Song Joong-ki
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Song Joong-ki in a still from The Battleship Island (2017). The Korean actor has risen to superstar status in a little over a decade.

The making of Song Joong-ki: six formative film and TV roles that charted the Korean actor’s evolution into a superstar

  • Song made his film debut in period action-drama A Frozen Flower in 2008, where he had few lines but appeared throughout the movie
  • His leading role in underrated 2011 film Penny Pinchers remains one of his best, while his post-military drama Descendants of the Sun became a huge global hit

Last month was a special one for fans of Korean film and television. One of the country’s biggest stars returned to screens in not just one but two major new projects.

Two years after the drama series Arthdal Chronicles, Song Joong-ki is back with the sci-fi action-drama Space Sweepers and the mafia-infused action-comedy drama Vincenzo, both streaming worldwide on Netflix.

Song has captured the hearts of viewers ever since his debut more than a decade ago. Thanks to his steadily maturing performances, he has won the respect of anyone who wasn’t already enthralled by his clear skin, bright smile and easy charm.

Though he debuted relatively late compared to his famous peers – he was 22 when he appeared in a supporting role in the SBS drama Get Karl! Oh Soo Jung in 2007 – he quickly shot to stardom and has been very selective about his roles ever since.

Here are six formative roles that turned Song into the powerhouse he is today.

A Frozen Flower (2008)

Song made his film debut in director Yoo Ha’s steamy Goryeo era (918–1392) period action-drama, a tale of queer love between a king and his general that reaches a bloody, jealousy-fuelled climax. Song’s role here, as No-tak, one of the loyal soldiers of Hong-lim (Jo In-sung), is one with few lines, but he appears throughout the film.

Song (right) and Shim Ji-ho in a still from A Frozen Flower (2008).

The actor himself remembers the role fondly, as he was able to learn a lot from his seniors Jo and Joo Jin-mo, who plays the king. The young actor also brandishes a sword in several battles, making No-tak the first of his many action roles.

Song completists should be warned, though – the actor’s fate in this film’s final act is a grisly one.

Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010)

After A Frozen Flower, Song entered the busiest part of his young career and honed his craft through a series of film and television roles, notching up six credits alone in 2009. Yet it was in 2010 that he finally made his indelible mark.

Song scored a leading role in KBS’ youth period drama Sungkyunkwan Scandal, which became a viral hit among young viewers. Alongside JYJ’s Park Yoo-chun, Park Min-young and Yoo Ah-in, Song plays Ku Yong-ha, a handsome, smart and cocky student of Sungkyunkwan University – Song, in fact, completed a degree in business administration at the modern-day Sungkyunkwan campus.

(From left) Song, Park Min-young, Park Yoo-chan and Yoo Ah-in in a still from Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010).

Yong-ha discovers that new student Kim Yun-hee, played by Park Min-young, is in fact a woman. Instead of outing her, he thinks it would be more fun to keep her secret for now, but for long after, he develops feelings for her. As Yong-ha, Song shows off his cheeky confidence, as well as a swoon-worthy romantic charm that quickly amassed him legions of fans.

Penny Pinchers (2011)

The year 2010 also saw Song take on his first bona-fide leading role, in the well-meaning yet utterly forgettable Heart Paws 2. His next leading role remains one of his best, though still criminally underseen.

In the terrific 2011 romantic comedy Penny Pinchers, Song plays Ji-woong, a young man desperately trying to land a job, and a hair’s breadth away from getting booted out of his low-rent rooftop flat. Ji-woong is saved from destitution by his exceptionally thrifty neighbour Hong-sil (Han Ye-seul), and he becomes her apprentice in the ways of penny pinching.

Song Joong-ki in a still from Penny Pinchers (2011).

Song’s boyish charm is tempered by a darker edge in what was his most complex role to date. With its small audience, Penny Pinchers may not have won Song many new fans, but it prepared him for the roles he would come to be known for.

A Werewolf Boy (2012)

The role that cemented Song’s status came a year later, when he took on the title role in this smash hit fantasy romance. He plays Chul-soo, a young man with mysterious origins who is discovered by Soon-yi (Park Bo-young), the ailing elder daughter of a family that has just moved into the property where he was found.

Song studied animal movements in nature documentaries, as well as characters such as Edward Scissorhands, and Gollum in Lord of the Rings, to prepare for the role.

Song (right) and Park Bo-young in a still from A Werewolf Boy (2012).

His efforts paid off, as his memorable turn anchored a film that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and became Korea’s most successful melodrama of all time.

Descendants of the Sun (2016)

After the double whammy of A Werewolf Boy and the hit drama The Innocent Man, both from late 2012, Song put his sizzling career on hold to do his mandatory military service in South Korea. For young actors entering the army for 21 months, there’s always a danger that their popularity may fade, but for Song the opposite turned out to be the case.

His comeback project was the drama Descendants of the Sun, in which he played Yoo Shi-jin, the captain of a special forces squad stationed in the fictional country of Uruk. Song acquits himself well in the show’s many action set pieces, but it’s the combination of his cocky, tough persona and his soft side that clinched the deal with audiences.

Song Joong-ki (left) and Song Hye-kyo in a still from Descendants of the Sun (2016).
Shi-jin pursues an aching romance with Doctor Kang, played by Song Hye-kyo. The show is famous for bringing together its two leads, who were married in 2017 and became known as the Song-Song couple, although the pair broke up just two years later.

 The biggest hit of Song’s career, Descendants of the Sun was sensationally popular both in Korea and overseas, helping to raise the profile and value of K-dramas in the global market.

The Battleship Island (2017)

Song went full hero mode for his next project, the second world war POW escape drama The Battleship Island, from action maestro filmmaker Ryoo Seung-wan. He plays Park Moo-young, a Korean independence fighter who smuggles himself onto Hashima Island in Nagasaki, Japan, and ultimately hatches a plan to free 400 Korean slave miners from under the noses of the Japanese army.

Playing a hardened hero and ultimately a beacon of hope during a dark episode of colonial history, Song impresses in a role that saw him move away from the ruffian romantic roles through which he had made his name. Already a dab hand at action roles, Song’s physique and persona add to the epic swell of the film’s big-budget spectacle.

And with that, superstardom beckoned. Look for Space Sweepers and Vincenzo to add more sheen to his status this year.

(From left) Jin Seon-kyu, Kim Tae-ri, Song and Yoo Hai-jin in a still from Space Sweepers (2021).

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