Welcome to ACTING UP, the place where we celebrate standout performances in TV, streaming and film. Other than spotlighting exceptional work from recent projects, this feature also shines a light on how certain actors got where they are today. Have a peek and then check out these notable performances to help hone your craft.
(The full nine-episode series dropped on Netflix September 17th.)
From the “Red Light, Green Light” memes to the billions of TikToks, the new Korean dystopian drama Squid Game landed a few weeks ago like a giant, prehistoric monster on American soil, wrapping its tentacles tightly around our culture with no sign of letting go anytime soon.
Much like the phenomenal Korean Oscar-winning film, Parasite (2019), Squid Game is dark, intensely violent and hard not to watch – despite the dubbing in English (which is comical at times). But none of it matters because this seductive survival game where hundreds of desperate souls are thrust into a Hunger Games-like setting is deliciously binge-able to the nth degree.
At the center of it all is Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae). From the moment he steals money from his mother to go the races, we realize this full-grown man-child has a sickness. His money goes fast – and even when he wins, he loses. Devastating not just for him, but his little girl who he promises things to on her birthday that he suddenly can’t deliver after a pickpocketing incident.
When this down-on-his-luck soul gets an offer he can’t refuse from a slap-happy mystery man, Gi-hun’s life changes dramatically – and whether it’s for the better is anyone’s guess. What then happens to this desperate dude in debt is really for you to see once you inevitably gobble up this series (if you haven’t already). Most Americans are watching the dubbed version (the Netflix default), but you can change it to subtitles in settings. Both diverge a bit from creator Hwang Dong-hyuk’s original script, but whichever you watch, Gi-hun’s journey is mesmerizing to watch, gut-wrenching at times.
Not only is he suffering from a sickness, but he’s compelled to entertain this rather deathly competition to make money for his mother’s surgery so she doesn’t lose a foot to diabetes. Not to mention, he owes a ton of money to thugs that like to take liberties with his face. Throughout it all, the pain and heartache is splayed across the face of Gi-hun thanks to Jung-jae’s portrayal. You shuttle between feeling sorry for him – and blaming him for it all. But because of this actor’s gifts, you can’t help but feel empathy even as you know he gets what he deserves.
But this character evolves as Squid Game plays out. As Gi-hun becomes a leader in his group –we start to see a good human there who seems to be employing these traits less as a survival skill. And although we might not be hearing the exact words this character says if you watch the dubbed American version, one thing is clear: As the games go on, we become sympathetic to Gi-hun’s plight, a testament to the way Jung-jae plays this tortured character in Squid Game.
And that’s a win for us all.
Though Jung-jae’s face may not be recognizable to the American mainstream public, it should be said that the 48-year-old actor is relatively a household name in his native South Korea.
The Seoul-born actor began his career as a fashion model. Then, in the mid-to-late ‘90s, he pivoted to acting, receiving considerable Korean acclaim as a breakout in TV series Sandglass (1995) before appearing in the well-known films An Affair (1998) and City of the Rising Sun (1998), where he was awarded Best Actor at the Blue Dragon Film Awards in the same year.
After some career ups-and-downs, Jung-jae’s career has experienced a resurgence in the past decade-plus as he’s starred in several notable projects including The Housemaid, an erotic thriller that took Cannes Film Festival by storm in 2010. Then, soon after that, when he starred in The Thieves (2012), a heist film that became the second-highest-grossing film ever in Korea.
Incidentally, Jung-jae also starred in a film called Tik Tok (2016), which is another place you can experience Jung-jae on the reg given #squidgame has received 28B+ views (and counting) on the social media platform. As for Jung-jae’s other hobbies, the Korean star reportedly also had ambitions to be an interior designer early on in his career – and the skill has leant well to his creative visions for his chain of upscale Italian restaurants in Seoul named after his film Il Mare.
Now, much like global phenom Psy whose Gangnam Style played to 4B+ views on YouTube, this Squid Game star is destined to slide into a new phase of his Hollywood career as the star of the massively successful series that could usurp Bridgerton as Netflix most-watched show ever.
Where Jung-jae appears next, we’ll just have to stay tuned.
Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.