O Song Joong-ki, Song Joong-ki.

2012 has been a wondrous year for Song Joong-ki fans, who have been waiting for much, much more than Song Joong-ki’s career had been giving him (and by extension, us).

If you look at it, it’s sort of a no-brainer that Song Joong-ki is popular. He’s cute (SO DARN CUTE), he’s quick on his feet at variety, he’s a good talker, and he’s made for being in front of the cameras.

But it’s these same reasons that confuse me so much as to why it’s taken so long for Song Joong-ki’s career to finally kick into gear.

Song, believe it or not, made his acting debut four years ago in 2008 with a very minor role in Frozen Flower. He had small roles here and there after but for someone who’s good at what he does and looks like the way he does, Song has been plagued with disappointing side gigs. His filmography, in disgruntled fanspeak (and beware of spoilers):

  • The Case of the Itaewon Homicide: Dude who gets murdered.
  • Triple: Side character dude that was essentially a minor role, but because of sheer ability and cuteness on Song’s part, was probably made more prominent. But still, minor character in an unsuccessful drama.
  • Will It Snow For Christmas?: Older brother of main female lead. Who dies in about five seconds flat.
  • Heart Paws 2: Dude with dog.
  • OBGYN: Peripherally involved doctor on a large ensemble cast of an unsuccessful drama.

Song trudged along with side roles and cameos in 2010, but it wasn’t until Sungkyunkwan Scandal that he got the boost in popularity he needed. This drama generally did well with audiences at home and abroad, thanks to a timely theme (crossdressing girls), a rabid fanbase (DBSK/JYJ fans), and a lot of eye candy. So ultimately, it was less Song’s doing and more a byproduct of him being in the right production at the right time.

The upside was that this role was probably what landed Song a spot on Running Man, a venture that turned a lot of its cast members into overnight successes (Gary, Song Ji-hyo, Gwang-soo). Song was good in front of the camera (his long time stint as host on Music Bank probably helped) and he was naturally well-loved for his participation on Running Man. Song, however, turned out to be the first permanent cast member to leave the show, citing the need to focus on acting.

As much as I liked Song Joong-ki on Running Man, I felt his talents were rather wasted. This seems like a questionable thing to complain about — having a proper channel to see an actor I liked on a consistent week-to-week basis — but I felt that Song Joong-ki’s career was an unfortunate mix of not landing the right roles early on, needing to bolster popularity through variety, and then finally picking up career momentum after a lot, lot, lot of hustling.

Within his age group of actors, Song seems to have needed to work more like a competitive idol than an actor in order to stay relevant. A lot of his peers didn’t have to rely on so many “extracurricular activities” in their career trajectories: Kim Bum, Jung Il-woo, Lee Min-ho, Yoo Ah-in, Kim Soo-hyun, Yoo Seung-ho, just to name a few.

Song Joong-ki is definitely not an actor who has to rely on looks or an image, because he’s good at what he does. I just wonder why it took so long for him to get to the proverbial “here.” It does seem rather unfortunate that the industry — especially the K-pop one! — relies a lot on career luck and Song Joong-ki is a good example of someone who didn’t have the instant success that you might have thought he would’ve attained.

Sometimes things just happen, pick up momentum, and never stop. See another perfect example: Joo Won. He debuted with a blockbuster Baker King as second lead, slided into main-ish lead in another hit Ojakyo Brothers, filmed a movie or two, and then got cast in 1 Night 2 Days, his official entry into to Hallyu stardom. After that, Joo sailed right into Gaksital, and is now filming for another lead role. Is Joo Won a good actor? He’s decent. Is he great? Not in a way that makes me believe that he’s worthy of a resume that consists 90% of lead roles.

But the industry is funny like that, because compare Joo with Yoon Shi-yoon, who co-starred with Joo as main lead in Baker King. Yoon, the poor guy, is the very opposite of Joo Won in terms of career. Yoon is a much more masterful actor, but his career did not parallel Joo’s in any manner, despite being the quintessential successful K-drama guy on paper.

This is the same case with Song, except with Song, he had to dabble in a little bit of everything to get to where he is now. (I also blame the fact that he’s got such a baby face. Casting directors probably can’t help it if they think that the extent of Song’s prowess is to act with fluffy animals.)

Things began to take an upswing for him in the second half of 2011, when he filmed his first lead role in a film with Han Yeh-seul. He was then tapped to play the young king in Tree With Deep Roots, the older of whom was played by Han Seok-kyu. His on-screen appearance was brief, but it left an impression with viewers, so much so that his later cameo was probably bolstered by the waves of positive response to his brief four-episode stint in the beginning.

The tides began to turn. This year, Song landed a great role in Werewolf Boy and a lead drama role in Nice Guy, the former of which is still doing extremely well with domestic sales and the latter of which just wrapped after a pretty successful run. I can’t pretend I have a lot of positive things to say about Nice Guy, but Song’s Kang Ma-ru character is exactly the kind of heavier, more dramatic role I’ve been itching for Song to get for years, and he more than delivered.

Song proved with Nice Guy that he can be dark and intense at the drop of a hat. He’s the kind of actor that can skillfully weave in and out of ferocity and vulnerability, and his two projects from this year illustrate that to a T. He was demanding and slick in Nice Guy, soft and lost in Werewolf Boy. Spoiler alert! He virtually has no lines in Werewolf, but he delivers silence with emotion and nuance. There’s probably no better test of an actor’s skill than a role that requires no speaking, just emoting, and Song did an amazing job with his werewolf boy character.

I don’t know what Song Joong-ki has lined up for him in 2013, but he’s finally getting the roles I’d wish he could’ve landed earlier on in his career, and I can’t wait to see what projects he will pick next. After such a successful 2012, I don’t think he’ll ever play anything less than lead in his future roles, so I hope for his sake that he can keep taking on brilliantly dramatic characters to flex his acting muscle even more.

(Images via 1st Look, Customellow, High Cut, Vogue)