Why You Should Know About Kim Soo-hyun

When it comes to household names in Korea, few, if any, come larger than Kim Soo-hyun. At just 33 years of age, the A-lister is the highest-earning actor domestically, earning an average of $165,000 each episode on the hit show It’s Okay to Not Be Okay (a total he himself is set to handsomely trump soon, with an average of $440,000 per episode the paycheque believed for his upcoming One Ordinary Day project). But how did Kim find himself as the gold standard for celebrities over in Korea, and before his potential has arguably begun to be reached?

Truthfully, it should have started modestly. Kimchi Cheese Smile, a 121 episode long sitcom was the first time Kim found himself on screens, playing a self-titled role as a curly-haired, boyish swimmer with a somewhat flashy personality. But despite the limitations one would assume from such a depiction, the show raised the stock of the then-rookie actor tenfold. A TV film Jungle Fish followed, where the young upstart played a blogger, Han Jae-ta, who investigates a rumour about exam cheating. It was another strong performance, and one which kept Kim’s name talked about.

In 2009, the actor began to consolidate his work and move up the ranks. Two shorts were released, Cherry Blossom and Worst Friends, both of which were completed around the time Kim was a student, Seven Years of Love arrived in March, whilst at the tail-end of the year he participated in the drama Will It Snow For Christmas? and the television special Father’s House. The latter of the two was the most notable and saw the developing performer step into the limelight in a leading role as Kang Jae-il, a son who, after surviving a near-fateful crash with his father, lives in Korea with the man who once wanted him to put in an orphanage. It’s a rousing performance from the then 21-year-old, one which perfectly captures the emotion of the violin-loving young man in his quest to eventually reconnect with his dad, and offers plenty of emotion that doesn’t stretch into needless hyperbole. Given the high ratings of the year-end special, it’s no surprise that Kim Soo-hyun was to very quickly find himself becoming a full-fledged star, and a name tracked by many households across the country.

The first step to superstardom: Giant. A 60-episode Herculean marathon that has a decade-spanning plot, it saw Kim Soo-hyun collect his first tangible bit of acclaim – the ‘New Star Award’ at the SBS Drama Awards – for his depiction of Lee Sung-mo’s teenage self. It was, undoubtedly, a watershed moment in the star’s career, but it was what came next which truly catapulted an up-and-comer into being a true acting heavyweight.

Dream High was that all-important launch pad. The 16-episode show, which features what would now be considered an all-star cast consisting of the likes of IU, Bae Suzy, Ok Taec-yeon and, of course, Kim Soo-hyun, thrust the actor deeper into the limelight than he’d ever been before, and was to be the first of many leading parts for him in major projects. Kim played Song Sam-dong, a rurally-raised, stereotypical country bumpkin type who, upon following his crush to an arts college, discovers his knack for music. It sounds rather silly, but it showed off the range in the young performer as well as his dedication to his craft (to prepare for the role, he studied music and dance for a number of months at the Korean Record label JYP, and participated in the recording of the OST). As expected, it also led to a plethora of nominations and victories during award season, with the most notable being the ‘Best New Actor’ prize given at KBS’s yearly ceremony.

Momentum swiftly continued to build. Moon Embracing the Sun came next, a fantasy period drama synonymous with the actor’s acclaimed career thanks to his excellent performance as Lee Hwon, king of Joseon. With a share of the ratings that peaked at 42.2%, it was a bonafide hit – one that racked up numerous accolades – and saw Kim Soo-hyun win his first prestigious Baeksang Arts Award for ‘Best Actor’. Now, it was obvious that the man who, at the time was still just in his mid-20s, was to be an A-lister.

By the end of 2012, Kim had stepped up to the big screen too. The Thieves, an expansive heist flick that spans across numerous countries, was his debut feature-length performance and sees the actor depict an expert thief, Zampano. Other than the fact that his character never reemerges following a strange confession scene, it’s a strong showing which highlights the strengths possessed by Kim, and was a clear bit of evidence that he was not only comfortable in larger-scale settings but a clear box-office draw. No wonder then that shortly after he was to star in Secretly Greatly, a record-breaking film about North Korean spies who are forced to reside in South Korea for a mission. Playing the part of Won Ryu-hwan/Bang Dong-gu, who operates as a clumsy fool during his time in the South, it was a layered depiction that showcased everything from juvenile comedy, to steadfast but desolating loyalty, all the way to tear-jerking poignance. More honours came – including Baeksang awards for ‘Best New Actor’ and ‘Most Popular Actor’ – and it was now clear that Kim Soo-hyun wasn’t just at the apex of the industry, but a transcendental star with broad appeal.

Capitalising on that, My Love From the Star, the next project for the actor, was an undeniable sensation overseas, and a benchmark of the continuing popularity of Hallyu. Here, Kim played the alien Do Min-joon, who adopts a different identity with each passing decade, but falls in love with the popular actor Cheon Song-yi (Jun Ji-hyun). It’s the type of show best watched to fully grasp, but something which stacked the A-lister’s trophy cabinet further, and saw his stock rise even higher.

Soon though, things would slow down slightly. Aside from being the most in-demand advertising model – he appeared in over 30 – following his appearance on My Love From the Star, his acting roles did slow down as he recouped, and sought the project best suited for his career. In 2014 there was a guest appearance during the film Miss Granny, but it took until 2015, where Kim would link up with the likes of Gong Hyo-jin and IU, for his next substantial job. Titled The Producers, and written by Park Ji-eun (whose previous experience included My Love From the Star), the drama was framed as a behind-the-scenes look at the entertainment industry, and allowed for expansive performances with its subject matters of love, friendship, disappointment and fame. Baek Seung-chan was the part afforded to this article’s subject, a KBS entertainment employee who arrives at that division due to a romantic interest in another team member. Although it wasn’t a wall-to-wall success, nor the most polished of comedies, it did usher in strong ratings, (unsurprisingly) more awards for the star actor, and a further cementing of his seemingly impenetrable reputation.

However, Kim Soo-hyun’s follow-up project would prove the above statement as one that appeared, at least at first, to be incorrect. Real, an action-noir release directed by Kim’s own cousin, Lee Sa-rang, received almost overwhelmingly negative reviews initially. A box-office flop, it did end up doing well when subsequently released on-demand, and did garner some praise thanks to Kim’s strong acting in his dual role responsibilities. With military enlistment looming, it wasn’t the most ideal of circumstances for a man who was used to his career going from strength to strength, but it’s often how people respond to setbacks that define them.

And, in turn, Kim Soo-hyun did bounce back. It started minimally, with cameos in popular shows Hotel Del Luna and Crash Landing On You, but it put the A-lister back on the map and proved that he was ready to return with a renewed passion and enthusiasm. After a five-year absence from the small screen in a prominent capacity, Kim stepped back into notoriety as Moon Gang-tae in It’s Okay to Not Be Okay, and showcased a performance that was nuanced, full of emotional resonance, and syringed with depth. Netflix’s most popular show of 2020 in the South Korean romance genre, it was a worldwide success which, in spite of fairly low ratings domestically, racked up accolades and saw the stock of Kim Soo-hyun rise once again.
Now, attention turns to what’s next. One Ordinary Day, a remake of the British show Criminal Justice, is already building anticipation, and guarantees to once again put Kim Soo-hyun in a leading role. But whatever happens, the actor, model, philanthropist and genuine all-rounder is bound to continue his upward trajectory, and in the process stay at the forefront of the Korean entertainment industry.

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