Lee Jung-jae took home Best Leading Actor in a Drama Series at Monday night’s Emmys for his role in Netflix’s global hit squid gamebeating the will of You better call Saul‘s Bob Odenkirk en successionJeremy Strong and Brian Cox. In the process, he made history as the first Asian man to win the lead actor Emmy.
For his role as Seong Gi-hun, a divorced father and deeply indebted gambler who is lured into a deadly survival game with a huge cash prize, Lee has emerged as the breakthrough star of squid game, which still ranks as Netflix’s most-watched series ever (even though it has had a storied career in Korea for decades, including Grand Bell and Baeksang awards). Lee is arguably the most recognizable Korean actor in the world right now — and his star will rise even higher after starring in the acolytean upcoming Star Wars show.
But if we’re going to use Lee to celebrate all that is great and different about Korean TV, we must also recognize everything else he represents, including how male Korean stars, just like in the West, enjoy the benefits of an industry. who bend over backwards to protect and preserve their image.
In 1999, Lee was arrested by the Gangnam Police Department for driving under the influence and causing a collision with another driver, a 23-year-old woman. His blood alcohol level was 0.22 percent (in South Korea the limit is 0.05 percent). Lee denied the charges, claiming that his manager was driving. Three years later, he was charged with the same crime.
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That same year, in 1999, he and a friend drunkenly assaulted another man and were charged with assault. The following year, he was charged again with assault after he allegedly dragged a 22-year-old woman from a nightclub in Busan and kicked her, causing injuries that required two weeks of recovery in hospital.
Fast-forward to 2013 where, in an interview with Vogue KoreaLee appeared to his friend and prominent stylist, Woo Jong-wan shortly after his suicide. Before he died, Lee claimed, “I told… [him]”You have to stop being gay. Haven’t you been this enough?’” He further described Woo’s homosexuality as an ‘inconvenience’. The quotes were then extracted from online versions of the interview.
Fans claim it was so long ago that it doesn’t matter. We must indeed recognize and encourage growth if we see it. But we don’t. Lee has not struggled with the allegations in interviews or shared any information about steps he has taken to rehabilitate himself; instead, they have been virtually swept under the rug. We also don’t know if this is the sum of Lee’s past. We can only judge what we see and, as you can probably tell from the disappearing quotes, what we see from Korean stars is heavily curated – by the film and TV industry, by the media and by fans.
Much of what we see from many Korean artists is a heavily curated image that buffs out imperfections to create an idealized avatar. It’s most obvious in K-pop. Groups like BTS and Oh My Girl are carefully managed by labels. Band members live in dormitories and sometimes share rooms. Their performances are strictly controlled, both on stage and off. No improvisation; nothing unwritten. They become brands – an eternal reality show that fans can’t break away from.
This is not entirely unique to Korea. It is in many ways universal for today’s celebrities. But while this kind of reputation enhancement in the West is often about anthropomorphizing celebrities, in Korea it’s about supporting an unrealistic, ambitious ideal that cannot be tampered with.
After all, if we recognize public figures as people, it is easier to attach their transgressions to them. In Korea, red flags are carefully hidden under layers of surf that are impossible to remove – at least if you’re male.
The latitude that Lee enjoyed over these reports has been compared to Johnny Depp. It’s the same kind of entrenched, fabricated image that allows Depp’s fans to completely ignore — or even punish — overwhelming evidence of his abuse.
Likewise, Lee’s fans casually ignore reports of his attacks and homophobia. Who cares? they ask, much more interested in the image they’ve helped build over the years. This kind of violence just doesn’t fit the Lee Jung-jae they’ve convinced themselves to know, driven by the vast rifts of misogyny that protect men in the movie and TV industry around the world.
The same misogyny that Lee isolates from these reports means that men in Korea can survive allegations of sexual harassment and assault, while rumors of bullying can derail Seo Ye-ji’s career, or Song Ji-a wearing fake designer clothes causes her to being branded dishonest and evicted on social media.
The same misogyny allows Depp to continue collecting endorsements and appearances, while Amber Heard may never work in the industry again — and other men use her as a way to defame their own accusers.
It’s easy for a Western audience to forget all this while watching Korean television and getting lost in a culture that so many of us know very little about. But if we’re going to focus on Korean TV (and we should, it’s unbelievable), we need to understand that what we’re seeing is a carefully constructed concoction of what Korea should look like, where everything could considered a slur is censored from shows. And his stars are similarly isolated from ideas that conflict with Korean ideals — for example, that one of Korea’s biggest stars may not be as obvious as managers, assistants, and babysitters want him to appear.
I want people to fall in love with Korean TV – it’s a rewarding love affair – and welcome the success of its stars in a global market. But we also need to understand that beneath ostensibly feel-good stories of men like Lee Jung-jae reaching global stardom, there can be as much darkness as there is in places like Hollywood.
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