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The Return of Jang Dong Gun

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

While some performers achieve stardom by appearing in as many films as possible, others play a different, though no less effective game by keeping their audiences waiting and wanting more. Such has certainly been the case with Korean actor Jang Dong Gun, who recently returned to screens in the highly anticipated blockbuster Good Morning President, after a near incredible absence of five years. Whilst this gap might have been enough to derail the careers of lesser stars, with Jang it seems merely to have been part of his plan, leaving fans feeling like he had never been away in the first place. Perhaps this ability to simply waltz back onto the silver screen should not be too surprising, given that the handsome and charismatic, not to mention multi-lingual Jang is certainly one of the more successful actors of his generation, having appeared in three of the country's biggest hits in Friend, Taegukgi, and Typhoon, as well as Chen Kaige's prestigious Pan-Asian production The Promise. As well as starring in blockbusters and notching up chart hits with his singing career, his work has also seen him winning a multitude of awards, marking him as one of the few superstar types to be equally popular with viewers and critics alike, both at home and abroad.

Conquering the Small Screen

Jang Dong Gun was born March 7, 1972 in Seoul, and spent his childhood in Yongsan Gu before heading to the Korean National University of Arts. Although he actually left before finishing his degree, he found his way into television work, and made his debut in 1993 in the MBC series Our Paradise. The long running hit drama took place on a college campus, and also gave several other Korean stars their first big break, including Jeon Do Yeon, Choi Jin Sil, Han Suk Kyu, Yeom Jung Ah, and Jang's future wife Ko So Young. Having made his mark, he followed this up with more television appearances over the next four years in an impressive number of other series, including several other key shows that thrust him increasingly into the limelight. These saw the actor taking on a number of iconic roles in the likes of The Last Match and Icing as well as memorably playing a fictional folk hero in the comic book based Iljimae (a mantle later taken up by Lee Jun Ki, and then by Jung Il Woo). His growing popularity and reputation was cemented in 1994 when he won the Best New Television Actor prize at the Baeksang Art Awards.

More series followed, such as the 1997 hit hospital set drama Medical Brothers, which saw him starring alongside Son Chang Min as two rival siblings, with actress Lee Young Ae playing his love interest. The series helped to push Jang's career to the next level, showing that he was more than capable of playing a complex and multi-layered character. His acclaimed turn won him several awards, including the MBC Best Actor accolade, and Most Popular Performer at the Baeksang Art Awards. More television work came next including appearances in Models and Myth of a Hero, confirming his status as one of the best loved stars on the small screen, not only in Korea but across all of Asia, with his face becoming increasingly well known in China and Japan, marking him as one of the first true Pan-Asian superstars.

At the same time, Jang was also active as a singer, with releases such as his self-titled 1993 debut, his 1994 album Friendship, and Fly in 1995 all serving to boost his stock even further.

From Holiday in Seoul to Nowhere to Hide

In 1997 Jang made the inevitable leap to the big screen with Holiday in Seoul, directed by Kim Eui Suk (who later worked on the fantasy epic Sword in the Moon) and co-starring fellow television talent Choi Jin Sil, Kim Min Jong, and Jin Hee Kyung. The film depicted two connected tales of urban love and angst, with Jang playing an insomniac taxi driver who enters into a complicated relationship with a phone operator. In the same year, Jang also appeared in the romantic revenge comedy Repechage, which neatly announced his silver screen status thanks to a win at the prestigious Blue Dragon Film Awards for Best New Actor. Having made his debut in what were a couple of rather offbeat films, Jang moved on to somewhat more expected ground with the melodrama First Kiss, and the romance Love Wind Love Song co-starring his future wife Ko So Young.

These were followed by perhaps his best role to date, in the cop thriller Nowhere to Hide, from noted director Lee Myung Se (who went on to delight and confound in equal measures with Duelist and M). Jang starred alongside the popular Park Joong Hoon as two tough detectives on the trail of a killer (veteran actor Ahn Sung Ki) in the rainy port city of Busan. A glorious celebration of cinematic technique and style over substance, the action packed and violent film won the Blue Dragon Award, with Jang also picking up Best Supporting Actor for his role.

Although his film career was advancing in leaps and bounds, Jang continued to appear in television series, starring in Ready Go!, Love, Springtime and Ghost in 1998 and 1999, all of which enjoyed success not only at home, but even more notably in Japan, where the actor was fast becoming a household name and one of the leading faces of the new Korean Wave. In 2000, he featured in All About Eve, again for MBC, a huge hit which was considered by many to be one of the best Korean series ever screened. Following two female news anchors, played by Chae Rim and Kim So Yeon, the show saw Jang playing a television executive caught up in their rivalry.

Friend and Box Office Success

Jang returned to cinemas in 2000 with The Anarchists, set in 1920s Shanghai and revolving around a group of young men who are determined to overthrow the Japanese military government. The film was a bold, interesting affair, perhaps unsurprisingly given that it was written by Park Chan Wook, though it did not receive a particularly high profile release and undeservedly went largely unnoticed.

