Filming recently began on the set of The Heirs, possibly the most highly anticipated K-drama of 2013. With Lee Minho in the leading man role, and as several of us predicted, Park Shin-hye as the leading lady, the show has all of the necessary star power to make a splash. However, Lee Minho, for all his wonderful qualities, has not had consistent success with good scripts or production values. There are two ways that fans respond to the duress of this reality: some will love everything Lee Minho does no matter how terrible it is, and the rest of us will quake with terror that he’ll do something that we’ll all regret. The fans who fall into the latter category are right to be concerned.
Even so, Lee Minho is the actor that seems to be almost universally adored, and in that sense, his success can seem inevitable. Sure, there are other idols that are beloved. But none of them starred in one of the most successful K-dramas of all time, 2009’s Boys Over Flowers, as Gu Jun-pyo, the guy who was so hot that not even a disastrous hair style could mar his beauty. For all the awful artificial curls on his head and the many outrageous outfits, there was an undeniable charisma and vulnerability that made us love Jun-pyo anyway, even when he was being a complete, self-involved idiot, which was a lot of the time. And with that, K-drama fans around the world were infected with Lee Minho fever.
It’s obvious that the biggest question for any actor in this position, and his management, is how to make sure that not only is no one cured of their fever, but that the fever spreads. Unfortunately, Lee’s next show Personal Taste (2010) ended up being a mixed bag. It didn’t seem to require much effort from Lee, and the plot had loose ends that never got wrapped up. His chemistry with co-star Son Ye-jin was acceptable but nothing like his romance with Gu Hye-sun in Boys Over Flowers.
While the show dealt with a heavy social topic, the acceptance of gay people in larger society, in a somewhat progressive way, even this felt more superficial and lazy than what we’ve seen in more light hearted dramas like For the Beautiful You. It all just felt a little subpar. While not every production can be epic like BOF, Personal Taste seemed particularly mediocre, possibly because it was a lower budget MBC production instead of a high value KBS production like BOF. MBC’s target audience in Korea agreed, and the show never achieved better than run-of-the-mill ratings.
Lee’s reign at the top might have been a very short one were it not for the brilliant choice of SBS’s City Hunter (2011) for his next drama. Although City Hunter premiered 9th nationally in daily shows, by the third episode it jumped to number four and stayed in the top three for most of the rest of its run. It went on to great international success. For anyone who has seen the first episode, none of this is surprising, since it’s possibly one of the most legendary drama premieres in recent times. It comes complete with international espionage, politicians who betray their countrymen, and a child raised as a soldier for revenge only to grow up to be an MIT PhD-holding, gorgeous computer prodigy who can beat almost anyone in a street fight.
The Lee Minho that everyone loved in Boys Over Flowers reappears, this time with better hair, a wardrobe designed to compliment his statuesque body, and some killer fighting moves. In addition, opposite leading lady Park Min-young, the viewer is reminded that Lee is indeed capable of comporting himself with the onscreen gravitas necessary for a truly successful leading man. After City Hunter, it wasn’t difficult to imagine Lee Minho as an action hero on the big screen.
Indeed, at this time last year, it seemed like the world was Lee Minho’s oyster. He had proven that he had it all: looks, an acceptable emotional range, a figure designed for catwalks, and the ability to convincingly execute fight scenes. For good reason, audiences prepared for 2012’s Faith with great anticipation, expecting the best. Unfortunately, their faith in that effort was completely, utterly disappointed. The worst part might have been how difficult it is to distribute the blame. At points it was obvious that the director had made some disastrous choices, as had the stylists and whoever thought Kim Hee-sun and Lee Minho would look good together on screen.
But the majority of the blame has to fall on the writer’s shoulders. While Song Ji-na is a veteran writer who is no stranger to brilliant success, it’s clear that something went wrong with Faith. City Hunter had shown us that Lee Minho is capable of a version of stoic that doesn’t forgo emotional depth, and Song may have decided to experiment with this. In the end, Lee Minho’s character in most episodes of Faith is essentially the City Hunter stripped of all of the human emotional undercurrent that made him so appealing.
Meanwhile, Kim Hee-sun is beyond annoying as Dr. Yoo Eun-soo. Her character is also unbelievably stupid. Literally, it’s not believable that a surgeon would be as stupid as she is. For those of us who slogged through the show, it was a labor of love for one of the actors appearing in it. We were rewarded at the end with one of the better written and paced series finales, but unfortunately, not a lot of people were watching at that point, with the show closing out at 15th.
Since then Lee Minho has been on the fanmeet circuit, even putting out an album. It’s not great, and his management was clear that this was just Lee going out of his way to provide premium fanservice. When it was announced that he would be starring in Heirs, of course many were excited at the prospect of Lee Minho because who doesn’t want more Lee Minho? Well, maybe jealous significant others everywhere.
But, the show has already managed to be disappointing. Although they have snagged such a stellar cast that some TV executives were complaining about it, the show sounds, well, a lot like Boys Over Flowers. Lee Min-ho will again play a member of a Chaebol family, except this time he’ll be the younger brother. Meanwhile Geum Jan-Dee, whoops I mean Cha Eun-sung, is to be played by the talented Park Shin-hye, who is fresh off the success of Flower Boy Next Door. See what happened there? The cast is looking good, but the plot sounds like it could be a lazy rip-off, except this time with surfing and a leading man that possibly will actually speak English.
It may be that Kim Eun-sook of Secret Garden fame will be able to write a series that doesn’t just look like a reshashing of Boys Over Flowers. We’ll see in October, assuming everything goes according to schedule. But, if you were feeling skeptical about it, you’re probably justified. After Personal Taste and Faith followed up excellent dramatic choices, it’s hard not to be worried about the inconsistency of Lee Minho’s portfolio. But, for a lot of us, that probably won’t matter too much. We’re going to be watching, even if we’re cringing the whole time.