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Lee Min-ho in ‘Boys Over Flowers,’ Gong Yoo in ‘Coffee Prince’ and the other K-drama stars’ breakout roles

By Ruel S. De Vera
04/18/20 3:00 PM

Korean actors and actresses have taken over the world, but every one of them had that one role that defined that, allowed them to stand out from the crowd of aspiring stars and become household names. They would go on to bigger roles and many other projects, but these are the ones they are remembered for. Fans may not even know their real names, but recall the character names instead. There will always be new generations to K-drama stars waiting for their time, but these are the brightest stars now. Want to see the work that defined them? Here are the top K-drama stars’ breakout film and TV roles:

Suzy Bae in “While You Were Sleeping”

First off, Suzy was already defined as a K-pop star in the girl group miss A (she can move) and gained notoriety as Lee Min-ho and Lee Dong-wook’s girlfriend. But her exploration into K-dramas has been surprisingly seamless and charming. Her performance as the precognitive girl next door trying to change people’s bad futures opposite Lee Jong-sook’s prosecutor was truly winning. That led her to projects such as last year’s “Vagabond” with Lee Seung-gi and the big disaster movie “Ashfall.”

Gong Yoo in “Coffee Prince”

Thanks to the massive critical and commercial success of 2016’s “Train to Busan” and “Goblin,” everyone knows who Gong Yoo is, but he was not recognized as a lead actor back in in 2007. In this K-drama, where he plays a wealthy slacker named Han-gyul tasked with bringing the titular coffee shop up to business shape. At the shop, Han-gyul meets Eu-chan (Yoon Eun-hye), who pretends to be a boy to work at the shop, causing Han-gyul to confront his own sexual identity and become a better boss. “Coffee Prince” also features a lot of shirtless Gong Yoo and a fresh-faced boyishness that gave way to the chiseled gravitas that became his trademark, such as in the 2019 film, “Kim Ji-young: Born in 1982,” and he will appear later this year in the action movie “Seo Bok.”

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Hyun Bin and Son Ye-jin in “Crash Landing on You”

Both Hyun Bin and Ye-jin were already established names in K-drama with various successful projects recently Hyun Bin in the mind-bending mystery “Memories of the Alhambra” and Ye-jin in the May-December romance “Something in the Rain,” but they truly the most popular K-drama stars in the world right now with their turns as seemingly star-crossed lovers as North Korean Capt. Ri and South Korean heiress Se-ri. Not only is “CLOY” being watched and re-watched around the world during these lockdowns, but the show itself is the perfect K-drama, with perfect casting combining Hyun Bin’s grim-faced affection and Ye-jin’s playful devotion. Their onscreen chemistry won’t fail to bring a smile (even some tears). They will go on to do other stuff, maybe even together again, but it will never be as big as when they got together for “CLOY.”

Hyun Bin
Son Ye-jin

Ji Chang-wook in “Smile Again”

What you have to know is that “Smile Again” ran every weekday on KBS for two years and had a staggering 159 episodes. It was extremely popular, had a huge cast and the biggest gift it gave us was Ji Chang-wook. Suffice to that this 2010 show had a really long, complicated story that revolves around lost children, a corporate battle over a hotel called the Camilla, pregnancies and family machinations. Chang-wook played the lead role of Carl Laker (also known as Dong-hae), a Korean with American citizenship who returns to Korea to compete as a U.S. speed skater and see his girlfriend. But all kinds of things happen that soon lead to him being dumped, having his skating career prematurely ended, meeting someone new (hello, Bong-yi), finding out about his true identity and then fighting for survival in many ways. There is a lot of Chang-wook’s range shown in this series and Korea got truly acquainted with Chang-wook over these two years, making him a star. He had a great turn recently in the underrated sci-fi fantasy series “Melting Me Softly” as a TV producer who is cryogenically frozen and wakes up 20 years later than he’s supposed to.  

Jo In-sung in “What Happened in Bali”

While his work can mostly be found in film, In-sung has some major TV works in his resume. Most K-drama fans probably know him from the 2014 series “It’s Okay, That’s Love,” where he plays a writer with obsessive-compulsive disorder—or is it? This series has received acclaim for its realistic portrayal of different characters with mental health issues. But In-sung’s breakthrough performance actually happened a full decade earlier.  In 2004, he was the male lead in the tragic, twisty “What Happened in Bali,” a 20-episode SBS series that featured the poor girl-rich boy dynamic gone completely wrong. He plays Jae-min, an unpredictable, paranoid and ultimately lovesick chaebol heir who winds up trapped in a self-induced cycle of revenge, manipulation and obsession.

