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From local heartthrob to global star, Lee Jung-jae sees his heyday never end

All News 15:51 February 28, 2022

By Kim Boram

SEOUL, Feb. 28 (Yonhap) -- With the sensational global rise of the South Korean Netflix original "Squid Game," the heyday of its lead Lee Jung-jae, 49, seems to continue further even 30 years after his small screen debut.

Lee clinched his first best actor honor from a major U.S. awards ceremony at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards on Monday (Korean time), after several nominations at some prestigious awards ceremonies, like the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice Awards.

In this AFP photo, Lee Jung-jae delivers an acceptance speech after winning Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series for his role in "Squid Game" at the Screen Actors Guild Awards at Santa Monica, California, on Feb. 27, 2022. (Yonhap)

In "Squid Game," Lee plays Gi-hun, a down-on-his-luck middle-aged man who sponges off his ailing old mother for living expenses and resorts to gambling after a series of business failures, a divorce and heavy indebtedness.

He is drawn to a mysterious competition of traditional Korean kids' games that will reward the only survivor with 45.6 billion won (US$37.8 million) in prize money.

Before "Squid Game," Lee, a veteran and renowned actor, had carved out his acting career in a wide range of genres from historical drama to romances and comedy on big and small screens for about three decades.

This image provided by Next Entertainment World shows a scene from "New World." (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

Making his TV debut with the campus drama "Dinosaur Teacher" in 1993, he soon became a heartthrob in Korea as a devoted bodyguard in the megahit TV series "Sandglass" (1995).

His presence stood out on the silver screen with the drama "The Young Man" (1994) and the action film "City of the Rising Sun" (1999). Lee swept best rookie actor prizes in local film awards, including the Blue Dragon Film Awards for his role in the former, while he hoisted the best actor trophy at the Blue Dragons for the latter.

Since then, however, he had been sluggish for about a decade as many of his shows or films, like the fantasy romance "Il Mare" (2000) and the comedy "Oh! Brothers" (2003), fell flat.

But he made a comeback with the heist action comedy "The Thieves" (2012), one of the most successful films in Korea, although Lee's name was not listed on the top of the cast.

Next year, he took impressive roles in two big hit films, the crime drama "New World" and the historical film "The Face Reader," proving that he was well suited for charismatic gangster leaders or kings. He was awarded best supporting actor at the Blue Dragon and Baeksang Arts Awards for his performance in "The Face Reader."

This image provided by Showbox shows a scene from "The Face Reader." (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

And he also received critical acclaim for his acting skills in many of his subsequent projects, including the historical thriller "Assassination" (2015), the war film "Operation Chromite" (2016) and the "Along With the Gods" series, which also became box office hits.

In 2021, "Squid Game," his first Netflix project, helped him gain unprecedented global fame and earn an acting prize at the SAG Awards, which only three Korean actors have won.

Now he is ready for his directorial debut with the spy thriller "Hunt," which is expected to hit local screens later this year.

Lee's prime time has not ended yet.

This image provided by Netflix shows a scene from "Squid Game." (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

brk@yna.co.kr
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