Greatest Korean Actresses

The Greatest Korean Actresses of All Time – Seoul Space Rankings

Who made our list of the greatest Korean Actresses of all time? Ranking great actresses in Korean cinema is always a subjective choice in the end. However, SEOULSPACE looked back through Korean cinema history and chose the women who proved what it means to be a great actress in Korea. Making the list was not easy unless there were some guidelines. Performances come in various types based on the genre and the era it occurred. In addition, actresses today have much more freedom to push the boundaries than in Korean films. Many female actresses are now leading films and paving the way for versatile female roles. 

Here are our guidelines to do the Top 10 Greatest Korean Actresses of all time the right way. 

  • 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 also did an article on the greatest male Korean actors of all time. So make sure to check that out as well.

Jeon Do-yeon

Jeon Do Yeon

Jeon Do-yeon is considered one of the greatest Korean actresses of all time. She has starred in numerous films and television shows, and her performances have consistently won praise from audiences and critics. One of the things that makes Jeon so successful is her ability to disappear into her roles. Whether she’s playing a young mother struggling with addiction or a black-hearted villain, she always manages to create a fully realized character that feels completely believable.

Jeon Do-yeon is all about intensity and range. There is probably no Korean film actress to carry the kind of dramatic weight as Jeon Do-yeon. She has repeatedly proven herself to be the best Korean actress working today. Jeon Do-yeon has earned a reputation for outstanding work outside the big studio system. She has won a lifetime achievement award at an Italian film festival. She has come a long way from her debut back in 1997. Since then, she has earned critical acclaim and even won the best actress award at the 60th Cannes Film Festival for her role in the 2007 drama Secret Sunshine. Her latest film Beasts Clawing at Straws has been praised by critics.

In addition to her acting chops, Jeon is also known for her striking beauty and elegance. She frequently appears on lists of the most beautiful women in Korea and has been chosen as a brand ambassador for some of the country’s biggest fashion labels.

Kim Hye-ja

Greatest Korean Actress

Kim Hye-ja is a veteran actress who has won the grand prize in the television category at the 2019 Baeksang Arts Awards. This was her 4th Baeksang Arts Award, with her first coming back in 1979. Kim Hye-ja is one of the greatest Korean actresses for several reasons. First and foremost, she is an incredibly versatile actress who can convincingly play comedic and dramatic roles. Secondly, she has a natural charisma and screen presence that captivates viewers. And thirdly, she has demonstrated a willingness to take on challenging and unexpected roles throughout her career.

In recent years, Kim Hye-ja has taken on many daring roles that have pushed the boundaries of Korean cinema. As a result, she is widely respected as one of the finest actors in Korea today. Therefore, if you measure acting skills based on awards and acclaim, an argument can be made that Kim Hye-ja should be #1 on this list. She often plays the motherly figure in film and TV. Her most famous and most recognized role is in Mother, a 2009 thriller considered one of the best Korean films of all time. Her latest film The Light in Your Eyes, has also garnered critical acclaim.

Son Ye-jin

Greatest Korean Actresses

While the global audience might know her from the hit Netflix Korean drama Crash Landing on You, Son Ye-jin has built a reputation in South Korea for being one of the best actresses in both film and television. She has a natural ability to convey emotion on screen and has demonstrated her range by playing various roles. From comedic roles to more serious ones, she always gives a believable and compelling performance. Additionally, she is beautiful and has a unique and memorable style.

Son has been many awards for her performance in film and television, with over 50 awards. This includes some of the most prestigious acting awards from The Blue Dragon Film Awards, The Grand Bell Awards, and the Oscars of Korea, the Baeksang Arts Awards. Besides all this, many of her films are some of the highest-grossing films in Korean history, making her a legend in Korean cinema and dramas. Son is expected to make her long-awaited Hollywood debut at some point in 2022 for the film The Cross.

Youn Yuh-jung 

Greatest Korean Actresses

Young Yuh-jung has been a star in both film and television. She is known for her roles in The Housemaid, The Taste of Money, and the American film Minari. Her career spans 50 years. While she mainly plays supporting roles, she might be one of the best-supporting actresses in Korea. She won the best-supporting actress award at the 31st Blue Dragon Film Awards for her role in The Housemaid. That gives her a total of 15 best supporting actress awards in Korea. In addition, she brought great honor to South Korea by winning the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her performance in  Minari. She became the first Korean to win an Oscar for acting. 

She has also appeared in some of the most iconic Korean films and television shows, and her performances have always been impeccable. Youn Yuh-jung has a natural charisma that allows her to portray many characters, from innocent young girls to hardened criminals. She is also a master of comic timing; her scenes are often the highlights of whatever project she is working on. Whether she is playing a lead role or a supporting character, Youn Yuh-jung always brings her unique talent and presence to the screen. Very few actresses can match her ability, and she is truly one of the greats.

