My Favorite Korean Drama Actresses
Let's be honest - most actors and actresses in the Kdrama scene are purely there for their looks, with very few actually having true acting abilities. Consequently, there are only a few actors that I actually enjoy watching and find likable in and of themselves, especially in the recent era of younger, idol-turned-actress domination in the Kdrama landscape.
I'm going to admit that as a fellow lady, I am much more critical of female roles, which have a tendency to be written in broad, simplistic strokes with "hard-working" yet unrealistically beautiful leads that I find hard to relate to. That said, there are certain actresses that somehow manage to bring their A-game to nearly all of their roles and are able to transform even the most one-dimensional of parts into something complex and easy to root for. Below are the ladies that I either respect for their talent or just plain like - you know, the ones who seem like genuinely good people who are dedicated to what they do. Just to caveat, I'm a little behind on Kdramas from the past couple years, and thus have a bias towards stars of the mid-2010s era.
Shin Hye Sun
Shin skyrocketed through the ranks almost overnight a few years back, and for very good reason. My Golden Life (and what I saw of Stranger) completely won Shin over to me, making up for a rather annoying second lead role in Legend of the Blue Sea. Those who haven't yet seen MGL should absolutely give it a chance, as I found it to be incredibly compelling and addictive to watch (though slightly plodding in the first 10 episodes). There's no question though that the show owes its success and heart completely to Shin. Her entire being was on the screen, and she showcased Ji An so completely and richly from the very start, making my heart wrench for her and carrying me with her journey towards reconciling with her circumstances and family.
Hymn of Death only further sealed my love, while also drawing out my tears and making me wish for another, happier collaboration between Shin and Lee Jong Seok. I'm hoping for more exciting and high profile roles for her going forward, as she's truly a genuine talent, with a very high relatability factor.
Interesting how time has really done her great favors, and resulted in her strangely meteoric rise from a moderate rom-com star of low quality dramas like How to Meet a Perfect Neighbor (which I borderline hated her in, especially at the start) to becoming one of the go-to international Korean female actresses. I think it has to do with her unique, doll-like appearance, which caters well to the sci-fi genre of her defining works. What I respect is that Bae isn't afraid to branch out and do more mature roles, and was one of the first and only ones in this list to delve into darker crime dramas and horrors. I also have to say she's a much better fit in those darker dramas vs. substanceless Kdrama romances. In those settings, she manages to come across as a grounding presence, making you root for her characters and for her to get out of whatever disaster scenario she's in.
Her role in Kingdom comes most recently to mind, and her nurse character was easily my favorite alongside Joo Ji Hoon's prince in Kingdom. What I also love is that her roles are about much more than the romance - she plays sharp-witted leading ladies who are truly a friend and equal to her male leads, with the vapid and often cringey romantic moments distracting us from the crux of the story. Truly a unique actress in this often shallow landscape, and one that I hope continues to pick thought-provoking and edgy works.
Moon Chae Won
I think she's one of the most universally liked Kdrama actresses, and for good reason. Moon emerged from rundown second-lead roles and managed to gain her place as a leading lady through pretty much strong acting chops and charisma alone. While she's pretty, she's certainly not the conventional type of doll-like beauty the K-drama industry goes for, yet the fact that she won over audiences regardless demonstrates her sheer talent.
I've liked her characters and performances in almost all of the leading roles I've watched her in, from It's Okay, Daddy's Girl to The Good Doctor and of course The Princess' Man. Nice Guy was an exception, but I think that's because I like her better when she's playing what feels more true to her (aka a kind and open personality) rather than trying unnaturally to be cold and stiff. Her success and ability to deliver even in the worst of dramas is due entirely to her skills and charm (unlike many other actresses, who seem to flail without end even in good roles). Now please do more dramas!
Kim So Yeon
Another popular actress with probably the most solid acting chops of the group. Kim particularly stands out to me because she's the star of my favorite Kdrama ever, Prosecutor Princess. When I look back, I'm still amazed at how she managed to take a character that would be all too easy to play shallowly and come across as despicable, yet made her into someone vulnerable, lovable and genuinely exhibit growth along the way.
