[blog] from idols to actors



I’ve overdosed on Korea’s year-end music shows that it was a welcome change to watch actors in their own world through the year-end drama shows instead and it gave me a slight glimpse as to why actors > idols in Korea.

It’s like in a family: the cousin who is good at singing and dancing gets the spotlight at clan reunions. On the other hand, the cousin who is the “intelligent” one, always on the honors list, usually sits and watches the popular cousins perform but gets praised the most. Their popularity are different levels and one would think that the “entertainer” cousin is more popular while the “brainy” one is more respected.

It’s not really a perfect parallelism but it somehow gives an idea on the culture behind Korea’s entertainment industry. Actors are taken more seriously while idols are taken for show. Not to say that they are not both talented, it’s just how it is.

So it’s really no surprise that idols struggle to cross to the acting world. They can’t be idols forever, there’s a shelf life for all that preening and camwhoring. At a certain point, it has to translate into more “substantial” preening and camwhoring by taking on roles in dramas or films. Not everyone succeeds though and one has to consider that roles given to idols are more limited. Actors would of course enjoy first dibs at challenging and choice roles before a production would even consider getting an idol. One can argue that getting an idol is already a sure-fire way to get the ratings, but unfortunately, that is not always the case. The market for K-pop and K-dramas are not the same. K-pop fans don’t necessarily watch K-dramas and vice versa, loyalty aside. And remember, when it comes to ratings, we are talking domestically here — the Korean market. (It’s a different story when it’s an overseas production where idols, whose popularity easily extends across the region, are likely to get casted, acting skills aside.)

Watching idols in a gathering is like watching peacocks in the zoo. They try to outpreen one another. Can’t blame them though because you need to attract attention to yourself when airtime is limited and has to be divided among 20 peacocks in a 60-minute show.

On the other hand, watching actors in a gathering is like watching a flock of flamingos. They are as elegant as peacocks but they are more tight-knit. (What is with me and parallelisms in this post?!) I sense a closely knit group among actors, that sense of academy or comradeship, and an air of elitism. Not to say they are united all the time because I bet the competition is tough, even tougher than in the idol world, and hierarchies exist (we are talking here of socially rigid North Asia, after all, compared to say the Western world or the more laidback Southeast Asia).

Having said all that, props to those idols who have successfully crossed over to the acting world and earned the respect of the industry. I list down three of them:




Park Yoochun

I have given some of his dramas a watch… until the first few episodes. My loss of interest, however, does not in any way reflect on Yoochun’s acting. It’s really hard to tell what dramas would sustain your interest till the end so let’s just say his did not fall in that category. But I’ve watched enough to see that he’s a good actor (though I used to think he really looks ugly when crying. Peace.). Not that I’m any legitimate critic but let his acting awards speak for themselves, especially his best new actor sweep last year for SEA FOG. This is the best indicator that he is the most successful idol of late in crossing over to being an actor. He’s got fame as a member of JYJ and critical acclaim on his own as an actor.




Im Siwan

I’ve never heard of Im Siwan before MISAENG. Okay, not exactly the truth. I first heard of him at Baeksang 2014 as that idol-actor from Busan who sat next to Lee Joon and Park Shinhye. But I’ve barely heard of his group Z:EA either so I never paid much attention. Until I met Jang Gurae. It’s hard to imagine that the actor playing the lead role in perhaps South Korea’s top drama in 2014 was an idol. He’s one of those rare actors whose eyes alone can act and he totally owned the role. Before this though, he has also received acclaim for his work in THE ATTORNEY, which I still have to watch so I can’t comment on it. I imagine it would be difficult to top Jang Gurae so he’s lucky that the drama gets a second season. Though that is both good and bad because while he can further prove his acting chops in such a complex role that requires internal acting, the image might get stuck with him it would be hard to move on from Gurae.




Lee Joon

Ahh, Lee Joon. I’ve always been fascinated with this choice of roles (excluding being the young Rain in NINJA ASSASSIN). He’s always played dark characters that do not exactly gain the sympathy of the audience, which is risky when you’re an idol with hordes of fangirls wanting to see oppa in ideal roles. (He was creepy in IRIS 2 and more so in GAP DONG.) On the other hand, it might have been a good decision because it set him apart from the other idols-turned-actors and created a niche for him. One indication on how taking that risk has paid off was when he was casted as the lead for ROUGH PLAY. You know, Kim Kiduk and idols do not exactly go together. It’s not really surprising that Lee Joon had decided to leave MBLAQ and focus on his acting career because obviously, it’s been more rewarding for him. Perhaps, he was meant to act more than dance and sing in the first place.

I do realize that the list is male-centric. There are female idols who had turned to acting as well, one of the most successful being Yoon Eunhye, who came from the idol group Baby Vox. There’s also Jung Eunji from A Pink who was well loved in REPLY 1997 and fx’s Sulli and Krystal, to name a few. It’s even more difficult for female idols judging from the harsh criticisms that SNSD’s Yoona got when she was first named as the lead in Korea’s version of NODAME CANTABILE.

I’m just grateful that the Japanese entertainment industry does not strongly discriminate against idols, otherwise the likes of Arashi won’t even get lead roles in dramas and films. Of course powerful agencies like Johnny’s play a big part in getting their talents casted (in the same way that SM plays its cards too) but there is not much fandom drama involved when an idol gets a role in a high-profile project in Japan. I have blogged about this previously, on the difference between idols-to-actors in K-pop and J-pop.

