Okay friends! After a few rounds of housewarming, we reckon it’s time for a new adventure. How do you all feel about something a little different? And by “different”, I mean BRUTAL. But also loving. After all, we don’t want to spill too much blood on our nice new floors.
The idea is pretty simple. We tend to focus on dramas as set pieces when we talk about them on the Long Yaks, and it often feels like we’re derailing when we skip sideways into related works. We’ve always stopped ourselves from going off in the deep end with comparisons or an examination of an actor’s filmography. Yet we spend a lot of our time off-air chattering and exchanging notes and digs about whoever has our attention at the moment, especially if one of us is disappointed by someone we usually enjoy.
So we present to you The Drama Act-Off, where we pit actors against every known version of themselves, and only one can win. Like K-drama Hunger Games? But with more snacks, sparks, and general glee.
And who better to helm our inaugural Act-Off than the King himself?
Jump here if you need a quick reference on the dramas cited and Lee Min-hos invoked!
Saya: So The King: Eternal Monarch just finished airing.
Paroma: And we’re a bit…dazed. Sometimes I wake up and wonder if it was all a fever dream.
Anisa: I, meanwhile, gave up after two episodes, so I’ve been watching all this unfold with probably too much schadenfreude. Which is why Lee Min-ho is the perfect actor to start off this new feature.
Saya: Who are we throwing into the ring? I take dibs on King dude and Mermaid-man. Mainly because I will enjoy getting them drubbed in the first minute. I mean, if they even pass the physical.
Paroma: I’m taking general dude and architect dude. Guess that leaves you with City Hunter, Anisa.
Anisa: Happy to take the City Hunter, since that’s the only one that really lives on in my mind! Other than Whatshisface Curlyhead, whom I notice we’re all ignoring. But this podcast does owe a debt to Gu Jun-pyo, so I feel we should at least mention him! (Guess those are my two if we’re claiming roles.)
Saya: Aaahh I forgot about Boys Over Flowers! HA. But I could only tolerate one episode of that vicious cruelty. I was prepared to give it a chance if Gu Jun-pyo himself wasn’t evil, but he was the actual worst part, and in 2019, I was OUT. I am pretty sure I would have been the same in 2012…though I can’t guarantee 2009-me wouldn’t have been seduced by him. UGH. Thank God for upward socio-emotional development.
Anisa: I actually loved Hana Yori Dango (the first Japanese adaptation of the manga) and have rewatched it multiple times, so I started Boys Over Flowers immediately as it started airing. The contrast was highly unflattering and I dropped it two episodes in, though I went back and skip-watched/read recaps later just to see what they changed from the original.
Paroma: Should I feel ashamed to admit that I enjoyed Boys Over Flowers when I first saw it? I even rewatched it. Though I have to say, I fast forwarded through the latter half every time. It gets pretty tedious after 18-year-old Gu Jun-pyo flies off to become the CEO of his dad’s empire and pretends to forget Geum Jan-di. This also holds true for later adaptations like the Chinese Meteor Garden.
Saya: Aw, I think we can be forgiving of past selves. The only reason I think I might not have been okay even at the start of my K-drama career is because of how much I hated Hyun Bin’s similarly jerky-toxic character, Kim Joo-won, in Secret Garden (which only redeemed itself to me by ending well).
Anisa: Oh, that’s one of my secret shames—I was ALL IN on Kim Joo-won. Secret Garden was such a crack drama for me despite its egregious gender politics. But I think Boys Over Flowers occupies that same crack drama space for a lot of the fandom, so I guess Gu Jun-pyo is the gateway drug. Memorable, perhaps regrettable, but not an all-time fave.
Saya: Yeah, I think I was so spoiled on my gateway hero (Jang Geun-seok as Hwang Tae-kyung in You’re Beautiful) that nothing can ever live up to him. Though that’s an act-off for another day!
Paroma: He was definitely the one for me. The only hero who’s come close to the incomparable Hwang Tae-kyung was Kim Boong-do (Ji Hyun-woo) from Queen In-Hyun’s Man. I like my men sassy.
Anisa: My gateway hero was Choi Han-kyul (Gong Yoo in Coffee Prince), so I totally relate. But yes—we will save both of those for later!
Saya: Isn’t it weird how we sort of treat Lee Min-ho as if he was invented in 2009 with Boys Over Flowers? Which I guess in a sense, he was.
Anisa: Yeah, I always think of it as his debut.
Paroma: True. Until recently, I had no idea that he had been in other projects before Boys Over Flowers.
