When you’re a leading man in Korean cinema, you might get a starring role every couple of years and quite possibly be type-cast in the type of role that you play, such is the danger of modern cinema. However, sometimes playing a supporting part to the main star can be a more attractive option – if done right, you could have more acting opportunities, more variety of roles to choose from, and more chances to experience working with a variety of other performers and directors.
Such is the case for Ryoo Seung-ryong, although rarely the leading man, chances are if you’re a fan of Korean cinema you’ll have seen him in at least a couple of movies. Born in 1970, he began his acting career on stage performing in a musical at just fifteen. Seung-ryong, like his contemporary Kim Yoon-seok, would remain a theater actor for much of his career, and didn’t make the transition to the big screen until later in life.
That transition came with a small part in the 2004 movie ‘Someone Special / 아는여자’, and set him on a path to star in more than thirty movies in a period of less than ten years – an impressive achievement by anyone’s standards. Despite my own interest in Korean cinema also dating back over ten years, the first time I got to see Seung-ryong onscreen wasn’t until 2009. After flying under the radar for so long, 2009 was a year that I seemingly couldn’t get away from him.
First of all I saw him as the head of a secret government agency in the action comedy 'My Girlfriend is an Agent / 7급 공무원', which was then followed by his turn as a bumbling reporter in the Doenjang jigae mystery 'The Recipe / 된장', and to top it all off he also had a central role as a North Korean agent in the only K-drama to this day that I’ve watched through to the very end, ‘IRIS / 아이리스’. The ironic thing is though that he was such a versatile and adept actor, that at the time I didn’t even realize it was the same actor in all three productions.
Versatile is the most fitting word to describe Seung-ryong’s performances, able to switch identities effortlessly, I’ve never seen a performance of his when he’s been anything less than convincing, and while I can’t claim to have seen every one of his movies, I’ve certainly taken in more than a few. After my watershed year of discovering Seung-ryong, I quickly started noticing him in more and more movies.
In 2010 he appeared in the period action drama ‘Blades of Blood / 구르믈 버서난 달처럼’ and again in ‘Battlefield Heroes / 평양성’, then suddenly he popped up in the horror movie ‘Bestseller / 베스트셀러’ and a couple more on top of that. The guy has been in more movies in the space of one year than Won Bin has been in his entire career, if one thing can be said it’s impossible to fault his work ethic.
Thankfully the following year he allowed himself some space to breathe, apart from a role in the true crime story ‘Children / 아이들...’, he also appeared in the action movies ‘The Front Line / 고지전’ and ‘War of the Arrows / 최종병기 활’. Both of which had him playing the antagonist blocking the way of our heroes journey, and both of which played at KOFFIA 2012, with ‘War of the Arrows’ opening the festival to a sell-out crowd. Seung-ryeong’s shaven headed leader of the Qing army who has a deadly level of skill with the bow & arrow proved a big hit with audiences both in Korea and internationally, and it remains one of his most memorable roles.
While 2012 saw him in less movies again, with a role as a smooth talking lady’s man in the divorce comedy ‘Everything About My Wife / 내 아내의 모든 것’ (yet another of his movies that was screened at KOFFIA 2012, that makes three!), and the chance to play the royal advisor to Lee Byung-hun’s stand-in emperor in the period comedy drama ‘Masquerade / 광해, 왕이 된 남자’ (showing at KOFFIA 2013 – one that shouldn’t be missed!), it wasn’t until 2013 that Seung-ryeong finally landed his first lead role.
Seung-ryeong took front and centre as a prisoner with a mental disability that shares an unbreakable bond with his seven year old daughter in the comedy drama come tear-jerker ‘Miracle in Cell No.7 / 7번방의 선물’. Made on a relatively low budget with minimum marketing, the movies heart string pulling story rapidly spread throughout Korea via word of mouth, and within a matter of weeks had become the third highest grossing Korean movie of all time. Thankfully just as in last years KOFFIA, ‘Masquerade’ doesn’t mark the only appearance of Seung-ryeong at the festival, with a special Sopoong screening of ‘Miracle in Cell No. 7’ giving everyone a chance to see just what all the fuss is about. Be sure to check it out.