Ju Ji-hoon and Yoon Eun-hye in “Princess Hours”

The Crown Prince (Ji-hoon) is arranged to be married to a commoner (Eun-hye), an arrangement that initially breeds awkward contempt but becomes sweetly romantic. This show features a culture as well as a personality clash between two people of very different personalities and social circumstances. The 2006 k-drama, based on a popular manhwa, jumpstarted the careers of these two stars and the show itself would be aired in seven Asian countries, get a spinoff series as well as a stage adaptation in Korea and get remakes in Indonesia and Thailand. Ju Ji-hoon would go on to play another crown prince in the Netflix zombie series “Kingdom,” and Eun-hye became a singer (Baby V.O.X.), actress (“Love Alert”), model and fashion designer.

Ju Ji-hoon
Yoon Eun-hye

Jun Ji-hyun in “My Sassy Girl”

A drunk girl on a train throwing all over an ordinary guy on a subway car sets off one of the most iconic Korean films of all time, with the unfortunate Cha Tae-hyun getting dragged into all sorts of misadventures by an apparently crazy, unnamed girl.  Viewers fell in love with this wacky, bittersweet love story and the inimitable girl at its heart. She would feature in popular films (“Windstruck”) and top-rating shows (“My Love From The Star”) as the industry’s most recognizable beauty and go on to become Korea’s most successful endorser—the face which sold a thousand products—and so popular that even a nameless cameo in “Kingdom” was the subject of breathless anticipation.

Kim Go-eun in “A Muse”

While the baby-faced Go-eun became a worldwide sensation after her sweet turn in 2016’s “Goblin,” she had already been a controversial figure in Korea because of a daring turn as an more baby-based school girl in a relationship with a 71-year-old writer, a film art turn when she was still in university and literally had no film experience. Now, she is set to star with Lee Min-ho in Netflix’s “The King: Eternal Monarch.”

Lee Jong-suk in “W: Two Worlds”

There’s no doubting Jong-suk started out as a model. Look at his beautiful face and grace. But he’s taken seriously to acting in projects like 2014’s “Pinocchio” and 2017’s “While You Were Sleeping.” The best place to see him is the 2016 high-concept fantasy series “W: Two Worlds” opposite Han Hyo-joo. Kang-chul is the protagonist of Korea’s most popular comic book, a millionaire who’s been set up for killing his father and is out to prove his innocence while being chased by a deranged killer. But he accidentally emerges into the real world and has to deal with the fact he is a fictional character. Jong-suk mixes his fish-out-of-water shock with the action-star bonafides just right. He makes it make sense that Hyo-joo would fall in love with a made-up man—if he’s like this.  

Lee Min-ho in “Boys Over Flowers”

Where to even begin with Min-ho? One of the biggest K-drama stars ever, Min-ho was already a star when he helped define the action-TV genre with 2011’s “City Hunter” with Park Min-young; his big break was two years before when he played Gu Jun-pyo on “Boys Over Flowers,” based on the Japanese manga. Leader of the F4 gang, Jun-pyo was a much sought-after role, and Min-ho did not disappoint, weaving the wealthy heir Jun-pyo’s hotheadedness with his secret fondness for the humble drycleaner’s daughter Ku Hye-sun (Geum Jan-di). It’s a role that show’s he’s got skills as well as good looks. He can sing, too. His love life’s no slouch: He’s dated Min-young and Suzy Bae. He was paired with icon Jun Ji-hyun in the mermaid epic “Legend of the Blue Sea.” Today, he is the biggest deal among the hallyu wave’s star and everyone’s waiting for his big new show, Netflix’s “The King: Eternal Monarch” with Kim Go-eun.

Lee Seung-gi in “My Girlfriend is a Gumiho”

Another classic rom-com, the very cute “Gumiho” served as a vehicle for Seung-gi, who has an accomplished career as a singer, to enter the realm of acting as well. He plays Dae-woong who of course wants to be an actor and accidentally Mi-ho (Shin Min-ah), the mythical nine-tailed fox. The series showcases the bumbling and well-intentioned Dae-woong’s attempts to protect her and also achieve his dream, in the process falling for each other. Seung-gi only got more popular from there, hosting everything from “Master in the House” to “Busted!” and last year starred in his biggest project yet, the Netflix big-budget action series “Vagabond” with Suzy Bae. He has an upcoming travel show called “Twogether” with Taiwanese star Jasper Liu.

Lee Sung-kyung and Nam Joo-hyuk in “Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo”

Sung-kyung was more known as a model and Joo-hyuk a newcomer. But “Weightlifter Fairy,” about the titular insecure weightlifter and a swimmer with issues at Haneul Sports University initially disliking each other only to fall for each other is immensely accessible and irresistible. Joo-hyuk is a long drink of water, but Sung-kyung who was actually traumatized after gaining five kilos to play the lead role will forever be Bok-jo, with her awkward and lovable performance. It’s a great, easy choice for a first K-drama, too.

