Go Hyun Jung [Active 1989 – Present]
Go Hyun Jung has a career spanning nearly three decades, and she has the credits to match. Since debuting as a beauty queen in 1989, she’s been in over 10 dramas, 6 films, countless commercials, and has had her own talk show. She’s taken a break from her career to raise a family, come back from scandal to establish herself as the highest paid actress on television, dabbled in music, has written a book, and has her own talent agency.
Dramas: Eyes of Dawn (1991) | A Love Without Fear (1992) | Mother’s Sea (1993) | Farewell (1994) | Sandglass (1995) | Spring Days (2005) | What’s Up Fox (2006) | H.I.T. (2007) | Queen Seon Deok (2009) | Daemul (2010) | Queen’s Classroom (2013) | Dear My Friends (2016)
Film: Woman on the Beach (2006) | Like You Know it All (2009) | The Actresses (2009) | The Day He Arrives (2011) | Miss Conspirator (2012) | A Winter Guest Scarier Than a Tiger (2017)
What I find most intriguing about her as a performer is that she has the freedom and the power to choose the projects she wants to participate in, the roles she wants to play. She’s not a working actress—she’s a top star; and so she has the ability to shape her career according to her tastes and interests. Since returning to acting after her (infamous) marriage, she’s worked with Kim Do Woo (my favorite drama writer), Noh Hee Kyung, Kim Hye Ja, Yoon Yeo Jung, and indie director Hong Sang Soo. And so it’s particularly satisfying to consider her roles because she gets to be so deliberate in her choices. Hers is truly a career with intent and desire behind it. She’s played an array of characters that showcase her range, from the scheming Mishil in Queen Seon Deok, to the demanding teacher in Queen’s Classroom, to Korea’s first woman president in Daemul. But the roles I’m going to look closer at are What’s Up Fox’s Byung Hee and Dear My Friend’s Park Wan, both because they each touched me deeply and because they’re so different and occurred a decade apart from each other in her career.
What’s Up Fox was the second drama I ever watched. I was in my early twenties, while in the show, Byung Hee is just turning 30. I was unemployed, just out of college, and not sure what I wanted to do with my life, or even if I could do anything. In the Byung Hee Go Hyun Jung created, I found an older woman who was dealing with the exact same questions and doubts I was. Byung Hee is utterly ordinary, but she has an incredible imagination, which she uses to write smutty stories for the men’s magazine she works for. She’s 30, she’s never had sex, and when she goes to her doctor she discovers she has cancer. All of a sudden she realizes that her life has passed her by without her having achieved much of anything. In WUF, Go Hyun Jung is Byung Hee. She laughs like a little kid at stupid jokes, curls in on herself when her best friend yells at her, and holds an entire world of longing in her. Go is somehow able to make Byung Hee at once meek and mischievous, very much a family girl who wants to live up to the responsibilities she has as a daughter and a sister, but also her own person.
When Byung Hee gets her happy ending, it’s not because a rich man falls for her, or because she gets the job she’s always wanted, or because she changes in any way that has her moving forward or upward—her happy ending is a realization of who she is and a total acceptance of that. She’s no longer embarrassed of herself or her desires. What she achieves is the leap from from lounging in her dreams to actually living in her life, ordinary as it is.
Dear My Friends aired a decade after WUF, and again Go just becomes her character. It’s a perfectly rendered performance; not because of the power of the most dramatic scenes (and there’s lots of yelling and crying in DMF), but because there isn’t a single moment she’s onscreen in which you don’t see Park Wan. There’s an absolute consistency that has you understand that she wholly inhabited the character.
Park Wan couldn’t be more different from Byung Hee. Park Wan is firmly middle aged, and she’s definitely not a virgin. She doesn’t obey her mother so much as she puts up with her, and lets her know that that’s all she’s doing. She’s abrasive and sarcastic and easily frustrated, and she’s always just this close to being disrespectful to her elders. I watched DMF 5 or 6 years after first encountering Byung Hee, but the character Go Hyun Jung created had the same effect on me—I recognized myself in Park Wan, in how angry she was, in how she controlled what she wanted because of her filial duty, even though I’ve changed a lot over the past few years.