The same could not be said of Jang's next film and his first real taste of blockbuster success, Friend, directed by Kwak Kyung Taek. The film centered on the lives of four young friends growing up in Pusan, charting their development from high school students to criminals and gangsters. As well as Jang, the film boasted an impressive cast, with Yoo Oh Sung, Seo Tae Hwa, and Jung Woon Taek playing the other leads, and its themes of brotherhood and loyalty struck a real chord with audiences, and it broke box office records on its release in 2001. Jang turned in a powerful performance as the most troubled of the four young men, which won him Most Popular Actor at the Blue Dragon Awards, and Best Supporting Actor at the Asia Pacific Film Festival.

Now established as a cinema as well as television superstar, Jang's next film was another big budget blockbuster in the form of 2009: Lost Memories, an action packed science fiction film from director Lee Si Myung (who went on to helm the classic Vampire Cop Ricky). Set in an alternate Japan of the future, the film makes the interesting supposition that the country was an ally of the US during World War II, and as a result has grown to be the most powerful Asian nation. Jang plays a Japanese agent called Sakamoto called in to investigate a supposed terrorist attack by a resistance group in occupied Seoul, only to become involved in the hunt for a mysterious artefact which could return history to its rightful course. The actor certainly showed his commitment to his craft with the film, learning to speak Japanese to help with his performance.

Imaginative and nationalistic, 2009: Lost Memories was another big box office success for Jang, and so it may have come as somewhat of a surprise to his legions of fans that he chose to follow it with something radically different in controversial art house director Kim Ki Duk's The Coast Guard. This saw him taking on arguably a far more complex role as a fanatical soldier who gradually slips into madness and paranoia as he guards the country from supposed North Korean spies. Whilst shot on a low budget and not widely released, the film certainly showed the Jang was equally at home in serious and challenging fare, giving him a real chance to flex his acting muscles.

A Blockbuster Hat Trick

Following this dalliance with the fringe, Jang headed back to grander and more commercial territory with his next film in 2004, which would prove to be another landmark outing for the actor. Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War was always likely to be a hit, with Shiri director Kang Je Gyu at the reins, and with it offering a take on the Korean War which was at once epic and spectacular, and yet personal and emotive. The film was a no expenses spared event, setting a new record for the country with a budget of 2.8 million dollars, which resulted in some amazing battle scenes and historical recreations, though thankfully this did not detract from its being a solid and moving piece of storytelling. Jang played one of two brothers torn apart by the conflict, for which he duly won Best Actor at the Blue Dragon Film Awards, with the film itself proving hugely popular at the domestic box office, becoming the highest-grossing film of all time on its release, a record which it held until being knocked from its perch by King and The Clown in 2006.

The film was also popular overseas, both across Asia and in the West, making Jang a natural choice for one of the lead roles in Chinese director Chen Kaige's Pan-Asian fantasy The Promise. The film saw him starring alongside other famous faces in Cecilia Cheung, Liu Ye, Nicholas Tse, and Japanese actor Sanada Hiroyuki, with the production having a mammoth budget of 37 million dollars. Unfortunately, despite the director's former pedigree, having won at Cannes for his stunning Farewell, My Concubine, the film proved to be rather a mess, with its variable special effects and bizarre plotting leaving audiences around the world in laughter. Nevertheless, it managed to wrack up impressive figures at the international box office, and certainly did no harm to Jang's career or reputation or indeed his linguistic skills, with his having learned to speak Mandarin for the film.

2005 gave the actor another massive hit with Typhoon, which teamed him again with Friend director Kwak Kyung Taek. Although ostensibly an action thriller, the film was a surprisingly dark and moody affair, with Jang starring as a pirate, betrayed by the South Korean government after trying to defect from the North, who attempts to launch a nuclear strike against the country to exact his revenge. Starring Lee Jung Jae as a naval officer who tries to bring him down, the film portrays the two men, and indeed the two counties as hurtling towards destructive conflict rather than reconciliation, and as a result is more thoughtful than the average blockbuster. Jang did well in a complex and villainous role, bringing humanity and pain to a character that might well have been played less effectively as a straight maniac. Enjoying the highest budget yet for a Korean film, Typhoon certainly included enough in the way of spectacle, and was another global hit for the actor, who won a Blue Dragon nomination for his efforts.

Disappearance and Return

After 2005, Jang all but vanished from screens, save from a few commercials. Fans need not have worried too much that he had hung up his acting boots for good, as Jang finally returned in 2009 with Good Morning President, a blockbuster political satire from Righteous Ties director Jang Jin. Spanning a decade in Korea's Blue House through three periods of office, the film sees Jang as Cha Ji Wook as a young, JFK style leader, who has to juggle escalating North South tensions with romancing his former childhood sweetheart (played by actress Han Chae Young) - who just happens to now be the head of the opposition. The sharp, witty film provided a perfect vehicle to mark Jang's return to cinemas, giving him ample opportunities to show that his years away have not diminished his considerable charisma, or his ability to simply make audiences like or sympathize with whatever role he takes on.

From here, Jang thankfully shows no signs of planning to take another hiatus from the screen, having recently completed work on Sngmoo Lee's fantasy western The Warrior's Way, a joint Korean-New Zealand production in which he stars as an assassin, sharing top billing with Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush and Danny Huston. With this under his belt, Jang is set to work again with Taegukgi helmer Kang Je Gyu on My Way. The film is an internationally themed production shot in various countries around the globe, which will no doubt see his star continue to rise, and which will hopefully inspire him to reward his many patient fans with more appearances over the coming years.

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Published May 31, 2010

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