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Lee Byung Hun - Man of the World

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

With the seemingly never ending popularity of the Korean Wave continuing to flourish, a number of stars have become household names both at home and all around Asia. Korean television dramas in particular have proved to be a huge success, elevating certain male actors to heartthrob status, especially in Japan. However, Lee Byung Hun is one of the select few who can truly claim to have achieved global stardom, having won over audiences not only in Korea and Asia, but also in the West, with several promising Hollywood roles lined up, and being the only one of his countrymen to currently have US agent representation - no small feat in an industry notoriously resistant to all but the biggest of foreign stars. This should perhaps come as no surprise, as Lee is far more than a mere pretty face, having won praise for his acting skills in a long line of television series as well as starring in a healthy number of blockbuster films, many of which have been international hits. In addition to this, he is somewhat of a renaissance man, being fluent in English and French as well as in his native tongue, making him a natural choice for roles in almost any country in the world.

Early Television Years

Lee Byung Hun was born July 12, 1970 in Seoul. Interestingly, he started off not in the arts, but majoring in French at Han Yang University, something which would stand him in good stead for the future. After graduating, he made an important decision by enrolling at Chung-Ang University to study theatre and cinematography. Having found his true calling, he focused his energies on acting, dedicating himself to a career on screen.

Lee took his first step up the ladder in 1991 after being noticed at the 14th annual public audition held by Korea Broadcast System (KBS). Winning a contract, he made his debut appearance the same year in the television drama Asphalt My Hometown, immediately winning favorable notices for his performance. Over the next couple of years he continued to star in television dramas, gradually raising his profile through the likes of Family, Days of Sunrise, and the mini-series Morning Without Goodbyes. In 1992 he featured in Tomorrow in Love, a top-rated youth drama directed by Yoon Suk Ho (who was later responsible for the classic Winter Sonata series), which edged him closer to idol status.

Although his popularity was growing, major mainstream success still eluded the actor, and he continued to work in television, appearing in more dramas such as The Fragrance of Love and Dream Racers (which was partly shot in the US). In 1995 he made his film debut in the romance Who Drives Me Crazy?, which he followed in the same year with Run Away, a gritty youth drama from director Kim Sung Su, who later made it big with Musa the Warrior and Please Teach Me English. Still, this did not quite usher him to superstardom, and he spent a few more years paying his dues with appearances in hit television series such as the boxing drama Beautiful Woman and youth melodrama White Nights 3.98, and in the films Kill the Love and Elegy of the Earth.

A Harmonious Breakthrough

1999 finally saw Lee get his breakthrough as he starred in the massively successful series Happy Together, which featured an all-star cast featuring Song Seung Heon, Kim Ha Neul, and future My Sassy Girl favorites Jeon Ji Hyun and Chae Tae Hyun. Sunflower, an anthology of love stories which also screened in 1999, saw him performing alongside a similarly impressive ensemble including Choi Ji Woo (Stairway to Heaven) and Yoo Ji Tae (who went on to be a popular actor in his own right, starring in Oldboy, One Fine Spring Day, and other films).

In the same year he also made an impact in cinemas with The Harmonium In My Memory, director Lee Young Jae's adaptation of the best-selling Korean book Female Student. The film was a tender though believable tale of first love, revolving around a schoolgirl in rural 1960s Korea (played by Jeon Do Yeon, recently excellent in Lee Chang Dong's Secret Sunshine), and offered Lee a memorable role as her new teacher, who she develops a crush on. Interestingly, during the same year the actor also showed himself to be multitalented with the release of his music album To Me.

Lee followed this with his biggest and most successful role to date in Park Chan Wook's blockbuster hit JSA: Joint Security Area. A gripping murder mystery thriller set in the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, the film saw Lee in top form, and also featured fine performances from Song Kang Ho (a regular Park collaborator, and who recently starred in Bong Joon Ho's The Host) and actress Lee Young Ae (who later took the title role in the director's Sympathy for Lady Vengeance). It was a commercial and critical smash, ranking as the highest-grossing film at the domestic box office ever at the time, and winning a variety of awards. The film was also popular internationally, particularly in Japan, and won nominations and prizes at several festivals including Berlin and Deauville.

Now officially a film star in his own right, Lee next was given the chance to headline in Bungee Jumping of Their Own, the debut feature from director Kim Dae Seung (later responsible for Blood Rain). The oddly titled film featured a suitably unconventional plot, tackling themes of undying love and reincarnation - in this case following Lee as a teacher who suspects that his long-dead sweetheart may have been reborn as one of his young male students (played by Yeoh Hyun Soo, also in Holiday and Birth of a Man). Despite this awkward premise, the film offered a moving exploration of the real nature of love, and Lee flourished in his complex role, proving himself to be a talented and versatile actor. A winner at the prestigious Blue Dragon Awards in 2001, the film helped raise his profile, and to further his acceptance as a serious thespian rather than just a pinup idol.

