Cover Korean actress Bae Doona in 'Sense8' (Photo: Imdb.com)

With many Korean stars set to make their debut in Hollywood including Eternals’ Ma Dong-seok, we look back at the original Korean stars who paved the way

Thanks to the meteoric and historic successes of Parasite, Squid Game and BTS, we are seeing more Korean movies, dramas, music and celebrities gaining popularity overseas. Ma Dong-seok (or Don Lee) makes his debut as Marvel’s first Korean superhero in Eternals while Park Seo-joon, Kang Dong-woon, Son Ye-jin and many others are making their way to Hollywood.

The growing presence of Korean stars in Hollywood or English-language projects wouldn’t have been possible without the original stars that paved the way. Here, we look back at some of the Korean celebrities that made it to Hollywood and allowed more for Korean stars to follow suit.

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Lee Byung-hun

Lee Byung-hun is a household name in South Korea, having received critical acclaim for his work across various genres. Some of his most notable movies include Joint Security Area, A Bittersweet Life, The Good, the Bad, the Weird, I Saw the Devil, Masquerade and Inside Men—almost all of these movies earned him awards from prestigious award ceremonies. His most well-known TV projects include Iris and Mr Sunshine and he recently made a cameo in Squid Game.

Lee made his debut in the US as Storm Shadow in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and the sequel, G.I. Koe: Retaliation. He has also appeared in Red 2, Terminator Genisys and The Magnificent Seven. Paving the way for many Korean stars after him, Lee became the first South Korean actor to present an Oscar at the annual Academy Awards and a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Along with actor Ahn Sung-ki, they were the first South Korean actors to imprint their hands and footprints at the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, Los Angeles.

Most recently, Lee received the Asian Film Excellence Award at the 15th Asian Film Awards, the first Korean actor to be selected. He has also been working on many films, Ashfall, The Man Standing Next and Emergency Declaration, all of which screened at international film festivals.

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Bae Doona

Most people these days might have heard of Bong Joon-ho but did you know that the actress who starred in Bong’s directorial debut, Barking Dogs Never Bite, is none other than Bae Doona? Since then, Bae has risen to become one of the most sought after stars of her generation. Bae cemented her status as a formidable actress when she took on the role of a political activist in Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and in another Bong film, The Host—working with two of the most renowned directors in South Korea.

Further on, she also worked with notable Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda in Air Doll and are reuniting for Koreeda’s first Korean film, Baby Box Boxer. Her work for A Girl at My Door—produced by Lee Chang-dong, another renowned Korean director—earned her a Best Actress award at the Asian Film Awards. Making her leap to Hollywood, Bae worked with the Wachowskis for two movies, Cloud Atlas, Jupiter Ascending and then fan favourite series, Sense8.

Bae’s performance in Cloud Atlas was widely praised by critics and was well-loved by the Wachowskis that who eventually worked with her again. Most recently, she starred in the Netflix historical zombie drama, Kingdom which brought the popularity of Korean shows to the global audience.

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Han Ye-ri

It’s amazing to think how Han Ye-ri’s acting career started off with short films and independent film projects to eventually starring in the Oscar-nominated film, Minari. Han gained the attention of the public and critics in the sports drama, As One where she learned the Hamgyŏng dialect specifically for her role as a real-life North Korean table tennis player, Yu Sun-bok. Eventually, she landed her first leading role in Commitment, Haemoo and A Dramatic Night.

Han further proved her versatility as an actress when she starred in the historical drama, Six Flying Dragons and youth comedy, Hello, My Twenties. For her breakout performance as Monica in Minari, Han earned several Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress nominations and awards. This year, she was also given the Prime Minister’s Commendation by the South Korean government—a state honour awarded to those who have contributed to the arts and South Korea’s pop culture.

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Jun Ji-hyun

Jun Ji-hyun (or Gianna Jun) is one of the most recognisable faces in Asia and with 24 years in the business, her fame shows no sign of stopping—after all, she’s the highest-paid South Korean celebrity this year. The award-winning actress made a name of herself following her breakout role in My Sassy Girl, which subverted gender norms in Asia. The movie became the highest-grossing Korean comedy movie of all time in South Korea and launched Jun into superstar status.

She went on to star in other projects such as The Uninvited and Daisy which was directed by Hong Kong director, Andrew Lau. With her pan-Asia status, Jun made her jump to Hollywood with the movie, Blood: The Last Vampire. For her role as a half-human, half-vampire hunter, Jun trained for three months to learn how to fight and wield the sword. While the movie was poorly received at the box office, Jun’s performance was commended by critics, calling her the “only bright spot” of the film. This made her an actress to watch out for even outside of Asia, even though she didn’t make any more Hollywood films.

