There is something quite stirring about watching actresses perform. It’s a bias for me that I am more drawn towards stellar female performances than I am to stellar male performances. I just think that women have more interesting roles and are more expressive than their male counterparts. It is no surprise to find that if I were to compile a list of male and female actors whose performances I found outstanding and distinguished, three of them will be women while only two men will make the cut.
But I digress. Every single performance on this list captivated me, each actress brought a sense of vulnerability to their roles, and each character earned each tear or laugh they managed to wring out of me. Truthfully, I couldn’t have put together a better list.
Choi Ji Woo was wonderfully comical and melancholic in Can’t Lose. She sparred so well with Yoon Sang Hyun that I thought their relationship was believable.
Choi Kang Hee was just hilarious in Protect the Boss. She brings a sense of weariness to her role but at the same time she’s brave, intelligent, and hardworking.
Lee Yo-Won and Nam Gyu Ri were good in 49 Days. Both of them managed to deliver a duet so stirring at times and other times so funny.
Park Min Young was just adorable in City Hunter and she made Kim Nana a perfect counterpart to Lee Min Ho’s badassness.
And now my top 5:
5. Gong Hyo Jin
Goo Ae Jung
In a drama that has seen its fair share of awesome moments due in part to the exaggerated, over-the-top, and sometimes comically unbelievable moments, Gong Hyo Jin stands out by playing the most normal, the least exaggerated, and the most human character. As Goo Ae Jung, a former top idol who fell to has-been status after a slew of scandals, Gong knows how to navigate this woman’s emotions quite well. She goes from childish glee when confronted with new opportunities and in the face of celebrities to a wizened woman in front of hoobaes.
It’s a tricky role because Ae Jung, by nature of her character, keeps everything bottled. She puts everyone’s needs above hers, preferring to weather the horrible things the public says about her than let her friends get in trouble. As a result, she’s living quite pathetically, grasping at the straws of her faded fame. It’s interesting to note how contradictory she is; she obviously loves the limelight given her attempt to remain a celebrity rather than recede into normal life. At the same time, she doesn’t want to be really popular or else risk her past coming back to haunt her. She’s captivated by celebrity lifestyle yet fully aware of the pitfalls that come with it. Gong Hyo Jin is so adept at making the audience feel all of this–her expressive face captures every strain, every moment of happiness, and every bit of humiliation that she encounters. When she breaks down, she’s even more phenomenal. She ably captures the heartbreak that Goo Ae Jung feels.
Still, her rapport with Cha Seung Won’s Dokko Jin is phenomenal. They are polar opposites of each other yet they manage to make a compelling foil to one another. Dokko Jin’s manly bravado matches well with Ae Jung’s down-to-earth and homely appeal. She tries hard not to fall for him but in the end, she can’t resist. Even when it comes to her relationship to Dokko Jin, Ae Jung seems contradictory: she finds Jin’s cruel streaks unappealing but cannot resist swooning whenever he does something remotely human. Through all her contradictions, Gong Hyo Jin makes Goo Ae Jung compelling.
4. Lee Da Hae
There’s something so menacing about Miss Ripley that I can’t help but flinch at times at Jang Miri’s choices. Although the drama sometimes wandered off into some strange terrain that didn’t quite work, I found Lee Da Hae’s work as Jang Miri utterly remarkable and very realistic. Miri is a bundle of anger and hate. She wants to better herself but doesn’t have the means to do so. When she is given an opportunity, she takes it despite that opportunity requiring her to lie and cheat.
Jang Miri is conniving and tempestuous. She easily flashes a grin when the situation demands it, cry when she’s within reach of her goal, and seduce when she has no other way of grabbing attention. She’s fully competent at her job even if her personal relationships are messy. She turns away the only friend willing to help her and lies to and totally leaves behind the man that got her first start. Lee Da Hae makes all of these natural to Miri, especially drawn by her desire to survive. For instance, her desperation leads her to panic at the instant that her plans may be thwarted. Lee’s facial expressions are decidedly theatrical; some might find them off-putting but I found them appropriate. Miri is an externalized character and the fact that we see her thoughts on her face add to rather than hinder from her character development.
Despite her conniving and bitchiness, the best thing about Lee’s performance is the vulnerability she imbues in Miri. I applaud her or finding the humanity within Miri instead of going all-out on her evil side. This vulnerability made her questionable actions seem within reason and made us understand why she does what she does. Lee sheds light on Miri’s insecurities instead of burying them within her anger and bitterness. As a result, we sympathize with an often insufferable protagonist.
3. Yum Jung Ah
Kim In Sook
Royal Family is such an underrated drama. I know that it’s not the typical cup of tea for many people, but I found its complex family dynamics and the moral issues that the protagonists tackled very interesting and engrossing. The drama’s melodrama wouldn’t work without the actors that made it such a wonderful show. On top of that list is Yum Jung Ah, who played Kim In Sook, the main protagonist of the show. In Sook is a JK wife, the least favorite among all family members, and the one who receives the scorn of the matriarch. When her husband died, she was essentially thrown away.
