Fresh Faces

Gong Hyo-jin

Gong Hyo-jin is a South Korean actress best known for her leading role in the film "Crush and Blush" (2008), as well as for her popular television series "Sang-doo! Let's Go to School" (2003), "Thank You" (2007), "Pasta" (2010), "The Greatest Love" (2011), and "Master's Sun" (2013), and "It's Okay, That's Love" (2014).

Though born in Seoul, she moved to Australia when she was in junior high school. After three years in Australia, her family moved back to Korea in 1997. Upon her return to Korea, Ms. Gong began working as a model. She appeared in advertisements, notably the "Happy to Death" commercial for telecom 700-5425. After a year and a half of modeling, she made her acting debut in a supporting role in "Memento Mori." Co-directed by Kim Tae-yong and Min Kyu-dong, the horror film reinvented its genre with its fresh approach on teenage femme sexuality and its destructive force, melding sapphism and the supernatural at a girls' high school. Although it was not a box office hit in 1999, the film is frequently cited by young Korean filmmakers and cinema fans as a modern-day classic. At first, she wasn't serious about acting and couldn't wait for filming to be over, but Memento Mori's critical success encouraged her to continue acting, and she followed that with a role in 2000 sitcom "My Funky Family."

In 2001, she was casted in the 50-episode television series "Wonderful Days," where she played a bus conductor with a one-sided crush on Ryoo Seung-bum's character (Gong and Ryoo later won Best New Actress and Best New Actor in the TV category at the Baeksang Arts Awards). After appearing in small roles in Jang Jin's comedy "Guns & Talks" and teen martial arts flick "Volcano High," the young actress had her breakthrough year in 2002, landing lead roles in "Emergency Act 19" (which featured cameos by many K-pop artists), and "A Bizarre Love Triangle" (also known as Taekwon Girl). But it was her raw, complex performance in "Ruler of Your Own World" that grabbed the industry's attention. The TV series was praised for its realistic writing and strong acting, earning it "mania drama" (or cult hit) status in Korea. That same year, she again acted opposite Ryoo in "Conduct Zero" (also known as No Manners), earning praise for her role as the tough-talking "boss" of the girls' high school. The 1980s-set retro comedy was well received by both audiences and critics.

The 2003 series "Snowman" paired Ms. Gong with Jo Jae-hyun, in a controversial plot about a girl who falls in love with her older brother-in-law. She then returned to more mainstream fare in "Sang-doo! Let's Go to School," helmed by TV director Lee Hyung-min, whom she had previously worked with in a "Drama City" episode. She played a high school teacher who meets her childhood sweetheart again, now a gigolo and single dad with a sick daughter. The acting debut of pop singer Rain, the drama did well in the ratings, and Ms. Gong won several awards at the KBS Drama Awards.

But in 2004 to 2005, she entered a career slump. She was dissatisfied with the scripts she was getting, and felt she was being typecast in ingenue roles. Cast as another high school teacher in "Biscuit Teacher and Star Candy," and a scientist in "Heaven's Soldiers," she longed to portray meatier, "real women" roles, but she was unwilling to do nudity in film.

After starring with close friend Shin Min-ah in the 2009 indie "Sisters on the Road," she played an aspiring chef in romantic comedy series "Pasta" in 2010. Originally written as the usual brash and spunky rom-com heroine, she thought it would be boring and cliched to play her as such, and instead made the significant acting decision to play against type by creating the character as an ordinary girl who was seemingly meek, but had a quiet strength and slyly got her way. Her chemistry with co-star Lee Sun-kyun, and the drama's breezy atmosphere propelled it to the top of the ratings chart.

Defying easy categorization into the actress dichotomies of innocent (Choi Ji-woo, Song Hye-kyo) or sexy (Kim Hye-soo, Uhm Jung-hwa), Ms. Gong belonged to a third, very minor group of eccentrics that also include Kang Hye-jung and Bae Doona. Though not a typical beauty, after Pasta the press gave her the label Gongvely, a portmanteau of her surname and the English word "lovely."

In an emerging pattern of alternating mainstream TV series with riskier big-screen projects, she starred in "Rolling Home with a Bull," another low-budget indie adapted from Kim Do-yeon's novel. She played a widow traveling with her poet ex-boyfriend in Yim Soon-rye's part-Buddhist meditation, part-road movie.

In 2011, she acted opposite Cha Seung-won in the TV series "The Greatest Love." Written by the Hong Sisters, the romantic comedy is set in the entertainment industry and about an unlikely romance between a has-been pop-star and a top actor. The series was a big hit with audiences, resulting in increased popularity for both actors. She was also praised for her naturalistic, no-nonsense acting, which served to balance Cha's wacky antics. The Greatest Love swept the MBC Drama Awards, including a Top Excellence Award for Ms. Gong (her third consecutive, after Thank You and Pasta). She later won Best Actress for TV at the Baeksang Arts Awards.

She worked again with Kim Tae-yong for "Beautiful 2012," a series of four "micro-movies" produced by Chinese internet platform Youku that explore the concept of "what is beautiful?". In Kim's short film "You Are More Than Beautiful," Park Hee-soon plays a man who hires an actress named Young-hee (Gong) to pretend to be his fiancée when he introduces her to his dying father in Jeju Island. The short's Korean title translates to "Her Performance," and in a charming scene, Young-hee slips into the hospital room and sings a Korean opera song to the unconscious father (in a room with five other seriously ill elderly men). You Are More Than Beautiful later received a theatrical release in 2013

Uninterested in stereotypical pretty roles, Ms. Gong said she preferred playing multi-faceted women, like the laidback, unpredictable female lead with unshaved armpit hair in Love Fiction. Known for her candor on set and in public, Ms. Gong openly admitted that she had problems with her character and took her complaints to its director Jeon Kye-soo. Though Ms. Gong said she would rather continue making small-scale films rather than do a shallow blockbuster, "Love Fiction" was her most commercial feature yet, and it broke even at more than 1.7 million admissions.

She reunited with Love Fiction co-star Ha Jung-woo in "577 Project," a documentary that follows a group of actors walking 577 kilometers (358 miles) across the nation.

In 2013, she starred in the comedy film "Boomerang Family" with Park Hae-il, Yoon Je-moon, and Yoon Yeo-jeong, adapted from Cheon Myung-kwan's novel "Aging Family" about a grown-up trio of siblings who embark on a series of misadventures after they move back in their mother's home. Ms. Gong said she felt catharsis from her character's constant cursing, and pleasure from acting in an ensemble whose actors share great chemistry with each other. Veteran actress Ms. Yoon said that Ms. Gong's role, a twice-divorced single mother, was perfect for her that Ms. Yoon couldn't imagine anyone else playing it.

The Hong Sisters cast her again in their next series "Master's Sun," a romantic comedy with horror elements. Costar So Ji-sub praised her as "the best Korean actress currently working in romantic comedy."

In 2014, she starred as a psychiatrist who falls for a mystery novelist with schizophrenia (played by Jo In-sung) in the romantic drama series "It's Okay, That's Love." She said she chose the project because of screenwriter Noh Hee-kyung, who had also written a drama Ms. Gong appeared in a decade ago, Wonderful Days.

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