How do you rank the greatest Korean Actors of all time? This is impossible to do unless you set up some guidelines. Performances come in a variety of different types based on the genre and the era it occurred. It is very difficult to judge a great comedic performance next to a great dramatic performance. In addition, actors today have a lot more freedom to push the boundaries than in Korean films in the past. With the success of Parasite and the demand for more Korean film recommendations, many Korean films are getting a look from the global audience for the first time.
In order to do the Top 10 Greatest Korean Actors of all time the right way, here are our guidelines.
- The number of awards won for their acting
- The number of memorable characters played
- How many films have they done? Experience matters.
- Can they play a range of characters?
- Reviews from critics
We have also done an article on the Greatest Korean Actresses of all time which you should definitely check out.
If Choi Min Sik brings explosive passion to a role, Song Kang-ho is like a professional surgeon. Every mannerism, line delivery, and facial expression feels calculated to the tee. He is able to express so much while showing very little emotion. Best of all, he seems to be getting better with age. His recent work in Parasite might be his best work to date. Song Kang-ho’s career has spanned three decades.
For the last decade, there has been a debate in the Korean film industry on who is the best actor, Choi Min Sik or Song Kang-ho. I would argue that Song Kang-ho has passed Choi due to his performance in Parasite. In addition, Song Kang-ho has the ability to unexpectedly be funny when a role calls for it and completely transform himself into the characters he plays. Don’t believe me? Watch Memories of Murder and The Host. Choi on the other hand tends to usually play the same character.
Choi Min Sik
When discussing Choi Min Sik’s career two words come to mind, explosive and intense. Choi Min Sik is phenomenal. You always feel that this man simply loves the craft of acting and being able to perform. His performance in Old Boy is all you really need to watch to see just how great of an actor Choi Min Sik really is. However, Choi Min Sik seems to play the same type of intense and worn-down character. Yet, Choi Min Sik has proven he takes a particular character and plays it better than anyone has ever done in Korean cinema. He has been at the top of all lists for Korean actors for many decades and is still going strong today.
Lee Jung-jae is one of the most successful actors in South Korea. Many global audiences first saw him in the Netflix hit Squid Game, however, Lee Jung-jae has been acting since 1994. He has starred in a range of film genres from romance to comedies to action. There is no role he can’t play. His role on Squid Game earned him the Gallup Korea’s Film Actor of the Year and was nominated for the 2022 Golden Globes for Best Actor in a TV drama.
Ahn Sung Ki
It is difficult summing up how large of an impact Ahn Sung Ki has had on Korean Cinema. His rise to stardom came in the 80s and continues to flourish today. What makes Ahn Sung Ki such a draw is his ability to combine raw intensity that makes his performances feel feal and emotional. His roles in the 80s are perhaps his best work where he won 5 Baeksang Arts Awards. He has set a gold standard for actors in Korea and is one of the most respected actors working today. He has appeared in over 140 films over 60 years.
Lee Byung Hun
While many in the United States might know Lee Byung Hun from G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra as Storm Shadow. He is one of the most famous and best looking Korean actors today. In his earlier work, he has gotten critical acclaim for his roles in JSA, The Good, The Bad, the Weird, and Inside Men. He became the first Korean actor to present an Oscar at the Academy Awards and was one of the first Korean actors to imprint his hands and foot at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. He has developed a reputation in Korea as an actor with fierce dedication for both commercial and critical film roles.
Sol Kyung-gu is an actor that is known for playing both cometic roles and dramatic roles very well. Everyone in Korea knew he was a top-quality actor but it took some time before he got the recognition he deserved. He was great in the romantic comedy I Wish I Had a Wife in 2001, as well as, the war drama Silmido. He got a lot of respect from the acting community in Korea for his role in Rikidozan where he gained over 40 pounds and did most of his lines in Japanese. Sol Kyung-gu continues to give great performances such as in Man to Men, The Merciless, and Memoir of a Murderer.
Hwang Jung-min started acting back in 2001 and has constantly made at least 2 films a year. One of the best movies by Hwang Jung-min is Ode to My Father where he really brought a lot of heart to the film. Most might know him from his role in The Wailing one of the scariest Korean films of all time. He played one of the creepiest characters in Korean cinema.
Jeong Jae-yeong is an old-school Korean actor known for his roles in Silmido, Welcome to Dongmakgol, and On the Beach at Night Alone. He is not active as he used to be and it will be lucky if he does a film a year. However, when he does, he is constantly recognized for his great work. He has won many awards and is known for his ability to play various roles.
Here is a Korean actor that is rising up the ranks and should be in the top 5 when his career is all said and done. Ha Jung-woo is not only an actor but also a director, screenwriter, and producer. He pretty much does it all. Ha Jung-woo is considered one of the highest-grossing actors in South Korea. He came to fame from his magnificent performance in The Chaser in 2008. You compare that to his performance in the sports film Take Off, and you can see just how good his range really is. Make sure to also check out Ha Jung-woo in one of the top Korean films of all time in The Handmaiden.
One of the most respected Korean actors around, Kim Yoon-Seok has a background in the theater where he perfected his acting craft on stage. His breakout role came in Tazza: The High Rollers in 2006 and The Chaser in 2008. One of the most underrated performances of all time was Kim Yoon-Seok’s performance in Running Turtle in 2009. One of his most successful films was the heist movie called The Thieves which became the 6th highest-grossing Korean film of all time.