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Ahn Sung Ki, Living Legend

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Tales of incredibly talented artists only finding fame after their deaths abound, but sometimes lady luck allows some of them to flourish. Ahn Sung Ki is certainly one of those cases. Despite being in the limelight for decades, he never had to deal with scandals, received prestigious awards in four different decades, and starred in everything from little known independent films to incredibly expensive blockbusters. He has witnessed the Golden Age of the 60s, the censorship and cultural repression of the 70s, the social realism masterpieces of the 80s, and the boom which started in the 90s and continues today. He's seen it all, done it all. But, after all these years, Ahn Sung Ki is still hungry for that same thing which has allowed him to go through decades of changes, successes, and failures - the passion for acting.


Son of a film producer, Ahn virtually grew up on the movie set. He debuted at the age of five, right when the Korean film industry was moving at an impressively rapid pace, entering its most glamorous period. With the busiest actors often shooting four to five films at the same time, Ahn found himself listed in the credits of dozens of films in a mere few years, not a surprising feat considering how talented the young boy was. If Kim Ki Young's The Twilight Train in 1957 was his first film, it didn't take too long for critics to notice his talent. Ahn was awarded prizes at the Grand Bell Awards and even at the San Francisco Film Festival in 1959 for his work on Defiance of Teenagers. Still largely ignored by the western world at the time, it was a rarity for the Korean film industry to find one of its actors awarded overseas, much less a child actor.


Perhaps Ahn's highlight as a child actor was taking part in what many consider to be the best Korean film of all time, Kim Ki Young's 1960 masterpiece The Housemaid. Despite getting recognition for his work at such a young age, his activity in an increasingly prolific film industry started interfering with his life as a student, such that his parents decided for the better to allow him to get an education first. After close to seventy films, Ahn Sung Ki's first life as an actor came to a close in the late 60s. During his years as a student, Ahn majored in Vietnamese, but the Vietnam War closed any opportunity for him to pursue a career in the South Asian country. At his father's advice, a 26-year-old Ahn returned to acting in 1978, again in a Kim Ki Young film. But he quickly found out things wouldn't be as easy as he expected.


Acting and production styles had changed a lot, and with more and more people preferring TV dramas over the big screen, it was hard for Ahn to make a mark. That all changed in 1980, when director Lee Jang Ho, just out of a huge controversy himself, cast him as the lead in Good Windy Day. Telling the tale of three friends living in the countryside, their big dreams and the even bigger reality they had to confront, Good Windy Day was the perfect opportunity to show the industry Ahn didn't fall under the usual glass ceiling which made many child actors crumble. After starring in the film, Ahn met two of the directors who would shape the rest of his career: Bae Chang Ho and, of course, Im Kwon Taek. The former might be lesser known outside Korea, but almost all of his films in the 80s were huge hits, and almost all of them starred Ahn, including 1982's People in the Slums, 1984's masterful road movie Whale Hunting, 1985's Deep Blue Night, and more.


One could argue Ahn perfected his acting style during that decade. From the free spirited homeless man in Whale Hunting, to the model student in Between the Knees, to the young man in love with Joseon's most famous gisaeng in Hwang Jin Yi, Ahn's greatest value as an actor was his ability to keep changing himself, while at the same time always exuding that familiarity, that down-to-earth charisma he still shows today. If Bae's films gave Ahn a chance to make it big with the public, Im Kwon Taek challenged him with demanding roles in some of the best films of the 80s. Recently completing his one hundredth film, Im started working with Ahn in 1981's Buddhist film Mandara, one of the classics of the genre, and just like Bae continued to cast Ahn in many of his future projects, first being Village in the Mist a year later.


The late 80s were a mix of success and failure for Ahn. His works with Bae Chang Ho, especially the historical drama Hwang Jin Yi and the human drama Hello, God!, didn't do too well at the box office, with some critics saying Ahn was falling into a slump. More commercial fare like Wanderer in Winter and Eoh Wu Dong did bring him success, but something needed to change. And that something came in the form of 1988's Chilsoo and Mansoo, one of the best social realist films Korea ever produced. The first of many collaborations with director Park Kwang Su, the film also marked the first meeting between two actors who would become extremely good friends over the years, Ahn Sung Ki and Park Joong Hoon.


Another memorable Ahn film from this period was Lee Myung Se's madly ingenious 1988 film Gagman. Starring alongside his good friend and director Bae Chang Ho in one of the most creative road movies ever made, Ahn played a director wannabe stalking film studio sets to get his first production made. Sensing nobody would ever give him a chance, he enlists the help of a barber (played by Bae), who always dreamed of becoming an actor, and a young and beautiful woman (Hwang Shin Hye). The three become the mastermind of one of the craziest, most hilarious bank robberies ever put on film, facing the consequences in Hollywood-like fashion. The film was ignored at the box office, but a few people in the industry started talking about the film's young director, who first grew up under Bae Chang Ho's wings as a screenwriter. Lee would go on to make even crazier films, perhaps the strangest of them all 2005's masterpiece of cinematic flow, Duelist, starring (guess who?) Ahn Sung Ki, once again.


From 1988 to 1998, Ahn went through an impressive decade, with many of those ten years' best films featuring him as the lead. From Jung Ji Young's masterful war epics Nambugun and White Badge and Im Kwon Taek's period drama The Taebaek Mountains to comedies like Two Cops and historical dramas like Eternal Empire, playing the most impressive King Jeongjo to date, Ahn displayed his wide range of abilities in an equally wide range of films. One could say the revival of Korean cinema rested on the shoulders of creative directors and intelligent producers, but it couldn't have happened without actors like Ahn Sung Ki, going through all those years of difficulty without ever turning to the easier and more secure field of TV dramas.


The last eight years of Ahn's career have been marked by intelligent choices, mixing genres and styles, choosing affirmed directors and people who have always worked well with him. There are, in particular, five films, which show that at over 50 years of age, Ahn still offers new treats every time he stands in front of the camera. The first is Lee Myung Se's Nowhere To Hide, an adrenaline-filled voyage into stylish filmmaking, well received at home and a cult hit overseas. The historical epic Musa: The Warrior is still one of the best examples of the genre in quite a few years, showing Ahn's charisma as a war strategist. Much less expensive was My Beautiful Girl, Mari, for which Ahn did voice acting; a rare animation for adults, the film is part melancholy, part nostalgia, with an emotional crescendo perfectly highlighted by Lee Byung Woo's soundtrack. A Battle of Wits was Ahn's first foray into the international market, and he showed good command of Mandarin along with his customary panache next to Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau. Still, the most memorable of them all might just be Radio Star.


Directed by Lee Joon Ik of King and The Clown fame, the low budget film reunited Park Joong Hoon and Ahn Sung Ki for the fourth time, in a story about friendship and the important things in life. The film wasn't an incredible success, but it was loved by its fans and is likely to be remembered in years to come, thanks to its nostalgia-friendly soundtrack and the superb award-winning performances of its leads. Ahn just recently completed May 18, a big budget drama focusing on the days before the Gwangju Massacre of 1980, and how it affected a family. The film is drawing interest because of its highly controversial subject (already dramatized by Lee Chang Dongin Peppermint Candy, Jang Sun Woo in A Petal, and of course the TV drama Sandglass), and might just be another chance for Ahn to show his versatility.


2007, exactly 50 years since Ahn Sung Ki started his acting career. Ask anyone to name their favorite ten Korean films, and you'd be pretty safe predicting at least one stars Ahn. After all these years of ups and downs, Ahn Sung Ki is still the same: in front of the camera, preparing for his next great performance. That's what legends do.







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Published June 22, 2007


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