Yun Jeong-hie

Greatest Korean Actress

Yun Jeong-hie is forever cemented as one of the greatest Korean actresses of all time. She is one of the true icons in Korean cinema. She has only appeared in one film since 1994. Yun Jeong-hie was one of Korean cinema’s best actresses during the 60s and 70s. She was also considered the most beautiful actress at the time. She is an incredibly versatile performer, able to portray a wide range of characters convincingly. From a sweet and innocent young woman to a strong and independent leading lady, she has proved time and time again that she is a master of her craft.

Yun Jeong-hie has a deep understanding of the Korean film industry. With decades of experience in the business, she has a unique perspective on the art of filmmaking. As a result, she can often elevate even the most ordinary material. Most of her films were period pieces and melodramas. Her most famous role was in the 1972 classic Oyster Village. She won “best actress” at the Blue Dragon Film Awards and was nominated for a Golden Bear at the 22nd Berlin International Film Festival. In total, she has over 330 films and 24 best actress awards.

Moon So-ri

Moon So ri

Moon So-ri is not only an actress but also a director and screenwriter. She is best known for her role in the Oasis and A Good Lawyer’s Wife where she won the Best Actress Award at the 2004 Grand Bell Awards. In Oasis, she played a developmentally disabled woman who falls in love with a man.

Moon So-ri is simply likable. She has a warm and charming personality that comes across both on-screen and off-screen. This likability has helped her to build a large and loyal fanbase who are always eager to see her latest work. Many praise her for her wide range. She has earned a strong reputation for outstanding work outside the big studios in the Korean film industry. Moon acted and directed her first short film The Actress. Moon is also the first Korean actress to get invited as a jury member of the Locarno International Film Festival.

Bae Doona

Bae Donna

Bae Doona burst onto the scene with her fantastic performance in Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance in 2002. You also might recognize her as the archer in Bong Joob-ho’s The Host in 2006. She made her English-speaking debut in Wachowski’s film Cloud Atlas in 2012. You can also check out her work in her latest film, which is available on Netflix called Kingdom.

Bae Doona is one of the greatest Korean actresses for various reasons. First and foremost, she is a phenomenal actress with many emotions. She can convincingly play everything from a cold-hearted businesswoman to a warm-hearted mother. Bae always brings her characters to life in a genuine and relatable way. She is confident, successful, and independent. Many see her as the greatest Korean actress of her generation and are one of the few that have been able to transition well into Hollywood.

Han Hyo-joo

Han Hyo Joo

While many might know her from her great performances in Korean dramas such as Spring Waltz and Brilliant Legacy, she has been equally praised for her work in Korean cinema. Her role in Cold Eyes in 2013 got her the best actress award at the 34th Blue Dragon Film Awards. Furthermore, she has been able to transition back and form between Korean films, Japanese films, and Korean dramas smoothly. While she is relatively still young, she has earned the right to be considered the most gifted Korean actress ever. 

Kim Hye-su

Kim Hye Soo

Kim Hye-su is one of the most popular and respected actresses in Korea. She has starred in some of the country’s most iconic films and has won numerous awards for her work. Moreover, she seems to be one of the few Korean actresses to get better with age. She is best known for her roles in Tazza: The High Rollers, The Thieves, and Familyhood. Kim Hye-su has been one of Korean cinema’s most dependable female leads since the late 1990s. She is perfect at playing the glamourous and confident femme fatale.

Ki Hye-su consistently chooses interesting and challenging roles. rather than coasting on her success, she continually strives to push herself and try new things. In even the most emotional scenes, she always finds a way to inject a little bit of humor or humanity, making her characters feel more real and relatable. These qualities combine to make Kim Hye-su one of the most gifted and captivating actresses working today.

Jun Ji-hyun

jun ji hyun

Jun Ji-hyun is currently the highest-paid female Korean drama actress today. She rose to fame from her role as a sassy girl in…My Sassy Girl. During that time, it was very clear she was a brilliant actress. Her performance in My Sassy Girl made her one of the most in-demand Korean actresses. It was one of the highest-grossing Korean comedies of all time and instantly made Jun Ji-hyun a superstar. Her other famous roles were in The Thieves, The Berlin File, and Assassination. In 2019, Jun Ji-hyun made Gallup Korea’s list of the ten best actors of 2016, she was the only woman on the list.

Jun Ji-hyun has a natural beauty and charm that captivates audiences, and she is an extremely talented actress. She is able to bring even the most unrealistic characters to life, making them seem real and relatable. Her performances are always incredibly believable and emotionally resonant. She is, without a doubt, one of the greatest Korean actresses of her generation.