2001 also saw the actor continuing his run of television hits with the dramas The Long Way and Beautiful Days, the latter giving him one of his most memorable and charismatic roles. At this time, the Korean Wave was really starting to take off, especially in Japan, and both were popular at home and abroad. As a result, and with Lee now established as one of the most popular Korean stars of the movement, a number of his older series were reissued and aired, all to similar success.

Addicted to Success

After providing one of the voices for the animated film My Beautiful Girl, Mari, next up for Lee was a trio of big screen hits, beginning with Addicted from director Park Young Hoon. A supernaturally themed romance in which he featured with actress Lee Mi Yeon (with whom he had co-starred in The Harmonium In My Memory) as a man who seems to take on the personality of his comatose brother. Skillfully combining themes of possession and obsessive love, the ambiguous film added yet another feather to Lee's cap, and has since been picked up for a rather needless Hollywood remake. Next came Everybody has Secrets, a daring romantic comedy which saw Lee taking on the quite possibly real-life role of a man who seems to be nigh on irresistible to women everywhere. No doubt seeking something a little more challenging, he then reteamed with Park Chan Wook for his Cut segment of the horror anthology Three...Extremes, playing a film director tormented by a psychotic fan.

Never one to be accused of resting on his laurels, Lee somehow also found time in 2003 to star in the television series All In. A gambling themed drama, the show became one of the most popular and talked about across Asia, not least due to Lee's off-screen relationship with his co-star, Korean actress Song Hye Kyo (a television idol in her own right, recently in period piece Hwang Jin Yi).

A Sweet Life

In 2005 Lee worked for the first time with top director Kim Ji Woon, who had just been responsible for A Tale of Two Sisters, possibly the best Asian ghost film of recent years, on A Bittersweet Life. Unfairly, though perhaps inevitably compared with Old Boy on the grounds of it being another noir-style thriller, whilst violent and ambiguous, the film was far more of a character piece, being quietly emotional and surprisingly sentimental amongst all the flying bullets and spraying blood. A deserved critical and commercial hit which earned a widespread international release, playing at Cannes and other high profile festivals, the film also won Lee considerable praise for his effective turn as an obtuse, eccentric killer.

Next in 2006 came a change of pace with Once in a Summer, a romantic drama spanning thirty years in the lives of two lovers, with Lee playing a student in 1969 who volunteers to work in the countryside, where he meets and falls for local librarian Jung In (Soo Ae, also in the television series Love Letter). Switching between past and present, the film works well, mainly due to the fact that it is actually a far more substantial affair than might have been expected, exploring the political turmoil of Korea during the last few decades, using the romance to provide a painfully human perspective on national events.

2007 saw Lee's incredible popularity being highlighted again through his cameo appearance in the Japanese courtroom drama Hero, based upon the successful television series. Although minor, the actor's role made for an attention-grabbing scene, which basically involved the main character travelling to Korea for the express purpose of seeing him. In the same year, Lee was also immortalized by having his likeness used for the Capcom video game Lost Planet: Extreme Condition, again underlining his international appeal.

The Good, the Bad, and G.I. Joe

Lee's next role sees him joining forces once more with director Kim Ji Woon for the eagerly awaited and eccentric sounding Korean Western The Good, The Bad, The Weird. Boasting an incredible trio of leading men, with Lee playing The Bad, Jung Woo Sung playing The Good, and Song Kang Ho (naturally) playing The Weird, the film is a tribute to Sergio Leone's 1960s Spaghetti Westerns, set in Japanese occupied Manchuria in the 1930s - all of which is more than enough to make it a mouth watering prospect.

Inevitably, Hollywood came calling, and Lee answered, accepting a role in The Mummy director Stephen Sommers's live action G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra. Although acting in a film based upon a children's cartoon and range of toys may not necessarily seem particularly dignified or fitting for such a respected performer, it represents Lee playing by the usual rules and accepting the type of part usually offered to Asian actors in the West. At least with the film being a big budget, blockbuster affair, it will certainly offer the actor widespread exposure, and if a hit will hopefully lead to more offers more befitting his talents. A more interesting international prospect on the horizon is I Come With the Rain, which he recently completed for Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung, who previously won acclaim for Cyclo and The Scent of Green Papaya. A moody private eye thriller, the film has an intriguing cast, including Josh Hartnett, Hong Kong actor Shawn Yue, and Hero star Kimura Takuya.

As if this wasn't enough for Lee's legions of fans, the actor is also returning to Korean television screens with IRIS, the country's most expensive series to date, which he will co-produce as well as star in. Although details of the plot have yet to be released, with Lee involved it is highly unlikely that it will be anything other than yet another hit, and indeed that it will serve only to propel his star even further into the stratosphere.

Published August 18, 2008

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