When people think of leading man material, the image of someone who looks slightly world weary, is into the later half of his 40’s, and seemingly appeared from nowhere, probably isn’t what springs to mind for most people. However Korean actor Kim Yoon-seok has found himself in just that position, and it’s one that for anyone who’s seen his performances, is very much deserved.
Yoon-seok started his acting life on the stage, having been trained as a member of the highly regarded Theater Yeonwoo Company, before making his stage debut in 1988 in a Korean version of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, the movie that made Marlon Brando famous well over 30 years before. He stayed in the world of theatre for many years, before making the gradual transition to movie and TV roles, one of the first of which was a supporting part in director Choi Dong-hoon’s 2003 movie ‘The Big Swindle’ (범죄의 재구성).
Working with Dong-hoon would be a stroke of luck for Yoon-seok, but more on that a little later. His role in the ‘The Big Swindle’ led to him spending most of the mid-2000’s playing supporting roles in largely forgettable romantic movies such as ‘My Girl and I’ (파랑주의보) to equally forgettable gangster thrillers like ‘Running Wild’ (야수), while at the same time dabbling in various K-dramas.
Then, in 2006, Dong-hoon called on him again to play the role of a vicious gambler, with a penchant for maiming players who cheat, in the highly popular movie ‘Tazza: The High Rollers’ (타짜). With a scarred face and charismatic swagger, Yoon-seok owned the scenes he was in, and also joined the ranks of the many Korean thespians who can proudly say they’ve been in a scene which involved a hammer. Although again the role was only a supporting one, facing off against Jo Seung-woo’s character on his way to the top, it proved enough of a calling card to land him his first lead role.
In 2008 he answered the call to play a detective turned pimp in what is now considered a classic of Korean cinema, ‘Chaser’ (추격자). On the trail of a prostitute murdering serial killer played by Ha Jung-woo, who also put in a career best performance at the time, Yoon-seok’s character is difficult to like and has questionable intentions, but through his performance we somehow find ourselves drawn to him. When he ends up dragging his missing prostitutes young daughter around with him, we’re never clear if he’s doing it because there’s some glimmer of a conscience inside him, or it’s just his old detective instincts leading him to investigate what’s happened. By the end of the movie, the answer isn’t that much clearer than it was at the start.
As grim as it maybe, ‘Chaser’ was an undeniably classic revenge thriller, and one that found its way comfortably fitting into many western distributors DVD labels that marketed themselves as the extreme side of Asian cinema. While there’s no doubt that ‘Chaser’ does fall into this category, once watched it’s easy to see why it’s first and foremost one of the best movies to come out of Korea since the new wave began.
Yoon-seok followed up ‘Chaser’ less than a year later in 2009 with ‘Running Turtle’ (거북이 달린다), which perhaps attempted to stick to the ‘Chaser’ formula a little too closely, with him playing a countryside cop on the tail of a mysterious prison escapee. Boasting very similar promotional artwork to ‘Chaser’, ‘Running Turtle’ is a good enough little movie in its own right, however coming out so soon after his defining role has relegated it to a mostly forgotten police drama.
Things didn’t stay that way though, with later in the same year director Dong-hoon calling upon his services once again to play a supporting role in his time-travel wizard movie ‘Jeon Woo Chi: Taoist Wizard’ (전우치) opposite Kang-dong Won. While playing dual roles in both a period and modern setting gave us a chance to see Yoon-seok in a different environment than usual, his next role that would leave a lasting impression on audiences would be when ‘Chaser’ director Na Hong-jin called upon him to play a North Korean gangster in his follow up movie ‘The Yellow Sea’ (황해) from 2010, once again opposite Ha Jung-woo.
Yoon-seok cuts an intimidating figure throughout the movie, on the tail of Jung-woo’s North Korean assassin who botched a job in the South, and he has some of the most memorable scenes, including a wince inducing battle against multiple attackers in which he defends himself with, of all things, animal bones. The movie also gave him a chance to use his considerable Mandarin language skills, and the image of him in his bulky coat and sunglasses is one that once seen isn’t likely to be forgotten.
Yoon-seok took a break from playing characters on the tail of someone for his 2011 movie, ‘Punch’ (완득이), which follows his ill-tempered teacher character and his relationship with an equally troublesome student. The movie stuck a chord with audiences, and it became the third highest grossing movie of the year in Korea. 2012 would prove to really be Yoon-seok’s year though, as after featuring as a supporting player in the directors previous three movies, Dong-hoon finally made him the main star in what was an already all-star cast for a tale of ‘The Thieves’ (도둑들). Yoon-seok took centre stage as the mysterious Macao Park in CJ Entertainment’s epic Chinese co-production which spanned Hong Kong, Macao, Busan, and of course Seoul.
Yoon-seok got to not only flex his Mandarin language skills once more, but also got front and centre for a thrilling action finale that has him abseiling down a building fighting off various gunmen, in what’s a clear nod to a similar scene in Hong Kong director Tsui Hark’s movie ‘Time and Tide’.
2013 looks to continue being a busy year for Yoon-seok, with him starring in director Jang Joon-hwan’s ‘Save the Green Planet’ (지구를 지켜라!’) comeback movie ‘Hwai’ (화이), and a live action version of the popular animation ‘Robot Taekwon V’ (로보트 태권브이). No doubt he’ll bring his charismatic screen presence to these movies, just as he has to everything he’s been in so far.