Royal Family centers on Yum Jung Ah’s revenge for the 18 years she suffered and to recover “the dignity she lost.” Thus, we watch In Sook scheme her way to the top, an adept and often manipulative woman, who uses her positions and influences to win favor within the family. Her homely appearance contrasts her intelligence. Her character made me cheer for every victory, squeal with delight at every comeback she makes, and tear with agony whenever she experiences pain. Her fragility–the way she quivers at the sight of her mother-in-law–is so exquisitely portrayed through her eyes. At the same time, those eyes clearly portray her viciousness; she’s not a woman to be taken lightly, as the family learned. She’s cunning and uses her victimized-woman act to stealthily attack her opponents. At times she acts like a villain who is clearly enjoying her success even if it required her to step on toes. For her, the satisfaction of defeating her foes is the only feeling she desires.
Despite that, Yum is so good at portraying her emotional moments. The love she feels for her children and her deceased husband is real and not once did we question her sincerity even if other characters did. The way she explodes into teary confessions of hurt and suffering seem to come from a well of internalized struggle that it’s as if we are watching her get a release. Yum is especially terrific when she finally comes clean to Jihun about Johnny, as if the guilt, the loss, and the pride finally collided. While the ending may have left me wanting, Yum Jung Ah delivered a world class performance that will be hard to forget.
2. Kim Sun Ah
Scent of a Woman
Lee Yeon Jae
Scent of a Woman, despite what critics may say, was such a treat to watch mainly because I enjoyed the cinematography, the European-infused music, and the terrific acting from all the actors involved. I agree that the characters suffered from noble idiocy oftentimes but that doesn’t make Kim Sun Ah’s performance any less beautiful. If anything, the drama’s shortcomings made her stand out even more. Kim plays Lee Yeon Jae, who decides to change her life after learning she has terminal cancer.
Yeon Jae’s battle to stay in control of her life despite of the looming end made this drama watchable throughout its entire run. Sun Ah dives into Yeon Jae with aplomb execution. She highlights Yeon Jae’s insecurities–her looks, her poor status, and her fear of superiors as well as Yeon Jae’s desires–romance, a better life for her family, and respect. Her sudden burst of bravery in the earlier episodes was such a brilliantly acted moment; we see Yeon Jae finally stand up to her boss’s cruelty with equal amounts of nerves and curiosity at her newly found power. This is what makes Sun Ah a brilliant actress–every facial tic or response seems to come with more than one emotion, both contrary and complimentary. She mixes bravery with reluctance, optimism about today with pessimism for the future, romanticism with cynicism, etc. She uses her high-pitched voice and expressive face to great effect, both aiding to make a moment more heartfelt and realistic.
Her romance with Ji Wook and Eun Suk are both so wonderful because she just seems naturally synchronized with both actors. Her love for Ji Wook is matched by her cynicism that he might go away and fear that she’s being terribly selfish, knowing that her expiration date is far shorter than Ji Wook’s. At the same time, her friendship with Eun Suk is captivating because they show a lot of history with the small glances that they share with each other. By showing warmth and growth, Kim Sun Ah mesmerized me throughout the show’s run.
1. Soo Ae
A Thousand Days Promise
Lee Seo Yeon
Soo Ae’s position on my list is probably influenced by the fact that her show is the freshest on my mind. However, when I thought about this list, I cannot possibly neglect the fact that Soo Ae delivered such a full-bodied, passionate, and terrifying performance. I say it’s terrifying because Soo Ae’s portrayal of Lee Seo Yeon, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, is so realistic that I felt the horror she must have felt and the fear that must have set in once Alzheimer’s took its toll on her memory and life.
Soo Ae is mesmerizing–her sheer presence seems to knock everyone off their game because no one can match her excellence in portraying fear and anger at the same time. That life has been difficult for her in the past does not faze her; the fact that she has lost control of her life, that she’ll become incapable of writing, working, and remembering her loved ones scares her. Soo Ae understands this about Lee Seo Yeon and wonderfully captures it through her weary expressions, fearful gazes, and witty remarks. I love how she tries to take charge of her disease by playing word games and my heart breaks a little every time she forgets something. Her anger is deeply felt, the emotion behind her outbursts so palpable, and her quiet tears are so aching that one cannot help but wipe away tears when watching her. It hurts me even more when she makes light of her situation by making jokes–a way to comfort herself but also reveals the sad knowledge that she has no way out of her situation.
While her relationship to Ji Hyung is at the forefront of this drama, it is her relationships to her family members that tear my heart apart. Her love for her brother Moon Kwon is so moving because she raised him when their mother abandoned them and to watch her leave some parting knowledge to him is touching. Her attempts to protect her adoptive parents are noble if ultimately selfish while the trust and strength she draws from her cousin is sweet. Ultimately, Soo Ae is the best actress of the year because she managed to portray the fears and insecurities of a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s while adeptly revealing her strength, intelligence, and endurance.