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15 Great Performances by Lee Sun-kyun

"I'll leave at least three things: my child, my films and people's memory of me." - Lee Sun-kyun as Seong-joon in "Nobody's Daughter Haewon"

On the morning of 27th, 2023, the world woke up to the shocking news that top star actor , known the world over for his performance in the Academy Award-winning “” among many other great films”, was found dead in his car, reportedly from carbon monoxide poisoning. The much-loved actor, who was the subject of a police investigation for drugs related allegations at the time, had decided to take his own life at a time when he was quite possibly at the height of success in his career.

While it is not our aim to discuss the details surrounding the case or the role that the media and the police had to play in pushing the actor to the brink, we would like a lot of his fans celebrate the fantastic legacy of work that the actor, known for his unconventional good looks, inherent charm and a unique voice, left behind for us to cherish. with that in mind, we list 15 best performances by Lee Sun-kyun, both in tv and film, in descending order.

15. (Hong Sang-soo, 2013)

A rare actor who could do both “smaller” productions as well as big-ticket blockbusters, Lee was also seen in a number of Hong Sang-soo features. Lee may have been part of an ensemble in “Our Sunhi”, his fourth and final collaboration with Hong, but alongside Jung Yu-mi, he ends up being the best part of the cast.

14. Dr Brain (Kim Jee-woon, 2021)

A popular, award-winning director on the small screen as well, Lee's first foray in a web-series came with acclaimed director Kim Jee-woon's first small screen offering “Dr Brain”. An adaptation of a webtoon, the series sees the actor play a brain surgeon who can't separate his own memories from those of the deceased with whom he performs “brain syncs” in order to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding his family's death.

13. (Jason Yu, 2023)

The final Lee Sun-kyun work to see wide release before his passing, “Sleep”, by first-time director Jason Yu, is a black comedy/horror in which Lee plays a husband who starts sleepwalking after moving into a new house with his wife and newborn. The film, which was hailed as Bong Joon-ho as “the most unique and clever movie I've seen in the last 10 years”, was well-received by both critics and audiences alike, and Lee's performance was appropriately praised as well.

12. (Ahn Pan-seok, 2007)

“Behind the White Tower” was the first hit tv drama starring Lee, for which he also ended up being nominated and winning awards. Starting out mostly as a second lead on tv, he plays Choi Do-young in “White Tower”, a straight-arrowed young doctor who often clashes with the staff and main lead, played by Kim Myung-min, at the hospital. Kim Myung-min took a lot of awards for his performance, but Lee's work too was rewarded with accolades and established the actor with the unique voice as a formidable second lead.

11. (Min Kyu-dong, 2012)

A work that just goes to show the immense range that Lee had as an actor, “All About My Wife” is a romantic comedy where Lee plays a husband who, tired of his wife's constant nagging and not having the guts to divorce her, hires a neighbour to seduce and have an affair with her. His co-stars Im Soo-jung and Ryu Seung-ryong both took all the award nominations, but Lee's often hilarious turn as Doo-hyun is equally memorable.

10. Kingmaker (Byun Sung-hyun, 2021)

Sol Kyung-gu as Park and Lee Sun-kyun as Seo give impressive antithetical performances, which manage to highlight both their acting prowess and the charisma of the people they depict. Their monologues, in political or group speeches, and their one-on-ones, are where the movie finds its apogee.

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9. (Lee Yoon-jung, 2007)

The show that elevated Lee Sun-kyun's profile nationally, Lee took on the tall task of playing second lead to heartthrob Gong Yoo and yet ended up winning hearts with his cool-guy act and that famous voice of his. Even years since its release, “Coffee Prince” remains a fan favourite, with Lee the object of “Second Lead Syndrome” for many.

8. (Park Chan-ok, 2009)

Another highly impressive arthouse entry in Lee's filmography, Park Chan-ok's second, and so far last, feature was much praised on its premiere at the Busan International Film Festival as well as at subsequent various film festival screenings across the world. Lee's role in the feature was similarly praised, with him playing the same role in two different timelines with equal conviction.

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7. (Lee Jeong-beom, 2019)

The portrait of Jo Pil-ho, as the short-tempered, crooked and violent man who changes after meeting Mi-na is quite good, with the character eventually drawing much sympathy for his actions. This aspect benefits the most by Lee Sun-kyun's performance, who anchors the film with his nuanced portrayal of a layered character.

6. Killing Romance (Lee Won-suk, 2023)

It takes a while to get used to the many excesses, used mostly for humour, in Lee Won-suk's “”, but there is no denying that Lee Sun-kyun's Jonathan Na is one of the feature's biggest asset. Hamming up every scene he is in to great effect, he manages to make Jonathan both an intensely dislikable yet completely hilarious character and stands as another fine example of the late actor's range.

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About the author

Rhythm Zaveri

Hello, my name is Rhythm Zaveri. For as long as I can remember, I've been watching movies, but my introduction to Asian cinema was old rental VHS copies of Bruce Lee films and some Shaw Bros. martial arts extravaganzas. But my interest in the cinema of the region really deepened when I was at university and got access to a massive range of VHS and DVDs of classic Japanese and Chinese titles in the library, and there has been no turning back since.

An avid collector of physical media, I would say Korean cinema really is my first choice, but I'll watch anything that is south-east Asian. I started contributing to Asian Movie Pulse in 2018 to share my love for Asian cinema in the form of my writings.

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