It could be argued that Kim Yoo-jung is already a veteran K-drama actress—though she is only 20. It is not only the quantity of her work, but the distinctive quality of it. At this very young age, she is easily one of the most recognizable faces in all of K-drama, and the buzz surrounding her newest series, “Backstreet Rookie,” is clearly proof of this.
Produced by SBS, “Backstreet Rookie,” is based on the webtoon “Convenience Store Saet-byul” by Hwalhwasan and Geumsaging. It’s about a convenience store manager named Choi Dae-hyun and how he winds up getting entangled in all kinds of ways with his tough part-timer, Jung Saet-byul. There are multiple differences between the webtoon and the show, but it is most notable in the male lead. Dae-hyun, played by star Ji Chang-wook, is soft-spoken, gentle and very kind. He is also good-looking and he is noticed by every woman who sees him. His world gets shaken bit by bit when he meets the student Saet-byul, played by Yoo-hung, who is self-aware, tough and able to manipulate her boss even as they clearly begin to fall for each other. The interesting thing is that Yoo-jung has played very innocent, mostly guileless characters in the past—that was her charm, paired especially with that gorgeous face—but here, she plays a daring gangster-ish high school student who is instead trying to go straight though she prone to violence. It marks an important shift in Yoo-jung’s career, as we will discuss later.
Here is everything you need to know about Kim Yoo-jung.
Born Sept. 22, 1999 in Seoul, after graduating high school, she opted to pursue her showbiz career instead of pursuing further education.
In the beginning, she was quickly noticed her being one of the country’s greatest child actresses, dubbed “Korea’s Little Sister,” and she has a whopping 22 films under her belt beginning with 2004’s “DMZ”: That is 1.1 films a year, not counting her break, which we will get to later.
And yet, she is better known for her TV work, beginning with MBC’s “Freezing Point” in 2004 as Choi Eun-yi. She had a small role as young Shin Chae-kyeong in “Princess Hours” 2006. She plays then younger version of the character played by Yoon Eun-hye, betrothed to crown prince Lee Shin, played by Ju Ji-hoon (“Kingdom”).
Her first star turn was in MBC’s 2010 “Dong Yi” as the young Dong-yi, based on the real Korean historical figure Choi Suk-bing. Yoo-jung plays the crucial role as the young Dong-yi who has to hide her being part of the Sword Fraternity to infiltrate the palace disguised as a servant to find those who are killing noblemen—the older Dong-yi is played by Han Hyo-joo (“W: Two Worlds”). She played a lot of “younger versions.”
In another memorable turn, she played the young Heo Yeon-woo in MBC’s “Moon Embracing he Sun” in 2012 as the true queen of Joseon, betrayed by others in the court. The older Yeon-woo is played by Han Ga-in (“Mistress”). Her large body of work in Joseon dramas gave her a new moniker, “Sageuk Fairy.” She was also now growing up before audiences.
She was already a talented teenager when she was noticed in her turn as Oh Ah-ran in 2015’s “Angry Mom.”
But it was in the next year that she truly broke out. KBS2’s “Love in the Moonight,” paired Yoo-jung with the ascendant superstar Park Bo-gum in her career-defining role of Hong Ra-on/Hong Sam-nom. In this Joseon series, she plays a humble girl (Ra-on) who has to pretend to be a boy for her own good. She’s smart, graceful, talented and, of course, beautiful. But she winds up sold to the palace to become a eunuch under the name Hong Sam-nom, and she uses her wits to not only survive but thrive. She meets the Crown Prince, Lee Yeong (Bo-gum) and after an initial dislike of each other, the two pair up, working together against the forces lined up against the Prince even as he tries to understand his growing feelings for a (supposedly) male eunuch and she has to try and keep up the pretense of being male—while also falling for him. Yoo-jung is perfect for this role, fresh-faced and funny, with the strange combination of being so feminine and yet juuust a little androgynous enough to pass of in some scenes as a very feminine-looking boy. It was a world-wide hit (dubbed in Filipino, it aired on ABS-CBN twice) that helped the growth of K-drama around the world and cement both these actors as bonafide K-drama stars.
Up to this point, Yoo-jung had kept quite busy. She’s hosted shows such as “Inkigayo” on SBS and played the big role of Ann Putnam on stage in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” in 2017. So high was her profile that she made made the Forbes Korea Power Celebrity list at no. 8, though she was only 17, the youngest on the list in 2017. She endorsed H&M, Fila, Lotte, Samsonite and Nintendo, among others.
Her reality show, “Kim Yoo Jung’s Half-Holiday in Italy” was aired on Lifetime; her previous reality series had her exploring Los Angeles. Along the way. She has wound up often compared to that other busy child actress-turned K-drama lead, Kim So-hyun; they are the exact same age.
In 2018, Yoo-jung had to take a break from her rigorous schedule when she was diagnosed by hyperthyroidism, undergoing surgery to correct it. She took time off to recover and returned later that year with JTBC’s “Clean with a Passion For Now,” where she played Gil Oh-sol, a pretty if somewhat goofy every girl who must deal with the very difficult germophobe CEO Jang Seon-gyul, played by Yoon Kyun-sang (“The Rebels”). Yoo-jung’s character, Oh-sul, is a messy if good-hearted girl and the two must overcome their different approaches to cleanliness to find romance. It is also a very typical Yoo-jung role, something that feels she has outgrown as she seemed to handle this role whimsically in her sleep.
Note that “Backstreet Rookie” is already her 31st K-drama series, which evens out to a prodigious 1.55 shows a year. That’s why “Backstreet Rookie” is fascinating and it feels like Kim Yoo-jung’s first truly adult role (even if she is ostensibly playing a high student, it doesn’t feel like it), not coincidentally, her first one where she is no longer a teenager. Not only is it a little daring but, dare we say it, a little bit sexy. It hints at the possibilities for this actress, all grown up but still Korea’s darling.
“Backstreet Rookie” is streaming on iQIYi.
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