Jang Keun Suk – Actor Exceptional
Since the beginning of Daebak, Jang Keun Suk has enjoyed renewed interest in his acting talent. Admittedly, it’s been a long time since he played a character other than a somewhat arrogant pretty boy. However, the people who scorn this acting talent undoubtedly fail to know about his complete body of work.
Jang debuted in 1997, when he was 10 years old, in the Korean sitcom, Selling Happiness. He plays an irrepressible boy constantly getting into comical mischief or some other comical incident. The show enjoyed immense popularity, particularly among the pre-teen viewers, and garnered considerable attention for Jang. A year later he acted in another TV show, entitled Hug. In 2000, he joined the cast of School 3 and moved on to the successful segeuk drama Ladies of the Palace in 2001. Jang played the role of an arrogant, spoiled son of a noble. At its’ peak, this drama garnered a viewership ratings of 49.9%, something nearly unheard today. From there, he went on to act in Four Sisters, Orange, Daemang and the short film, Lucky Ten. Although young, Jang hit a slump where he thought his roles and acting were going nowhere. As a result, he moved to New Zealand for a year to study English and Japanese.
On his return to Korea in 2003 he accepted a leading role in the hit sitcom series, Non-Stop 4. Again, he proved his natural comedic timing and talent in the role of a slightly bumbling premed student. The show also provided him the first opportunity to show his musical talent. Also in that same year, he starred in The Owl Museum about a lonely young teenage boy, growing up with his grandfather, and his estranged, dying mother and their attempts to reunite. In 2004, Jang accepted the role of young Yun Geun-Hee in the drama, Lovers in Prague. Jang played the troubled teenage son of the Korean president.
After completing that role, he accepted the lead role in the comedy manga film Alien Sam. As Bong Sam, he’s an alien Prince who crash lands in Korea near a school and winds up becoming a teacher. Unprepared for employment, let alone understanding humans and Korean culture well, he makes one mistake after another but with his innate sense of kindness, he wins over even his most antagonist student, Wang Hae-Ryong, played by a young Yoo Seung-Ho. This is a light-hearted film that’s just fun to watch.
From that role, Jang moved to a far more serious role as the forlorn lover and son of a powerful lord, Kim Eun-Ho, in the sageuk drama Hwang Jin-Yi. Kim Eun-Ho falls in love with a beautiful gisaeng dancer played by Ha Ji-Won. But in Joseon’s (Korea) rigid class structure, their love cannot be. Eun-Ho dies; his heart broken. Jang’s performance was enough to attract the role in the Japanese film One Missed Final Call. A mystery horror film, Jang plays a charismatic deaf teenager who is friends with one of the students attempting to solve the mystery. Nevertheless, he ends up being killed. For the part, Jang studied sign language to make his acting more authentic.
His big break came, though, in 2007 when he landed the part of Hyun-Joon in film The Happy Life. The film depicts the unhappy lives of three men who decide to restart their college rock band. They recruit young Hyun-Joon to take over as their front man. It just so happens Hyun-Joon’s dead father was the fourth band member. Jang’s own singing is featured in the film, which caused a sensation among female audience members.
2008 proved to be an extraordinarily busy year for Jang. He starred in the sageuk drama Hong Gil Dong as the Prince seeking to regain his rightful throne; in the film Crazy Waiting as young soldier in a relationship with an older and more successful woman; in the film Doremifasolasido as a musically talented teenage band member who becomes mentally and emotionally unbalanced when he loses his girl friend to another band member; in the comedy film Baby and Me playing the lead character, Joon-Soo, a rebellious high school kid who suddenly finds himself with a baby he thinks is his and must take care of; and finally playing Kang Geon-Woo, a gifted, naturally talented music genius, in the hit drama Beethoven’s Virus. In each of these roles, Jang exhibits a versatility of acting skill and range far beyond his age of 20.
In 2009, Jang accepted what is perhaps the most challenging role at that point in his career. He starred as Robert Pearson, a psychotic killer, in the hit movie Where the Truth Lies, also known as The Case of Itaewan Homicide. For this role, Jang won the Most Favorite Actor award at the 2010 (46th) PaekSang Arts Awards.
His next role, again in 2009, is one with which most people associate him: Hwang Tae-Kyeong in the drama He’s Beautiful. Although not a ratings winner in Korea, the drama sold for record amounts overseas and put him on the international map.
In 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013, he starred respectively in the drama Marry Me, Mary; the film You’re My Pet; the drama Love Rain; and finally Bel Ami. Although each of these projects rated better overseas than in Korea and again sold for record amounts, they are among his most beloved projects by his fans.
In addition, in 2011, Jang produced his own short film, Budapest Diary. Shot entirely in Budapest and the surrounding countryside, this 40-minute film is a masterpiece of cinematography, acting, script, and tight direction. Not one scene is wasted as Jang takes the audience of a roller coaster ride of emotions, from the depths of anger and despair to renewed joyfulness to the calm happiness of acceptance. His emotions are so real and the dialogue so honest, it’s remarkable that it wasn’t entered in any short film award show.
Then, in 2014, Jang released another short film, CAMP. Written and produced by Jang, the filmed is shot on Jeju Island. It’s the story of a documentary film maker who hasn’t gotten along with his father and grown up a loner. When he goes shooting in the mountains, he encounters a strange incident and suffers injury and loss. Through an encounter with an old man, he learns to deal with his past as well as reconsider his present and future life. CAMP was directed by same director from Budapest Diary. Although the director wanted to show the short film in Cannes, he was unable to make that happen.
Nevertheless, the last four major studio projects are not considered his best work, although they remain among his most popular. His best work, prior to his new drama Daebak, occurred in 2008 and 2009 and in his short films where he really exhibits his skill as a versatile, highly skilled actor, capable of convincingly playing any character. His acting shines with authenticity, causing audiences often to mistake the character he’s playing with the man himself.
As a psychotic killer, Pearson, in Where the Truth Lies, he’s frightening. His eyes gleam with a maliciousness that’s shockingly real. As the musical genius Kang Geon Woo in Beethoven’s Virus, he seems to feel the music deeply in his being even as he argues with his mentor and teacher. And who cannot feel empathy for young Joon-Soo in Baby and Me, trying so hard to take care the baby he thinks is his; yet, feeling so incompetent and lost and alone.
Daebak, thus far, appears to transport him back to his best and most skilled work, showing he can play any role or character convincingly. Jang really is an extremely talented actor. As several directors have noted, he is one of the best actors with whom they have ever worked and probably the most under-rated actor in Korea. I hope this new drama puts him back on the top of acting charts where he belongs.