Korea's next top actors may already be on your fave music playlist
"I didn’t really know any songs by IU, but I was a fan of her as an actor," actor Song Kang-ho said of fellow actor Lee Ji-eun, also known as singer-songwriter IU.
"Even before ‘My Mister’ [2018, on tvN], I’ve been following her since ‘Lee Soon-shin is the Best’ [2013, on KBS 2TV]. Since then I’ve always been amazed at how she could be at the top in both of her careers as a singer and an actor. […] As you can see in ‘Broker,’ I think she will become a very big actor, an iconic actor within the Korean film industry."
Song and Lee worked together in “Broker,” the first Korean-language film by Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, which was invited to compete for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes International Films Festival.
Lee, however, is not the first K-pop star-turned-actor to stand on the red carpet of Cannes: Actor Yim Si-wan stood on the same red carpet last year — with Song, coincidentally — as part of the cast for “Emergency Declaration” by director Han Jae-rim. The movie's cast was invited to the prestigious event for the out of competition section and stood, all clad in suit and tie, in front of cameras next to already well-established actors such as Song, Lee Byung-hun and Jeon Do-yeon.
In the Korean entertainment industry, singers transitioning to acting, and those who juggle both careers, have now become the norm. And though it may be a common phenomenon now, that wasn't always the case, even though singers have actually been emerging from the K-pop industry to make their acting debuts since decades ago.
First generation and second generation K-pop idols such as Eric Mun and Kim Dong-wan of Shinhwa; Yoon Kye-sang of g.o.d; Seo Hyun-jin of former girl group M.IL.K; Lim Yoon-A and Lee Soo-young of Girls’ Generation; Lee Jun-ho and Ok Taek-yeon of 2PM; D.O. of Exo; Lee Hye-ri and Bang Min-ah of Girl’s Day; Bae Suzy of former girl group Miss A; and Park Cho-rong and Jeong Eun-ji of Apink — just to name a few — have all seen some degree of commercial success across the silver and small screens for their performances.
The transition from singer to actor is partly due to K-pop idols' needs to make ends meet in other ways when they weren’t active as a unit in their respective groups, whether that be from the group's irregular schedules or the "seven-year curse" after which many idol groups tend to break up. It may also be partly due to the unspoken age limit that exists within the industry, where idols are considered to be on the older side from as early as their late 20s.
Based on their popularity and fandom alone, television broadcasters and the film industry would sometimes rely on these older but still popular singers to earn a better viewership percentage or attract more ticket sales by wielding the idol’s star power. Some such idol-turned-actors received criticism for their awkward performances, often stemming from cases in which they were suddenly given an important role in a project due solely to their popularity, despite their lack of acting experience and preparation.
Some viewers would also argue that idols appearing on screen becomes an obstacle as the audience tries to engage in the story, but continues to link the idol to the stage instead of the narrative.
But now, this no longer seems to be the case.
“The singer-turned-actors that were criticized [for their acting] were mostly idols,” said culture critic Kim Heon-sik. “They hadn’t acted before, but they entered the [acting] industry based on their popularity […] But nowadays, there have been changes in the social perception [of K-pop star-turned-actors] because a K-pop idol’s training fundamentally includes preparing them to act as well. Perhaps the most representative case is of Lee Jun-ho [from MBC hit series ‘The Red Sleeve’ (2021-22)]. I believe it would be more correct to define idols as a multi-entertainer than merely just a member of a K-pop idol group.”
Due to the oversaturation of current idol groups, now dubbed third and fourth generation K-pop, more individual members of groups are turning toward acting as a way of putting themselves on the map of the industry, using a larger variety of platforms compared to the past — through conventional methods like musicals, films and television series, and newer web drama series and streaming platforms as well.
Representative successes of the transition include Bona from girl group WJSN and Jaechan from boy band DKZ. Bona, or actor Kim Ji-yeon, recently gained recognition for portraying gold medalist fencer Ko Yu-rim from tvN drama series “Twenty-Five Twenty-One” (2022). Her chemistry with actor Kim Tae-ri, who portrays Na Hee-do, a fencing prodigy who idolizes Yu-rim, was a critical point in the series. The series, which wrapped up in February, was a commercial hit and ranked high on global Netflix charts. Some viewers were surprised to find out that Kim was a K-pop star, and after the series ended, video clips of Bona on stage went viral online.
Jaechan starred in Watcha original series “Semantic Error" (2022), a genre of Boy Love (BL) which are relatively tame stories about close relationships between men. He portrayed a university student named Chu Sang-woo who strictly follows his own rules and becomes attracted to Jang Jae-young, the complete opposite of Chu. BL is an under-the-radar genre highly popular with young women which initially surfaced from webtoons and web novels.
As “Semantic Error” continues to rank high on the platform’s most-watched list since its release in February, Jaechan’s star power has risen along with it: He resumed his activities as an idol through DKZ's single “Cupid” in April, and has been ceaselessly receiving calls for photo shoots, model gigs and guest appearances for variety shows and radio programs. Jaechan’s own reality show, “To My Season: Spring, Park Jaechan” (translated), will premiere on Watcha at the end of June.
Stars are turning to global streaming platforms as well: singer-turned-actors Kim Woo-jin, former member of boy band Stray Kids, and Kim Jin-kwon of boy band Newkidd, have been cast in lead roles of the upcoming HBO Max original series “Além do Guarda-Roupa.” They’re the first Koreans to star in the platform’s original series.
Nowadays, it is “difficult to draw a distinction” between singers and actors, according to an insider of an entertainment agency who wished to remain anonymous.
“It’s all case-by-case, depending on the talent that each member possesses,” the insider explained. “Some take acting lessons even before their group debut, while some start taking lessons only after a project has been offered to them. Some get cast through the traditional way of taking auditions.
“What’s evident now is that there no longer exists any negativity regarding K-pop idols turning to acting. [The public] is no longer drawing that distinction between singers and actors.”
“From a business perspective, it's more expensive to single out and train specific idols,” said Kim. “In this era of global streaming platforms dominating the content industry and globally rising K-pop stars, no agency would train their trainees as just K-pop idols: They’re bound to pick those who are multi-entertainers, and those with ambitious road maps who can survive in the fiery competition of the industry. Opportunities are given to those who possess versatility, and the possibility of them succeeding have also risen more than in any other period — so it’s highly likely that K-pop trainees would leap into the industry as multi-players.”
BY LEE JAE-LIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]