Saya: I am cheating and looked him up (because my mental K-drama encyclopedia has begun imploding on me) and I was surprised to see quite a slew of web dramas/minor outings between Heirs (2013) and going off to army after Legend of the Blue Sea (2016). Though I cynically wonder if they were CF tie-ins, if only to explain why it seems like he’s forgotten how to have screen presence between Faith and now. Remember Personal Taste?
Paroma: Ha! Do I!?
Saya: Isn’t it also weird to think of him paired with Son Ye-jin? Like, that’s a pairing I can’t even imagine now.
Anisa: It was weird even then, to be honest.
Saya: Oh wow, really? I was still pretty new on the drama scene then so I took it all at face value. But the difference in calibre is really difficult to equate. Like mangoes/blueberries.
Anisa: The gap in their acting certainly showed. And they did the whole her-freaking-out-because-he’s-so-good-looking thing he gets in EVERY ROLE, but the pairing didn’t feel natural. Maybe it was because it was so soon after the school uniform in Boys Over Flowers, but to me he seemed like a kid playing dress-up in adult clothes and a grown-up job.
Paroma: I remember being quite…shocked at how quiet he was in Personal Taste after Boys Over Flowers. I thought hamming was his natural state.
Saya: What, you mean he speaks more in BOF?!
Paroma: I meant more reserved! Restrained? Pfft.
Anisa: He was definitely most animated as Gu Jun-pyo—I feel like he’s gotten progressively more muted as he’s gotten older.
Saya: Lee Min-ho always reminds me of two people. One was my form tutor in sixth form—who, incidentally, was a maths teacher and far too handsome to be working in an all-girls school—anyway, though! He had a voice that was always pitched so low that you could barely hear him and I remember how I constantly had to ask him to speak up or repeat himself. (He did have facial expressions though.) The other person he reminds me of is a young Nick Carter from his early 2000s Backstreet Boys days. I had a hard time finding a picture that shows it, though—it’s much clearer in vivo.
Paroma: I…don’t see it. XD
Saya: You obviously didn’t watch enough Backstreet Boys interviews >_> Which, uh, is a virtue, and evidence of a life better spent!
Anisa: I kind of see it! A bit around the eyes and nose.
Saya: And jawline! His bone structure! Wait, why has this devolved into an analysis of his skull?
Paroma: But to paraphrase Saya’s point. Lee Min-ho reminds us all of someone very handsome.
Anisa: Not me. (Too mean? The boy just isn’t my style.)
Paroma: Noted! But, since we’re being superficial early. Can we take a moment to decide on the Most Handsome and Dashing Lee Min-ho? I vote for General Choi Young from Faith. A close second may be Lee Gon (who surely needs no introduction).
Saya: EASY. Choi Young. Oh wait, or Lee Yoon-sung?? Oh god why are you making me choose?!
Anisa: I vote for Lee Yoon-sung the City Hunter. He was effortlessly cool, and that added a lot to the appeal. Although I still love Lee Joon-hyuk the most in that drama.
Saya: Now you’re making me want to cry ;__;
Paroma: You know, Saya, I’m surprised. I thought you’d at least give our dark emperor a thought.
Saya: DAMN I FORGOT ABOUT HIM. I was too busy in my own head! My screencaps folder is feeling very betrayed right now. I think it’s because I already wrote him off as a possible winner. But…Choi Young had that Goryeo warrior hair. His hair is most superior. And armour. The whole sageuk aesthetic is fully half the reason I love sageuk.
Paroma: With a three-way tie, we’re off to a great start!
Saya: Well one thing we can say for sure: he’s good at looking good.
Anisa: Speaking of Yoon-sung though, Lee followed Personal Taste with City Hunter, which to me was the best role of his career, though I must confess that I’ve watched only three of his dramas all the way through (and Heirs was a hate-watch solely powered by my love of Kim Woo-bin).
Saya: I have a love for Yoon-sung that defies space and time. He’s such a great character: conflicted, broken, hungry for human warmth. And his acting style really fits with the character—that quiet reserve with emotions roiling under the surface. I miss that. The fact that it’s combined with my all-time favourite trope (hidden hero with dual identities!) makes it really stick in my soul.
Paroma: I will agree to all of that, yet add that I was really saddened by his transformation from wild jungle boy to city slicker. Those locks were glorious!
Saya: Actually that’s true! Jungle Boy is the freest I’ve ever seen him—the way he could laugh and light up the whole scene…there’s a lightness of heart to him that you never see again. Yoon-sungie really makes my kaseumi appa heart hurt.
Anisa: There’s an innate tragedy to Yoon-sung’s character that is actually made more powerful by the repressed way Lee Min-ho plays him, because you can see how his past has affected him in everyday ways. It’s so much more effective than the crying in showers that serves as emotional development for many a K-drama hero with Secret Pain.
