I can usually make up my mind really quickly about whether or not I am enjoying an actor’s acting. Just five minutes of watching Gong Hyo-jin in Pasta made my eyes light up. In just a few episodes of Scent of A Woman, Kim Sun-ah made me cry half a dozen times. And it wasn’t long before Jung Il-woo provoked stitches of laughter from me in 49 Days. However, after having watched the entire 16 episodes of the recent drama Wild Romance, I have yet to sustain a solid understanding of Jessica Jung’s acting.

I can almost hear the ensuing protests, fretfully reminding me that Jessica is not a traditionally trained actress. She is an idol. Now, there is much to be said about idol actors and much of it — I won’t say. A lot of criticism launched against them can be negative, unwarrantably harsh even. Kim Hyun-joong experienced it after his sleep inducing performance in Boys Over Flowers. DBSK’s Changmin earned his share of criticism during his role in the atrocity that was Paradise Ranch. And while some people jump too quickly to critique idols by actors’ high standard because after all, they are willingly journeying through thespian territory, it doesn’t make sense to do so. But that’s not to say that Jessica cannot be evaluated by standards of her own. The girl’s got a bit of acting credentials.

Jessica has appeared on a few television shows, mainly playing herself in various cameos. In 2008, she appeared in Unstoppable Marriage, a daily sitcom that starred fellow SNSD group members Sooyoung and Yuri. She later made an appearance on Taehee, Hye Kyo, Jihyun with GG sister Sunny. The same year she landed the lead role of Elle Woods in the South Korean musical theatre adaptation of Legally Blonde, which lasted for over a year. But her role as Kang Jeong-hee in Wild Romance would be her first significant role in a television drama. The drama stars Lee Dong-wook (as Park Mu-yeol) and Lee Si-young (as Yoo Eun-jae) as the dumb baseball player and even dumber bodyguard. While the two actors play the one true pairing, Jessica takes the role of the obligatory ex-girlfriend who, after eight years abroad and a bout with schizophrenia, has come back into the picture hoping to regain the affections of her first love. The character, although sweet, straightforward, and fragile, also shows traits of selfishness and entitlement. The role would be an opportunity for Jessica to shine and show off the acting chops that she’d acquired on the stage.

But Jessica’s acting was limited to safe, bland facial expressions, over excessively cute manners of speaking, and a weak onscreen presence. Her acting, which would have been great for a music video, did not translate well into the K-dramaverse. Although she made an effort, she was not able to relay the emotions that the scenes called for.  However, I do want to give credit where it’s due: she was not entirely terrible. In fact, how I feel about Jessica’s performance can be summed up by an exchange between Yoo Eun-jae and her friend Dong-ha about Kang Jeong-hee (Jessica’s character) in episode 13:

Yoo Eun-jae: Does someone who is loved become lovely? Or is it because someone is lovely that they are loved?

Dong-ha: Hm?

Yoo Eun Jae: I’m talking about Kang Jeong-hee. Sometimes I really can’t stand her. But then suddenly, she will become very lovely.

Sometimes, I really enjoyed Jessica’s acting. Other times, I was just plain confused. And here’s why, in my mind an idol actor possesses three identities:

  • The idol according to his/her persona. This is who we perceive the idol to be based on whether or not we like their music and appearances in the media and variety shows.
  • The idol as an actor. This is the person we see in the drama, and whom we evaluate based on their acting capabilities.
  • The idol as the character they are playing. In Jessica’s case, she plays Kang Jeong-hee, the ex-girlfriend of Park Mu-yeol and creation of drama writers.

Unfortunately for Jessica, those three identities blurred. So when her character smiled during moments that she shouldn’t have been smiling, I didn’t know if  she didn’t understand those moments as an actress, if her character was just strange, or if she just liked to smile in general. Having played several cameo roles, it seemed she was uncomfortable playing a character, so reverted back to playing herself. I couldn’t tell where Jessica the person began and Kang Jeong-hee the character ended.

She also suffered the unfortunate situation of playing a character who was all-around confusing. I wasn’t sure whether the writers wanted us to love Kang Jeong-hee or hate her; feel sympathy for her or annoyance; want her to win the guy’s love or lose it. Her character was both likable and unlikable, which can be a problem for both the viewers and the actor.

Despite Jessica’s lukewarm performance and the confusing nature of the character, I believe that she did well in boosting Wild Romance’s low ratings. And I also believe that Jessica has a lot of potential; with some more experience in K-drama land, she’ll become more consistent and will be able to call herself one of the most bankable idol actors in the industry. For those of you who watched the drama, what did you think? Perhaps you enjoyed her performance? Did Jessica portray the character poorly or did she fall victim to terrible writing?

(TV Daily, The Korea Times)