She's also an incredibly versatile actress, though I will be among the first to say that her recent projects have been more misses (I may go back to her Netflix drama One More Happy Ending, but really wasn't impressed with the quality or plot in the first 15 mins). I also didn't really care for her rather whiney character in I Need Romance 3, but then again her presence motivated me to sit through the whole series. She has that spark, and while unfortunately I don't think she'll be on the receiving end of many leading drama projects (the industry really seems to lean towards younger actresses and roles), I'm looking forward to seeing whatever she does next.
Lee Bo Young
Yes, it definitely helps to have one great project, and especially since that one great project happens to be the only one I've seen with her. I wouldn't say she's an actress that I'd follow through any project, but anyone who's able to deliver the performance she did in I Hear Your Voice deserves a spot here.
Seriously, she has the acting chops and such gracefulness on the screen. She's one I need to keep more of an active eye out on.
I've watched Jang since her Kdrama comeback with Baby Faced Beauty, but it wasn't until Fated to Love You that I really was won over. While that drama wore me out, I found her so pleasant to watch, and someone you can find both adorable but also really likable. I think it's partly because she looks and often acts like a little girl, but she's so cute and sweet it just works.
She also comes across as completely real in her roles, both in FTLY and Go Back Spouses. You know, like an actual flesh and blood person rather than a recited character. Very few actors are able to deliver that, and that's what makes her so endearing. That said, a number of her recent works have been very close to unwatchable, including The Last Empress and One More Happy Ending, both of which featured protracted storylines and a nearly laughable low budget feel (especially Empress). Sometimes I think she aims more for volume than quality in her works, but that said she will always be the one good thing about any project she takes on.
Yoo Inna really can be hit or miss, and while she has this rather ditzy persona in terms of the roles she typically takes on, she's cute and can be very charming and hilarious in a rom-com setting. I absolutely adored her in Touch Your Heart as well as the major hit that brought her to the forefront, Queen In Hyun's Man, both of which featured male leads that she had sizzling chemistry with. Unfortunately, I also feel she often gets the poorly written "pretty face" type of roles that don't give her much room to do anything, most spectacularly seen in My Secret Hotel. That drama really took a nosedive after the change in writer, plus featured a prick of a male lead, but it also did her no favors in terms of how shallow her character was written.
She also tends to pick disappointing second-lead roles that typecast her as either a villain or a pretty vase, such as in My Love from the Star, You are the Best! and Goblin. Particularly in Goblin, I found her entire character really lackluster and frustrating, although I attribute much of the blame to the writing. It did feel like Kim So Hyun completely outshone her in portraying Kim Sun, imbuing her with more depth in a few minutes than Yoo did in the whole series. But Yoo seems nice enough as a person, and can be so so funny and cute. It also boggles my mind that she's 37 now, when she looks exactly the same as she did nearly a decade ago in In Hyun. I do hope she'll continue to take leading roles and am excited to follow her to her next one.
Kim Nam Joo
Kim is no doubt the absolute queen of the list, and one who's dramas I still need to catch up on. Queen of Reversals remains one of my favorite dramas in memory, and completely solidified her talent to me. You can't crush it in a difficult, multi-dimensional role like Hwang Tae Hee and not come out winning people's respect. Kim exudes a natural confidence yet humor throughout, and while I unfortunately found her character more grating in Queen of Housewives, I know she can bring it in her roles and be the older career woman we all aspire to. Here's to hoping she continues to get interesting and fulsome parts
Gong Hyo Jin
It took me years to warm up to her, as some of her earlier roles were just purely unlikable, with her portraying downright aggravating leading ladies. Those included the old school classic Sang Doo! Let's Go to School which had me on Rain's side the whole time, and the overly artsy and pedantic It's Okay It's Love. Thankfully, she's now won me over in several projects, each of which showcase her unbeatable ability to bring forth the most quirky yet compassionate characters. Most recently this included her lovely Dong Baek in When the Camellia Blooms, and I've also loved her in Master's Sun and Jealousy Incarnate (which is one of my favorite dramas ever - so incredibly unique and stirring, you have to just watch it). In the right role, you just can't help but like her. She does wacky like nobody else, and while I do think she needs to change it up else risk playing too many of the same characters, for now I'll enjoy it.