But isn’t it a funny world. If idols want to cross over to the actors’ world, we’re also seeing the reverse, with actors morphing into idols when they sing and dance in their fan meetings and even releasing singles or albums. Well, the industry is big enough to accommodate both and may the most multi-talented win.

P.S. The Korea Herald did an article last year on idols that are earning praises for their acting. Interesting comparison.

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7 thoughts on “[blog] from idols to actors

  1. You know, I think you pretty much ‘got it’ in your assessment of idols, actors and the preferences. There’s also the fact that ‘move actors’ are held in higher esteem than ‘drama actors’ so an idol who truly makes it in movies has pretty much crossed over for reals. 🙂 The three you mentioned here are quite good examples of the new crop of idols tuned actors who actually have shown a lot of potential and are likely to become even better as they gain more experince.

    The biggest gripe people seem to have about idols littering their dramas is that they are given lead roles right off bat. Even if they are totally untested noobs as actors, so there is no guarantee they have the ability to perform in a manner expected of a lead. Especially when there are plenty of far better choices available. Not that all ‘proper’ k-actors are that good either, there are surprisingly many popular ones who quite frankly have no actual talent to speak of. XD


    • ahh I was about to sleep but I can’t resist replying to your interesting comment!

      yes, you’ve made an important point I forgot about lol movie actors > drama actors. coincidentally, all those three on the list have done films as well.

      I do agree on how idols take the shortcut in getting lead roles even without proving themselves first or going through the rigors of acting, simply on the merit of their popularity and their agencies pulling the strings. not sure if it’s the same case in K-ent because in J-ent, idols start acting when they’re younger and take on support roles in their senpais’ dramas. it’s more like a package deal, you get the senior idol together with one or two juniors from the same agency. the cycle gets repeated when the junior becomes a senpai and takes on lead roles, it’s their turn to help out the kouhai.

      oh shall we name those actors who have no talent to speak of? I’m curious on who is on your list LOL


      • Nah, I don’t think K-ent resembles J-ent in how they ease idols into dramas. These days the Korean idols are more or less supposed to be jacks of all trades and acting is just a portion of what they are expected to handle. Though there are some exceptions, like Kwak Dong Yun who is a FNC band trainee but debuted as an actor in a family drama with a large cast (CNB’s Min Hyuk was in it as well). Boy is pretty darned good too and he is just 17yrs. 🙂 Come to think of it, the recently ended Modern Farmer had tree idols from FNC; Ft Island’s Hong Ki and KDY as 2 of the 5 mains + N’Flying’s Kim Jae Hyun in a minor role. Go figure. Maybe FNC is just different in how they do things. After all, they did package Hong Ki and Yong Hwa together in You’re Beautiful too. 🙂

        I better not start naming names, fans can be scary. ;P But i think that people pretty much agree on e.g Mr Hand-towel aka Song Seung Hun’s acting ‘talents’ or lack thereoff. LOL!


      • Hahahaha yes fans can be scary when they get so defensive. But agree on Mr Hand Towel!!! He is painful to watch in melodramas but he sure loves doing them. I quite enjoyed his performance in My Princess with Kim Taehee coz it was a romcom.

        FNC’s style actually reminds me of Johnny’s and I guess it’s a good move as well. Spreads the exposure around and within the same family lol


      • Sorry, drive by comment. Real interesting comments. Just a general query, why is the ‘Idol’ and ‘jack of all trades in the industry’ such a staple and bankable (debatable) idea in South-East Asia?

        Speaking of the acting world, what I can say is that, at least K&J idols are already preened to be on the spotlight. And are therefore less painful/ torturous to watch compared to, say Filipino dramas.

        I tried other South-East Asian fare, and when it comes to Filipino dramas, for example, is that anyone with a fair skin, is half-Caucasian and basically looks attractive (mostly looks Caucasian) is the perfect top-pick in terms of basic requirements to get cast as a second-main actor/actress on most TV dramas. And this is regardless of acting talent or on-screen charm. Hence, one of the reasons I gave up on Filipino dramas.

        I guess in that respect and comparison, KDramas are not so bad. The only gripe I have with KDramas is, personally, shows go to a standard 25 episodes. 3 or more, depending on the leads, episodes are wasted with about ‘something-minutes’ long ‘weeping-scenes’ heavily accompanied by a soulful sad k-ballad. I get that probably this is a popular method in Korea because… Oh just the feels… And maybe… Oh such a handsome/pretty face, shouldn’t cry therefore I (should) feel even more sympathetic. Not dissing btw, if that is someone’s thing. I just get baffled at the concept of ‘que on tears’. Why is that the base for good acting chops in a drama, and central to the plot? I am trying to think of a JDrama that utilized this method but I am coming up short atm….

        The latter K-Idol reminds me of Kang Dong Won. I don’t watch a lot of KDramas, haven’t for a while, but I am going to try the ones the last Idol (sorry, forgot his name, and I am on my phone worried all this typed out message will be erased if I go back to the main entry) mentioned starred-in.


  2. Wae no Jung? Haha. Granted he’s still learning, but it’s been a good journey from Shin Woo to Lee Shin, Se Ju and Dalhyang! bbb


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