Lee Byung-hun is a South Korean actor, singer, and model who has garnered international recognition with his performance in Korean and Hollywood film. He is a master thespian whose work has received both critical acclaim and commercial success. Hailing from an affluent family, he made his acting debut at 21 years of age in the KBC drama ‘Asphalt My Hometown’. He made his big screen debut four years later in the romantic comedy ‘Who Drives Me Crazy’. However, it was the mystery thriller ‘Joint Security Area’ that made him a star. The film set a new record for the highest grossing Korean movie of all time. In the ensuing years, he demonstrated his versatility and range by taking up roles in films, such as the gangster action drama ‘A Bittersweet Life’; action western ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Weird’; psychological thriller ‘I Saw the Devil’; historical drama ‘Masquerade’; and political crime drama ‘Inside Man’. At the height of his career in Korea, Hollywood came calling. He has appeared in several US blockbusters, including ‘G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra’ and its sequel ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation’, ‘Terminator Genisys’, and ‘The Magnificent Seven’. Lee is an accomplished singer as well, having released his first and only album, ‘Lee Byung-hun – To Me’, in 1999.
Childhood & Early Life
Lee Byung-hun was born on July 12, 1970, in Gwangju, a city in the South Korean province of Gyeonggi to parents Lee Jong-kun and Park Jae-soon. Son of a successful businessman father, he grew up in relative comfort, surrounded by a loving family. He was self-admittedly a mischievous child. His only sister, Eun-hee Lee, won the 1996 Miss Korea beauty pageant.
His love for cinema first bloomed at an early age. While he majored in French Literature from the Hanyang University, he was sure that he wanted to change his field. He went on to study Theatre and Cinematography at the Graduate School of Chung-Ang University.
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Having finished his education, Lee Byung-hun enlisted for the 14th annual public audition hosted by the Korean Broadcast System in 1991. He was accepted and subsequently debuted on television in the TV drama ‘Asphalt My Hometown’, portraying the character of Jinwoo.
Over the next decade, he would gradually carve out a place for himself, even while facing the immense competition in Korean television, with projects such as ‘Family’ (1991), ‘Tomorrow Love’ (1992), ‘Police’ (1993), ‘Asphalt Man’ (1994), ‘White Nights 3.98’ (1998), and ‘Beautiful Days’ (2001).
Despite his success on the small screen, the films he did in the early years of his career were forgettable. Since making his cinematic debut with ‘Who Drives Me Crazy’ in 1995, he worked on one small project after another like ‘Runaway’ (1995), ‘Kill the Love’ (1996), ‘Elegy of the South’ (1997), and ‘The Harmonium in My Memory’ (1999), none of which was commercially successful.
Director Park Chan-wook’s film ‘Joint Security Area’ changed all that. Released in 2000, the film catapulted Lee into stardom. He won his first Grand Bell Award for the best new actor for his portrayal of Sergeant Lee Soo-hyuk of the South Korean army. Director Quentin Tarantino has listed the film as one of his top 20 favourite movies since 1992.
He followed this with the offbeat film ‘Bungee Jumping of Their Own’ (2001). In the following year, he provided his voice in his first animated film, ‘My Beautiful Girl, Mari.’ He also starred in the thriller ‘Addicted’, which was later remade into an American film titled ‘Possession’ (2009).
He was cast in the Seoul Broadcasting System’s (SBS) ‘All In’, a thriller drama inspired by the life of professional poker player Jimmy Cha, co-starring Song Hye-kyo and Ji Sung. Following its conclusion, Lee took a six-year hiatus from television.
Not someone to rest on his laurels, Lee chose ‘Everybody Has Secrets’ (2004), a sexual comedy for his next project. He was part of the international East Asian horror film collaboration ‘Three... Extremes’ (2004). Teaming up with filmmaker Park Chan-wook in his ‘Cut’ segment, he played a film director tormented by an extra from his previous films.
In 2005, he shifted gears again to portray a mobster and enforcer in the crime drama ‘A Bittersweet Life.’
Lee had been on the radar of US filmmakers from a long time, but the live action ‘G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra’ (2009) was meant to be his Hollywood debut. While the film based on children’s toys was not considered the ideal choice to introduce a prolific actor such as him to the international audience, it did bring him widespread exposure and lead to other opportunities.
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In Hollywood, he shared the screen space with Bruce Willis (‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation’ and ‘Red 2’); Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, and Anthony Hopkins (‘Red 2’); Arnold Schwarzenegger (‘Terminator Genisys’); and Denzel Washington (‘The Magnificent Seven’).
His upcoming projects include ‘The Fortress’, a historical drama about the second Manchu invasion of Korea in 1636, set for a late 2017 release and Choi Sung-hyun’s drama ‘My World Only’, which is in its post-production stage.
In 2009, Lee Byung-hun stared in the espionage television drama series ‘Iris’ alongside Kim Tae-hee and Jung Joon-ho. Playing the role of Kim Hyun-jun, a soldier with the South Korean Special Forces, he received five KBS Drama Awards that year, including the Grand Prize (Daesang).
His portrayal of Gwanghae, the 15th Joseon king of Korea, in the Choo Chang-min’s directorial venture ‘Masquerade’ garnered him several best actor awards, including his first Grand Bell in that category. The film is considered to be one of most influential Korean costume-dramas of all time.
The 2015-release ‘Inside Man’ is arguably his best work to date. Written and directed by Woo Min-ho, the film has become the highest grossing R-rated movie in the history of Korean cinema.
Awards & Achievements
In September 2010, Lee Byung-hun was named as the ambassador for California's tourism promotion to Korea.
Lee Byung-hun won the Best Actor prize in three award ceremonies--52nd Baeksang Art Awards, 37th Blue Dragon Awards and 53rd Grand Bell Awards—for his role in the critically acclaimed film ‘Inside Men’ in 2015.
He is one of the two first two South Korean actors to put the imprints of their hands and feet on the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, Los Angeles, the other being veteran actor Ahn Sung-ki.
Lee Byung-hun and his future wife, actress Lee Min-jung, were briefly in a relationship in 2006. In 2012, they started dating again. They were married on August 10, 2013 at the Grand Hyatt Seoul. On March 31, 2015, their first child, a son, Lee Joon-hoo was born.
In mid-2014, he found himself involved in a blackmail scandal when model Lee Ji-yeon and singer Dahee from K-pop girl group GLAM demanded money from him, threatening to reveal a compromising video of him making sexual jokes if he did not acquiesce. He reached out to the police on September 2, registering a report about the extortion at the Gangnam Police Station. The women later admitted to the charges and were sentenced to one year imprisonment in a hearing at the Seoul District Court on January 15, 2015.
Following this, there were a lot of rumours of infidelity, which Lee vehemently denied. In July 2015, he issued a public apology for the incident.