Saya: And we talked about how he doesn’t do this in The King (in this Yak), which is part of what makes his character there so frustrating. Blankness isn’t a substitute for suppressed emotion, and suppressed emotion DEFINES—and powers—Yoon-sung.
Paroma: I have a theory that Lee Min-ho is the kind of actor who needs to be emotionally in a place in his life where he can tap into vulnerabilities to portray vulnerabilities on screen. He can’t just imagine the pain. The Lee Min-ho playing Yoon-sung, for whatever reason was just ready to play that role.
Saya: Aahh that’s well observed and I can believe it. It’s a really interesting take if you put it into the context of his timeline for his best roles—City Hunter in 2011 and Faith in 2012 were peak Lee Min-ho for me.
Paroma: Me too. I don’t even begrudge him Personal Taste because there was nothing wrong with his performance in it. He simply didn’t have much to do.
Saya: I keep forgetting about Personal Taste. But that was also the show: enjoyable but forgettable. No real…dazzle? Though as I think of it, it did have some really well-done elements.
Anisa: I never finished Faith, but it was no fault of the show, which was lovely and melancholy and interesting, at least the part I saw.
Paroma: If you didn’t finish it, it was ABSOLUTELY the fault of the show. I love it to death, but it was bloody convoluted.
Saya: Hey, not necessarily! I haven’t finished lots of shows that was no fault of the show! XD Sometimes you just stop watching something, for whatever reason, and you end up not going back to it. (Like me and Oh Hae-young!) Wait, why am I getting defensive about Faith when we both loved it to death? XD
Anisa: To be fair, I stopped watching early enough that the plot hadn’t really gotten going (though I could see some knots coming on the horizon), almost solely because I liked but didn’t love it, so it was easy for me to be distracted and never come back. But Lee Min-ho was certainly doing something I hadn’t seen before: bored but intriguing, with an unleashed danger to him. It actually worked for him.
Paroma: I think that’s why I got hooked on him. He did the casually cool, effortlessly lethal character so, so well in Faith! But little did I realise that those sleepy eyes would soon give way to the placidest of expressions, which he brings out into such frequent use in Heirs.
Anisa: OH HEIRS. It’s hard for me to separate my extremely negative feelings about the writing of that show from his acting, which wasn’t anything to write home about, but I can’t honestly blame him given what he had to work with. Who would be excited to play a spoiled, whiny chaebol heir who literally stalks his love interest but is still somehow the romantic hero?
Saya: I also keep forgetting about Heirs. Though I enjoyed it far more than I should have at the time, Lee Min-ho included. I think I was in the right place for it emotionally. Sometimes dramas are about timing, right? And there was something about his character in the beginning that made me feel very invested in him—he was so…lost, and the air of wistfulness about him and the early parts of his romance with Park Shin-hye really got me.
Anisa: I agree that he started out interesting, and I enjoyed his first meeting with Park Shin-hye too. But once they went back to Korea, the endless grind of his wealth and privilege on her poor and long-suffering head began to grate on me almost immediately.
Saya: I watched that show completely uncynically, though I don’t know if I could now. So though I began on the Min-ho ship, I went to the end for Kim Woo-bin.
Anisa: Kim Woo-bin forever, although his character was trash too. I did enjoy (mocking) those sweaters though. And who can forget that fuschia lipstick on the boys!
Paroma: All that pastel, like the characters lived on a lifestyle magazine cover.
Saya: Do we know why there was such a long gap between Heirs and his next drama project, Legend of the Blue Sea? He went to army after Legend, right?
Anisa: Yeah. Heirs had super low ratings, didn’t it? Or actually, that’s just me projecting my international experience onto it. Domestically ratings were fine, though not what you’d typically expect for Kim Eun-sook on a big three network.
Saya: Legend barely did much better—again, despite star writer and Jeon Ji-hyun. I still can’t 100% put my finger on what was wrong with it, though I suspect it was Park Ji-eun trying to recycle the magic of You From Another Star. But you know, a recycled product is never quite as good.
Paroma: Maybe it was the fact that the role of a charismatic con-artist needed an actor with a much higher energy level?
Anisa: Oh HA, I totally forgot he was a con-artist! The only thing I remembered about his character was that he’s rich. But which of Lee Min-ho’s roles isn’t?
Saya: Legend’s cardinal sin was that it was just boring, and all the pretty in the world couldn’t cloak it. I actually would love to see him play a villain now, you know, he’s got the mood. I don’t think it’s intentional, but he’s ended up sort of typecast…OR maybe it’s that he brings the same energy to every role and therefore they feel samey? It is hard to say XD
Anisa: I definitely don’t want to see him play a spoiled rich manbaby again. A villain or a regular guy, why not? He needs to stretch himself a bit!