Jun’s success continues even if she only makes one or two movies or dramas a year. Her return to the small screen this year with Jirisan and the special episode of Kingdom was highly anticipated not only in South Korea but also in Asia.

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Rain

One cannot think of the older generation of K-pop and Korean dramas without mentioning Rain (real name Jung Ji-hoon). The multi-hyphenate artist wears a lot of hats: singer, songwriter, dance, actor and record producer. His colourful musical career comprises seven albums, 28 singles and many concerts around the world—receiving “world star” status and catapulting Rain as an international star.

On the acting front, Rain is also often on people’s lips when thinking about Hallyu, particularly when he starred opposite Song Hye-kyo in the Korean drama, Full House. He also worked with renowned South Korean director, Park Chan-wook for his first movie role, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK which won the Alfred Bauer Award at the Berlin International Film festival.

Riding on his success in Asia, Rain made his debut in Hollywood as Racer Taejo Togokahn in Speed Racer by the Wachowskis. He then landed his first lead role in Hollywood with Ninja Assassin. The movie was conceptualised based on Rain’s ninja scenes from Speed Racer, impressing the Wachowskis. For his role, he trained for over six months and eventually won an MTV Movie Award for his performance. While Rain didn’t make any more Hollywood movies after that, he found success back in South Korea.

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Lee Joon-gi

Lee Joon-gi’s charm is still taking South Korea by storm, evident as he’s always been a top choice for the leading man in many projects. The talented actor showcased his acting ability in his debut movie, The King and the Clown which not only performed well in the box office, it also propelled the unknown actor into stardom. He received numerous awards for her performance from the Korean Film Awards, Grand Bell Awards and Baeksang Art Awards.

He further starred in many successful projects such as My Girl, May 18, Scholar Who Walks the Night and of course, Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo. As a trained taekwondo practitioner as well as other forms of martial arts, Lee rarely uses stunt doubles, making him one of South Korea’s top action stars. In his Hollywood debut, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, Lee showcased his martial arts background. The movie received mixed reviews but became the highest-grossing film in the entire franchise.

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Han Hyo-joo

Han Hyo-joo is one of South Korea’s most sought after actresses, working in a variety of genres across TV and cinema. Despite her first starring role being in the low-budget independent movie, Ad-lib Night, Han nabbed two Best New Actress awards. This earned her two successfully TV dramas opposite two popular actors, Heaven & Earth with Park Hae-jin and Iljimae with Lee Joon-gi, turning Han into a household name.

Her major breakthrough came when she starred in Brilliant Legacy, solidifying her stardom and a sharp rise in endorsement deals. She then worked on Dong Yi, which clinched the Deasang (Grand Prize) award and the coveted Best Actress trophy at the Baeksang Arts Awards. Han then continued to work on successful projects such as Always, Masquerade, Love 911 and Cold Eyes.

Breaking out of her girly image, Han made her Hollywood debut as a secret agent in the English-language TV series, Treadstone, set in the same universe as the Bourne franchise. While the series was cancelled after one season, producer Ben Smith had nothing but praises for Han calling her “one of the most special actresses” he’s ever worked with.

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Youn Yuh-jung

With a career that spans over half a century, Youn Yuh-jung is one of the most celebrated and decorated actresses in South Korea. Her historic win for Best Supporting Actress for Minari is the first for any South Korean star. The 74-year-old veteran actress rose to fame thanks to her performance in Kim Ki-young’s Fire Woman in 1971 where she took home Best Actresses prizes. This opened the way for more projects to come.

After briefly taking a hiatus from the spotlight where she moved to the US—when she was at the peak of her career—Youn returned to South Korea and battled the stigma placed around divorced women in the country, especially as a middle-aged actress. Ditching the stereotypical mother or auntie roles, Youn went on to play characters that helped shape the narratives of the films she starred in including A Good Lawyer’s Wife, Actresses, The Housemaid, Canola, The Bacchus Lady, Beasts Clawing at Straws and more.

Making her debut as Soon-ja in Minari, Youn received critical acclaim from over 40 American regional critics awards to eventually bringing home South Korea’s first-ever acting Oscar. In 2021, she also received the Golden Crown Order of Cultural Merit from the South Korean government. The state honour is given to those who contributed to the arts and South Korea’s pop culture.

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