  1. Why Kim Hee Ae not in the list? She’s a very good actress.. Why Jun Ji Hyun in the list, she’s not good in acting, she’s only pretty but the versatility she’s not..

    1. You make a good point. Her performance in The World of the Married was amazing. I will take a closer look at her earlier work to see if he should be in the top 10. Jun Ji Hyun is a great actress and is getting better and better. An argument can be made that in 20 years she will be considered one of the top 5.

  2. Not having Son Ye-jin on the list is completely absurd and incomprehensible. Based on your own guidelines she should be in Top 5 easily. First of all, Son Ye-jin won all 3 major Korean film awards for best actress (Blue Dragon, Grand Bell, and Baeksang) and on your list only Jeon Do-yeon, Yun Jeong-hie, and Kim Hye-su achieved the same.
    Five actresses on your list put together have the same number of various Blue Dragon, Grand Bell, and Baeksang awards as Son Ye-jin has alone! Analyzing the total number of various awards won throughout career only 4 older actresses are above Son Ye-jin.
    In terms of experience (total roles) Son Ye-jin is again superior to a number of actresses on your list. On top of that, although she is hailed as Korea’s Melodrama Queen, Son Ye-jin showed acting versatility in diverse genres.
    Finally, it is important to emphasize that Son Ye-jin was awarded for her work by the audience because 19 films in which Son Ye-jin was the leading actress were watched by more than 44 million viewers in South Korea’s cinemas which is more than any actress on your list (Kim Hye-soo achieved the same but not exclusively as a leading character). In addition, her works have been enjoyed in Asia and around the world; for example since 2005 till “Parasite” in 2020, two of Son Ye-jin’s movies were the most commercially successful Korean films in Japan ever.

    At the end I will mention Korean survey from 2019 (quote): “In conjunction with the 100 Years of Korean Cinema (1919-2019) anniversary, Maeil Business Newspaper and CGV Research Center have conducted a survey taken by 1,200 moviegoers nationwide for the best man and woman of Korean movies.”
    Regarding actresses Son Ye-jin was convincingly #2.
    Top 5 was:
    1. Kim Hye-soo
    2. Son Ye-jin
    3. Jeon Do-yeon
    4. Moon So-ri
    5. Jun Ji-hyun

    By the way, I am a film buff from Europe. I adore South Korean cinema which is in my opinion the most interesting cinema in the world of the last 2 decades. Over the years I saw over 300 Korean movies. I consider Son Ye-jin as one of the greats of world cinema. Her screen dominance, acting range, raw emotion, grace, immersion in roles is at par with the all time greats such as Isabelle Adjani, Giulietta Masina, Olivia de Havilland, just to name a few.

    Best Regards!

    1. Hi Zoran! I agree with you, Son Ye Jin must be put at the top of the list. Basing on the credentials she have as an actress for 21 years, she has shown what versatility means through her works in films and tv series. I for one consider Son Ye Jin as an asset of Korean entertainment as she can capture the hearts of millions of people not just in Korea but also in the international stage.

    2. I totally agree with you Mr Zoran. Its a pity that you needed to point that out before SYJ was included in the list!

  3. Oh my god. i cant imagine Son Ye jin not being on this list before! Shame on the writer! She’s one of the reasons why Korean cinema thrives and people all over the world take interest in korean drama and movies, and yet someone from outside korea is needed to point that out to a korean writer? her acting range and proven box office appeal is enough to put her on the top spot! Wait till she takes over Hollywood and these people playing down her influence and appeal will be put to shame. No other actress made me interested in Korean cinema and drama than Son yejin had.

  4. I would say that although the author may make some mistakes in the articles, the author accepts well intentioned criticism, and given that there are a lot of interesting articles here on SeoulSpace on various topics related to South Korea, my respect for the effort and work.
    I am glad because Son Ye-jin is now on the list (in Top 3) because she absolutely deserved it. As for the position itself, at the end of the day it’s subjective choice so I don’t blame the author for not putting Son Ye-jin at #1, which went to the great Jeon Do-yeon who is also 9 years older than Son Ye-jin. In any case, South Korea can be very proud to have two such unique and marvelous actresses. Both all-time greats of world cinema.
    South Korea has a large number of great actresses who could have been on the (wider) list, the concentration of quality is so impressive… I would like to take this opportunity to remember an actress who will not made the lists of all time greats due to her short career, Lee Eun-ju, who tragically died at the age of 24. She was an amazing talent, with several great roles, among others in the film “Lover’s Concerto” in which she starred alongside young Son Ye-jin.

    1. Zoran much respect, you are a clear fan of Korean cinema and to be honest, this list will end up being the most respected list moving forward because other articles do not go in-depth into the WHY.

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