Paroma: He definitely needs something to break him out of this complacency.
Saya: I think he’s really well-suited to grave characters. Not to flog a dead horse with his performance in The King: Eternal Monarch (…sorry Maximus O_O), but first-half Lee Gon is practically sleepwalking. BUT THEN: after the halfway mark, it felt like his switch flipped on and there he was, the regal king we all wanted him to be, brimming with dark gravitas and a sense of danger and melancholy.
Paroma: Yes, I will give you that. I could almost see why Kim Eun-sook spent all that time building up his legend in the drama. The music, the beats of the story, other characters, everything kept telling us Lee Gon was something extraordinary, and so we waited and waited, until finally we got a few moments when—with the aid of fantastic camera work and excellent background score—Lee Min-ho rose to the challenge and showed us a glimpse of that King. The one you could imagine people willingly taking bullets for. I’m a little bitter over how little we got to see of that much more interesting Lee Gon, to be honest.
Saya: I am loving this half so much, and each time I think that kingly moment is a fluke, he goes and does it consistently for the next few episodes and I am CRYING because where was that guy in the first half? But that also sort of works with my theory that somehow in the intervening time between Legend, going off to army, and his very active modelling career and endorsements post-discharge, that perhaps he had gotten rusty at acting. I mean, acting is a skill, and skills need practice.
Paroma: I am reluctant to agree to this. He only became kingly when he could get all avenging and flex his power as a monarch. That was enthralling, but ultimately easier to perform than the everyday charisma you need to appear kingly when sitting at a police station, mistaken for an illegal immigrant by the local constabulary.
Saya: You may be right, but it was hard to watch him barely act at all for eight episodes. Because there’s bad acting, and there’s no acting. Though I now rather regret my gung-ho “well he’s not getting better than this” comment to you guys when we were scheduling this session and Anisa asked me if I wanted to wait until I’d finished The King. Ha!
Anisa: Clearly the lesson here is that you should always listen to me.
Saya: But then this post wouldn’t exist! Readers, Anisa vetoed our choice of actor. She is here under duress. We bullied her. But we promise her Kim Ji-seok another time.
Anisa: Wait, what is this slander?! I didn’t veto him, I just enjoy making fun of him so much I was afraid of alienating readers. Also why do you think Kim Ji-seok is my all-time fave—my heart forever belongs to Gong Yoo! (I do love Kim Ji-seok dearly though.)
Saya: Whoops! XD Okay, Gong Yoo next time. Maybe. But first: one Lee Min-ho to rule them all. You may cast your votes…NOW!
Anisa: I’ll go first since mine is obvious: Yoon-sung from City Hunter. He’s cool, reserved but intense, a badass with an entire emotional journey, and he’s action over words, which always serves Lee Min-ho well.
Saya: I enjoyed hashing all this out but my vote was always a foregone conclusion in my heart: also Yoon-sung from City Hunter. That tsundere mixture of brokenness, bravado and tentative hope always kills me, and like you say, Anisa, his entire emotional arc. (Though General Choi Young is my #2! Is this cheating? I mean, the rules don’t say we can’t rank our favourites, right?)
Paroma: My vote has nothing to do with logic. General Choi Young is my man. The narcoleptic warrior who can take your head off without breaking his nap and who deals with both magic and science by just asking what is most useful in solving the problem he has right now. His pain and angst are internal and not available to be aired in public. And when he loves, he’ll wait with endless patience for a time-traveling lover to find her way back to him.
Saya: Aaahhhh STOP THIS PERSUASIVE MAGIC. This is what I mean about your convincing powers! I mean your powers of convincing! AND I ALREADY LOVE IT. Why do I feel so torn?
Paroma: Just acknowledge that the general wins, and I’ll stop.
Saya: I can’t, I’m a one-man woman *sob*
Anisa: You’re also the swing vote here. Too much pressure? *cackles*
Saya: *Gulp* I’m sticking to my vote. That’s what game theory taught me! Also, Yoon-sung needs me more and I can’t abide flip-floppery. But know that you nearly had me, Paroma.
Anisa: That means Yoon-sung wins and is The Ultimate Lee Min-ho, according to our very scientific and logical criteria.
Paroma: Hail the Emperor!
Lee Min-ho: A timeline of the ones that mattered
2009: Boys Over Flowers (Gu Jun-pyo)
2010: Personal Taste (Jeon Jin-ho)
2011: City Hunter (Lee Yoon-sung)
2012: Faith/The Great Doctor (General Choi Young)
2013: Heirs (Kim Tan)
2016: Legend of the Blue Sea (Heo Joon-jae)
2020: The King: Eternal Monarch (Lee Gon)