps even embarrassing. In the wrong hands and with a different crew behind the scenes, this character could have easily derailed the whole drama — as there is a fine line between convincing people that your flaws are an endearing acquired taste, and just wearing your shortcomings on your sleeve, without anything justifying their existence. But she fills the character with the kind of humanity that makes you accept any flaw, because you can’t help but take those elements as an inseparable part of that charming whole. Hers is a tremendous performance that helped cement this wonderful show as one of the most realistic and topical of its genre, filling her impressive career with yet another brilliant choice.
김성령 (KIM SEONG-RYEONG)
[Seo Ji-Soo in 추적자 (The Chaser)]
Beauty can often be a weapon in securing fame, but it’s also a double-edged sword that can limit your career’s scope and range. For the former Miss Korea (who actually looks even better now than she did when she won in 1988, if you can believe that) this has always seemed to be a limiting factor, even when she ventured into much more complex characters (particularly in her frequent sageuk appearances). And she’s always managed to more or less live up to her end of the bargain, filling in the gaps left by her still sketchy technique with considerable screen presence. Yet, something always seemed to be missing — as her acting felt like manufactured vitality instead of an actual, sincere one. Even her other roles early on this year — in the sitcom 할 수 있는 자가 구하라 (Read My Lips) and the lurid medical makjang 신드롬 (Syndrome) — highlighted the very same issues. But Seo Ji-Soo seems to have finally opened that door which was long closed. Playing one of the most compelling characters of her career, Kim managed to imbibe Ji-Soo with an irresistible dualism made of the character’s inherent and decadent weakness (perhaps generated by her upbringing) and her fierce, almost noble refusal to give up without a fight. And hidden beneath all those complexities was something Kim always had a hard time conveying: sincerity. This is her greatest performance, in a way reminding of Ha Hee-Ra’s eye-turning work in 프레지던트 (President).
이태란 (LEE TAE-RAN)
[Hong Ji-Seon in 아내의 자격 (A Wife’s Credentials)]
Lee’s career is what I’d define as the epitome of underachievement — and although she’s still far too young to be compared to her, Lee Da-Hae is taking similar paths. I don’t know why she’s only been in three films during her 15 year long career despite her evident talent (perhaps because, like many other actresses who made the same decision, she was afraid of finding herself in a position where she’d have to pull off a Jeon Do-Yeon-like “leap of faith” vis-a-vis nudity), or why she always seemed to be stuck inside a glass ceiling that only limited her to daily and weekend dramas. But with 전우 (Comrades), Lee proved that she was capable of much more, and that she had the range to pull off much more complex and three-dimensional characters. 아내의 자격 (A Wife’s Credentials) is further proof of her versatility and of an acting spectrum which has only been partly discovered (and put to test). Yes, with a script and direction this good it’s all much easier. But looking credible both as a career professional, a mother and a wife, and a woman while at the same time enveloping the character with an organic sense of continuity is something that not everyone can pull off. Lee’s next project pairs her with Cha In-Pyo in a film by Jeon Gyu-Hwan of the acclaimed “Town” trilogy. Maybe that glass ceiling has finally been broken.
Criteria: feature drama concluded in 2012;
aspired to the title of TIFG (this is fucking great)
I used to be the 10,000 word man on Twitch, so much so that I had to work around the limitations of the posting platform to fit them all. Then I converted to the 100 words mantra here. Now, since it’s the year end review, I reinvent myself once again. Three words for all these ten highlights of 2012. You’ll get the remaining 9,970 (is the math right? Not my forte) in less than three weeks, anyway.
청담동 살아요 (I Live in Cheongdam-Dong)
You Live On.
샐러리맨 초한지 (History of the Salaryman)
Pot, Kettle, Hilarious.
난폭한 로맨스 (Wild Romance)
Almost Too Wild.
인수대비 (Queen Insoo)
Playing With Fire.
추적자 (The Chaser)
A Better Tomorrow.
곰배령 – 천상의 화원 (Heaven’s Garden)
아내의 자격 (A Wife’s Credentials)
I Choose Happiness.
지운수대통 (Stroke of Luck)
Just Lucky Enough.
세상 어디에도 없는 착한남자 (The Innocent Man)
No More Masks.
골든타임 (Golden Time)
Inside The Gown
Now vote away. One vote per cookie (so you double-dipping folks will have to work a little harder to screw with the polls), and the comment area to justify your choices and discuss, if you wish to do so. You’ve got time until December 30 at 23:59. The Year End Review series continues on the 30th with 100 Words of every single 2012 drama plus an in-depth analysis of the year in K-drama, and then the grand finale on December 31, when the winners (both your choices and mine) will be announced. Then we all get piss drunk and 2013 begins. Yay.