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Squid Game’s Lee Jung-jae has been around for a lot longer than you think – here’s where else you might have seen the Korean actor and why he has been surprised by the surge in his popularity on social media. Photo: Netflix

Who is Squid Game star Lee Jung-jae? A K-drama fan’s appreciation of his roles in City of the Rising Sun, Il Mare and The Housemaid, and his hot-bod look in Typhoon

  • Lee Jung-jae starred alongside Jun Ji-hyun in Il Mare, and in the erotic thriller The Housemaid, which also starred the brilliant Jeon Do-yeon and Youn Yuh-jung
  • The actor remains by and large unknown to international audiences, and Squid Game viewers may be more familiar with actors like Gong Yoo, of Train to Busan fame
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Back in the early 2000s, when I binged so hard on Korean dramas and films on VCDs (video compact discs) that my television set literally went up in smoke, Lee Jung-jae was already a familiar name to me and other hallyu (or Korean Wave) fans.

Like his contemporaries Lee Byung-hun, Jung Woo-sung, Bae Yong-joon and Jang Dong-gun, the now 48-year-old actor was a much sought after leading man, especially after his award-winning turn in City of the Rising Sun (1999).

He went on to star alongside Jun Ji-hyun in Il Mare (2000), which I enjoyed but which did quite poorly at the box office; he then fell off my radar until 2010 when he resurfaced in the erotic thriller The Housemaid, which also starred the brilliant Jeon Do-yeon and Youn Yuh-jung (who won best supporting actress at this year’s Academy Awards for her role in Minari).

I didn’t find this film particularly memorable, but Lee’s performance as the scheming husband was solid.

Lee (left) and Jun Ji-hyun in a still from Il Mare (2000). Photo: Blue Cinema

He then dropped off my radar again. Granted, these days I have not been following the K-drama/K-movie scene as closely and avidly as I used to.

I was, therefore, quite pleasantly surprised to see Lee – now a veteran actor – in the latest Netflix smash hit, Squid Game. Even more surprising is that he has completely shed his typical leading character look to play Seong Gi-hun, a middle-aged, debt-ridden gambling addict. And he is pretty good in this role – a tad over the top at times perhaps but, hey, this is a survival-themed, Battle Royale-type show, so caricature is allowed.

His appearance in Squid Game is – as his legions of fans will attest – a far cry from the muscular hot bod that he is in real life (he started out as a fashion model) and from his action-man roles in previous films. Check out Lee in the beach scene in Kwak Kyung-taek’s Typhoon (2005) and you will see what I mean.

Lee in the movie Typhoon (2005). Photo: IMDB
While an established name in South Korea, Lee remains by and large unknown to the wider international audience – well, until now. In fact, more viewers around the globe will probably recognise Gong Yoo, of Train to Busan (2016) fame, who puts in a cameo appearance in the show. Lee was already a big name in the entertainment business when 42-year-old heartthrob Yoo was starting out in K-drama Coffee Prince (2007).

Despite the success of his latest outing, Lee has remained humble and has been quoted as saying he didn’t expect Squid Game to be this popular all over the world and that he has been surprised by the surge in his popularity on social media.

Lee in a still from Netflix’s Squid Game. Photo: Netflix

I am not a big fan of Lee but, judging from the films I’ve seen him in, I find him a versatile actor who can convincingly play both good and bad guy.

So, for those who have just discovered Lee Jung-jae, if you like him in Squid Game, I’d highly recommend you dig up some of his old films and dramas, as you will certainly appreciate him as an actor even more today.