I think the most remarkable thing about Go Hyun Jung’s acting is that she is so organic—both Byung Hee and Park Wan feel so human to me. They’re vulnerable and aching and alive. They embarrass themselves, have desires that seem to outstrip what they’re allowed, are selfish and defiant and loyal. You can see the intelligence behind Go’s characters, you can see that they’re something she creates, but when she’s on the screen you don’t see any effort being exerted. Somehow Byung Hee and Park Wan don’t seem like simple characters to me, they seem like people I can know and interact with. There’s a reality to Go’s performances, a grounded-ness that takes what’s on paper—dialogue, cues—and gives it flesh.
Honorable Mentions: Park Min Young & Yoo In Na
Neither Park Min Young nor Yoo In Na can be described as not being typecast. They are Most Typecast Favs, if anything. But I’m still giving each of them a shout out here, because I feel like in their being typecast they at once illustrate what’s so amazing about actresses whose careers boast a variety of characters and projects, and how even within typecasting, performance and presence are everything.
Park Min Young always chooses roles that are positive, in that she plays a spunky heroine with personal drive who stands for good and justice. In her dramas she’s always the voice of hope. The one show she’s headlined, I think, was Sungkunkwan Scandal, in which she played a cross-dressing girl determined to have male access to an education. She’s generally known for roles where she’s second billed to the male lead, where she’s a woman in a man’s story. This is clearest with City Hunter, where fans of the show were rooting for her character, Nana, to be killed off, because that would fuel the male lead’s angst.
The crucial moment for Park came after she took a hiatus and realized that she wanted to focus less on how she looked while on screen, and simply act. She came back with A New Leaf, and then with Healer, in which she gave us one of the most beloved heroines of the past 5 years, Chae Young Shin, who is a classic Park character. She’s tough, she’s smart, she’s determined, and she has her own aims, which do not always align with those of the male lead. In terms of audience reception I’d rank Young Shin alongside Eun Chan and pre-male actor fuckery Hong Seol—universally beloved. In terms of the space she inhabits in a story that isn’t hers (a man’s story), in how she gets to be her own person with her own goals and desires and support from others, I’d put her at #1. Go Hyun Jung made the leap from a woman starring in men’s stories to a woman with men in her stories with What’s Up Fox; I think it’s interesting to see how Park Min Young, in contrast, has carved a career in doing the former while still playing characters who aren’t totally subsumed by those men.
When I think of Yoo In Na’s career I remember a comment I read about Lucy Liu before she landed her revolutionary role as Joan Watson in Elementary—“Hollywood just doesn’t know what to do with her”; she’s ridiculously talented and driven, but a combination of Hollywood racism, sexism, and just a general lack of imagination left her underserved. I feel like the same thing can be said of Yoo In Na: kdramaland just doesn’t know what to do with her. She’s been a second lead in a number of very popular shows, from Secret Garden, to Greatest Love, to You From Another Star, to the recent Goblin. But the role that defines her in my mind is her Choi Hee Jin in Queen In Hyun’s Man. Hee Jin could have been just your run-of-the-mill bubbly, pretty, likable heroine. But Yoo In Na made her something more: she made her cheeky, brazen, and absolutely carefree. She made it so that the genre dichotomy on which the show turned and depended on—a historical political thriller giving way to a modern romance—absolutely worked. We believed that scholarly, reserved Boong Do could leave behind an entire existence and put his faith ditzy, romance obsessed Hee Jin and let her guide him because Yoo In Na imbued the character with such liveliness and purpose. So after such a star turn, how is it that Yoo In Na’s next show flopped, and she returned to being in ensembles and playing second leads? It’s cause kdramaland doesn’t know what to do with her. I think one of the reasons is that she’s just so blatantly hot—not just beautiful, not just pretty, but hot—that she can’t play (or won’t be cast) as the every-girl dramaland loves so much, and always ends up playing a character where attention is drawn to their looks. In the preview for her character in Goblin, she walks past a man exercising, the camera pans over her body in close-fitting workout gear, and the man trips. Even in QIHM, Hee Jin always pointed out how pretty she was.
One role she’s played that gives me hope is her Go Dong Mi in One More Happy ending. She totally changed her appearance for that role, getting a perm and dyeing her hair orange and wearing huge glasses and dowdy clothes. Go Hyun Jung is renowned for her beauty, but it hasn’t limited her; I hope Yoo In Na can find a way for her beauty not to be a hindrance as well, (if that is actually one of the things getting in her way).