Lee Sung-kyung
Nam Joo-hyuk

Park Bo-gum and Kim Yoo-jung in “Love in the Moonlight”

Gender bending was another element is this 2016 Joseon-era rom-com, with Bo-gum playing the heir to the throne, Lee Yeong, and Yoo-jung playing Rao-on. She is pretending to be a male romance writer and relationship expert, eventually becoming a Eunuch (yep, you read it right) in Lee Yeong’s court. This show is all about secrets (new ones and those kept for a long time) which come into play while Lee Yeong and Ra-on, of course, fall for each other. They’re adorable. Bo-gum is already very good-looking and much more mature after the previous year’s “Reply 1988.” Did you see his daring turn opposite Song Hye-kyo in “Encounter?” Did you see how hot he was in the “Itaewon Class” cameo? Crazy. After a career as the best child star in Korea, Yoo-jung is unforgettable in “Moonlight” even as she’s still growing up into her stardom.

Park Bo-gum
Kim Yoo-jung

Park Min-young in “Sungkyunkwan Scandal”

In 2010, Min-young pretended to be a man in yet another Joseon drama (see a pattern here?). In order to work, Min-young pretends she’s her brother and gains admission to the prestigious Sungkyunkwan institute, where she had to keep her identity secret but also deal with her feelings for her senior played by the mischievous Song Joon-ki. It’s a great balancing act of drama and comedy for Min-young, showing the kind of smarts she could display in “City Hunter” with Lee Min-ho and “Healer” with Ji Chang-wook. Indeed, she’s gone on amass a truly mind-boggling resume even in this august company by number of projects alone, recently starring with Park Seo-jun in “What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim?”

Park Shin-hye in “Stairway to Heaven”

Shin-hye first came to public attention when she had a great role as a child actress in one of the first great—and soapiest—K-drama of all time, 2003’s “Stairway to Heaven.” She played the young version of Choi Ji-woo’s Jung-suh who will have to overcome everything from a jealous stepsister, car accidents, amnesia, kidnapping, blindness and a brain tumor to find love. “Stairway” is so classic that this was the K-drama that the North Korean K-drama addict soldier was addicted to in “CLOY.” That was a memorable turn that led to many bigger things. The porcelain-skinned Shin-hye would go on to have a truly prolific career, appearing most notably in the 2013 film “Miracle in Cell. No. 7” (yes, that “Miracle in Cell No. 7”), back in 2013 in “The Heirs” with Lee Min-ho and recently in “Memories of the Alhambra” with Hyun-bin.

Park Seo-jun and Kim Ji-won in “Fight for my Way”

Seo-jun had the biggest post-“CLOY” hit in the inspiring, cool “Itaewon Class” late last year, but the role that best shows his onscreen abilities is a smaller but no less inspiring drama, 2017’s “Fight for my Way,” where he plays Dong-man, a former Taekwondo jin who’s lost his mojo and decided to become a workaday MMA fighter. That show showcases Seo-jun’s ability to miss a gentle stoicism with a fierce, protective streak. He’s more famous now, of course, and “Fight” is the breakthrough reason. Ji-won had an earlier big hit, playing the conflicted surgeon Lt. Myung-ju in “Descendants of the Sun,” but she shined as Ae-ra, the department store employee dreaming of becoming an announcer; though discourage she doesn’t give up, together with Seo-jun.

Park Seo-jun
Kim Ji-won

Park So-dam in “Parasite”

No one on this list had as meteoric a rise from relative newcomer to full-on superstar as everyone’s favorite fake art therapist So-dam. So-dam had had some small roles here and there; her most prominent one was as second lead in the rom-com “Cinderella and the Four Knights.” But that all changed when she played the duplicitous and doomed daughter “Jessica” in director Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning “Parasite.” Everyone (Charlize Theron included) is waiting to see what So-dam does next.

Song Hye-kyo and Song Joong-ki in “Descendants of the Sun”

It is indeed ironic that these two actors who had famously (or infamously) fell in love on the set of this big K-drama hit (becoming the so-called “Song-Song” couple) and subsequently divorced that they will also be forever be remembered for the onscreen couple they played. Special forces Capt. Si-jin and cardiothoracic surgeon Mo-yeon (they are, of course, “Big Boss” and “Beauty”) try to go on a date that keeps getting delayed by war, disaster and politics, but the onscreen couple has a sizzling onscreen chemistry that reflects the fact the two were actually falling in love, and there’s no faking that. The two haven’t done much since the divorce but it’ll be impossible to be more definitive than “Descendants.”

Song Joong-ki
Song Hye-kyo