Saturday, November 7, 2009

Lee Soon Jae

Is Lee Soon Jae the best actor ever? I'm beginning to think so. I first noticed him in a Korean drama called Merchant of Choson. In this fascinating period piece about commerce where I learned more than I wanted to about Korean red ginseng, he played a mega evil CEO who'll do everything and anything to make a buck (he learns the error of his ways after being beaten to a pulp by Fate). He was pretty scary. So I couldn't believe it when I saw him in Mom's Dead Upset, playing the noble, gentle patriarch! At the moment I'm catching him on Yi San (playing a hard-ass king) and Beethoven Virus (playing a dapper oboist going through Alzheimer's).

He's pretty amazing in Beethoven Virus. The way he fights his illness, trying to find clarity by putting rough pebbles in his shoes, his denial and then slow descent into dementia, first traveling back in time, and then forgetting the self completely, even in the posture of his body.

It's not the kind of acting that's appreciated here in the US, where the cult of personality is everything. Famous actors play basically one character their whole careers and acting is just being able to pull out an emotion on cue. Cary Grant famously played Cary Grant, and you have to reach all the way into the early 1930s to see him as an actor. It's not really the actors' fault — after all, they're being paid to play that one act over and over again, with any variation rarely appreciated by a paying audience.* In other countries, actors are allowed to grow, cast sometimes in minor roles, allowed the freedom of acting on stage, film and TV. In Korea, it isn't surprising to see the same actor in two or three dramas a season. This is in part because most dramas end at a specified number of episodes. They don't keep going on and on and on, the duration dependent on ratings.

Below is a clip from the comedy High Kick, where Mr. Lee plays an irascible son-of-a-gun who makes life hell for his poor wife. Go to 6:20 for an example of his subtle comedic skills.

*One of my favorite US actors is Harriet Sansom Harris, most famous as Bebe in Frasier. She's so perfect as Bebe, you think that's just her. But then watch her as the blind president in the old Sci Fi series Space: Above and Beyond. I'll never forget the one speech she makes for why they must continue the war: absolutely chilling.

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