Lee Joon-gi is one good-looking guy. When I first saw him in Arang and the Magistrate, I had one of those moments where the voice that came out of the face did not match expectations. At that point, all I had known about the man was that he was popular prior to entering the military, and Arang was his comeback project. Throughout the drama, with his brash yet restrained character shining through as more than believable, his other projects drew my interest as well.
Lee Joon-gi began first as a model in 2001 for the brand So Basic, alongside Kang Dong-wan and Kim Hee-seon. He worked as a model while attending the Seoul Institute of Arts under their Theater and Film Department. It wasn’t until 2003 that he began landing small roles, starting off with a guest appearance in the fourth season of the college-life drama Nonstop, a focal role in “What Should I Do?” one of the episodes of Drama City, a collection of single episode dramas, a supporting role in Star’s Echo, a mini-series done by MBC and Fuji TV, a role in the film Flying Boys, and another supporting role in the Korean language, Japanese production The Hotel Venus.
Lee Joon-gi’s big break came unconventionally with his role in The King and the Clown as the androgynous street performer, Gong-gil, whose looks and personality draw in the King and his friends. The movie was touted for its superb acting and stands as one of the top five most viewed movies (by admissions) in South Korea. The film also ended up being South Korea’s 2006 submission to the Academy Awards for the Best Foreign Language Film category. Lee gained a plethora of awards for the film, from numerous Best New Actor recognitions to popularity awards as well.
Essentially becoming an overnight sensation, Lee has mentioned that the increased attention did get to him, making him a little full of himself. At the helm of what it meant to be a “pretty boy,” Lee was able to acquire roles in the popular drama My Girl, the film Fly, Daddy, Fly (signed for before he hit success), May 18, Virgin Snow, and another popular drama, Time Between Dog and Wolf. While most of these works did okay at best, it was the last, more popular drama mentioned that helped Lee break out of his “pretty face” dilemma established by his break-out role. His previous works all somewhat depended on his looks–being the playboy, a younger, physically weaker male character, just a role with a softer purpose. But Time Between Dog and Wolf required Lee to play a violent NIS agent, willing to go the extra length to extract the revenge he desired, thoroughly making it known that he could act outside of what was expected of him. He won the Excellence Award at the 2007 MBC Drama Awards for his efforts.
The role that established Lee Joon-gi as one of the top actors was as Lee Geom/Yong/Iljimae in Iljimae, the Robin Hood-like figure based on the comic strip of the same name. Playing both a comedic day persona and a serious thief and crimefighter by night, the drama wasn’t the only one of 2008 to use this comedic turn on a historical drama. When looking back in comparison to current dramas, some of it is rather cheesy and overdone and infuriating along the annoying route. But what is excellent about the drama is the acting. Most characters develop believable relationships that probably propelled the drama towards its ending with ratings over 30%. For the drama, Lee grabbed the Top Excellence Award at the 2008 SBS Drama Awards.
His last project before enlisting was Hero, starring Lee as a determined journalist, a quieter role in comparison to some of the previous ones. The drama wasn’t the best to leave on, not breaking single digits in ratings, but it did still get Lee the Popularity Award at the 2009 MBC Drama Awards.
In 2010, Lee signed with a new management company, JG Company Inc., legally leaving Mentor Entertainment after 2008 allegations that Lee had already signed into a new company were made. Lee and Mentor made nice, and in 2010, JG Company Inc. was officially established by Lee’s manager, intending to focus solely on Lee’s activities. Despite the new company and having signed on for the film Grand Prix and the drama Faith, which later aired in 2012 starring Lee Min-ho, Lee Joon-gi was called for military service and had to comply after a request to defer the date was denied, enlisting in May as a member of the now-defunct celebrity PR unit.
Lee was discharged in 2012, was signed with a new management company Interactive Media Mix and was ready to get back into acting. His first project post-military was Arang and the Magistrate. For the role, he trained and had input in his own action scenes. Though Lee felt a bit restricted by the director’s desires for the role of Eun-oh, by the end of the drama he had inserted his own personality into the role without compromising it. While ratings weren’t as high as desired — never breaking the 20% mark by nationwide standards — it had a solid showing for a return.
For his 2013 project, Lee Joon-gi signed on for Two Weeks, which is currently halfway through its scheduled airing. He plays Jang Tae-san, a man way down on his luck as he tries to survive for two weeks to do a bone marrow transplant for his leukemia stricken daughter–who he just met. Lee has done some pretty good action scenes tinged with desperation as he tries to do right by his daughter.
A noted part of his career is that Lee Joon-gi has managed to develop a strong fanbase in China and Japan. He’s taken part in three Korea-Japan productions, released his album in Japan, and even had a show documenting his life, Lee Joon-gi’s JG Style, on Mnet Japan that won in the Hallyu Wave category at Japan’s SKAPA Awards. His dramas’ broadcast rights regularly are purchased for airing in other countries, like Arang and the Magistrate, whose price per episode set a new record, breaking that previously held by the mega-popular The Moon Embracing the Sun and showing that his military stint did nothing to diminish his popularity overseas.
Aside from acting, Lee has released multiple single and mini-albums: My Jun My Style (2006), J Style (2009) which had a Korean and Japanese version, Deucer (2012) and Case By Case (2013). He regularly performs his songs at his fan meetings, practicing choreography and performance for his fans, so really, it’s no surprise that tickets for those meetings sell out pretty fast. He’s also released a book intending to teach the Korean language: ‘Hi Korean Language Program’ with Lee Joon-gi, released in four languages.
For his personal life, he always says some variation of being against public dating, only wanting to let the news out once he’s getting married. He’s always been image conscious, even saying that before enlisting, he was strict about where he went or who he invited, afraid of rumors. Though he’s been connected to multiple figures, none of the “scandals” have been large enough to even merit the name, leaving Lee with a fairly mark-free history.
As an actor, Lee Joon-gi has nowhere to go but up. He’s been able to demonstrate decent depth in his roles and bring out distinct personalities while improving. He’s moved well past the point of being just a “flower boy,” having ascended into his thirties and being more than capable of taking on stronger and provoking roles. Two Weeks is currently serving up some serious action, and it’ll be interesting to see which project he’ll take on next.
(Lee Joon-gi’s Official Website, Xportnews, Korea Star Daily, 10Asia , Chosun Media , Korea Times , Korean Film Council, Korea Joongang Daily, Naver, Star N News, SBS E! News, MBC, SBS, KBS, YouTube, Images via Allure)