Hwang Jung Eum
Hwang is one of those actresses that I like but really wish she would pick better projects. She can be so mesmerizing and intense, as in Secret which is the single role that put her on this list, but then she'll go and put out overly shrieky and overbearing performances like her exaggerated lead in Kill Me, Heal Me and Incarnation of Money. Even worse, her more recent drama choices feature her playing outright idiots, a la She was Pretty and Lucky Romance. Also I'm sorry to be superficial but she really also needs to be ok with having a good, longer hairdo in a drama vs. some of the distractingly unflattering boy cuts she sports in most roles. I almost think she does it on purpose to ham up the doofus aspect of some of her roles, perhaps afraid she'll otherwise be too pretty.
Overall, I want her to learn to tone it down and not try to be so over the top, because frankly it isn't funny so much as annoying. I'm keeping the faith though - maybe her upcoming drama will finally hit that sweet spot.
Lee Shi Young
Lee Shi Young has long been underrated in my opinion, as she's one of those actresses whose characters I like pretty much regardless of role. She's gorgeous, but also seems honestly nice and so incredibly cool and laid back. I recall reading an interview years ago about how she took up boxing to lose weight but ended up loving the sport enough to compete in it, which is just about the most kickass thing I've heard of.
Back in her early career she was usually delegated to playing the pretty but catty second-leads, as she did to a tee in Playful Kiss (and candidly was one of the best parts of that drama) or her delusional, obsessive character in Boys Over Flowers (which was what launched her career). The only leading role I've seen her in to date was the messy and very strange Wild Romance, where her tomboyish character and cute chemistry with a goatee'd Lee Dong Wook carried me through all manners of crazy plot twists (including a very out of place murder plot).
That said, as I review her filmography now in 2020, I realize she's been the lead in a huge slate of dramas, which means I have a lot of binge watching to do!
Lee Da Hae
It's a pity she hasn't been in many roles, and has received so much criticism for her over-botoxed appearance (which tbh is so distracting that I agree with). Despite this, I really like her and think she's a fairly strong actress when in the right roles. She's definitely a case where my opinion changed for the better with time. Back in My Girl, I found her borderline annoying a rather anemic actress, although there's no doubt I mightily enjoyed that drama and her romance with a charismatic young Lee Dong Wook. But then Miss Ripley came along. It was partly a timing thing, because thematically Miss Ripley aired at a point when I just really craved a drama with an anti-heroine, and I ate it up when it released, even while recognizing in retrospect that it was a fairly mediocre drama. Lee Da Hae more than delivered though in the role, and even though the drama itself went out with a whimper, I was pleasantly surprised by her.
Also around that time, I also saw her in a Chinese talk show where she famously displayed her surprising Mandarin abilities. I wasn't much impressed at the time, but looking back she just seemed so sweet and industrious in real-life that you can't help but want to support her. The last thing I saw her in was Hotel King, which reignited my love of her together with Lee Dong Wook, and where she played the angsty heiress role to a tee. She's definitely one of the best on this list in darker genres, and I do hope she comes back to the Korean drama landscape soon as I just can't stomach dubbed and cheesy Chinese dramas.
I'm sure I may have missed a few actresses that I'll think of later, but hopefully this provides a fairly comprehensive list of leading ladies across the Korean drama landscape. Note I purposely didn't include a few well-known leading ladies, because I just either don't get their appeal or don't like them all that much. Going through this list was quite fun though because it's inspired me to start catching up on dramas they've done that I've yet to see. Would love to know your favorites as well and what you think of my list!