Lee Jung-jae took residence Excellent Lead Actor in a Drama Sequence at Monday evening’s Emmys for his function in Netflix’s world smash Squid Recreation, besting the likes of Higher Name Saul’s Bob Odenkirk and Succession’s Jeremy Sturdy and Brian Cox. Within the course of, he made historical past as the primary Asian man to win the Lead Actor Emmy.
For his function as Seong Gi-hun, a divorced father and deep-in-debt gambler who’s lured right into a lethal sport of survival with an enormous money prize, Lee has emerged because the breakout star of Squid Recreation, which nonetheless ranks as Netflix’s most-watched sequence ever (though he’s had a storied profession in Korea for many years, together with Grand Bell and Baeksang awards). Lee is arguably probably the most recognizable Korean actor on the earth proper now—and his star will rise even increased after touchdown a number one function in The Acolyte, an upcoming Star Wars present.
But when we’re going to make use of Lee to rejoice every thing that’s nice and completely different about Korean TV, we additionally must acknowledge every thing else he represents—together with how, much like the West, male Korean stars take pleasure in the advantages of an business that bends over backward to guard and protect their picture.
In 1999, Lee was detained by Gangnam Police for driving underneath the affect and inflicting a collision with one other driver, a 23-year-old girl. His blood alcohol content material was 0.22 % (in South Korea, the restrict is 0.05 %). Lee refuted the cost, claiming his supervisor was driving. Three years later, he was charged with the identical offense.
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That very same 12 months, in 1999, he and a pal drunkenly attacked one other man and have been charged with assault. He was charged with assault once more the next 12 months after he allegedly dragged a 22-year-old girl from a nightclub in Busan and kicked her, inflicting accidents that required two weeks of restoration within the hospital.
Quick-forward to 2013 the place, in an interview with Vogue Korea, Lee appeared to out his pal and outstanding stylist, Woo Jong-wan, quickly after his suicide. Earlier than he died, Lee claimed, “I stated to [him], ‘You need to cease being homosexual. Haven’t you been that method sufficient?’” He went on to explain Woo’s homosexuality as an “inconvenience.” The quotes have been subsequently pulled from on-line variations of the interview.
Followers argue that it was so way back that it doesn’t matter. Certainly, we must always acknowledge and encourage development if we see it. However we haven’t. Lee hasn’t wrestled with the allegations in interviews or shared any details about steps he’s taken to rehabilitate himself; as a substitute, they’ve been all however swept underneath the rug. Nor do we all know if that is the sum of Lee’s previous. We will solely decide what we see and, as you’ll be able to most likely inform from these quotes disappearing, what we see of Korean stars is closely curated—by the movie and TV business, by the media, and by followers.
A lot of what we see from many Korean performers is a closely curated picture that scrubs out imperfections so as to create an idealized avatar. It’s most blatant in Okay-pop. Teams like BTS and Oh My Lady are rigorously managed by labels. Band members dwell in dorms, typically sharing rooms. Their performances are tightly managed, each on stage and off. No improvisation; nothing unscripted. They develop into manufacturers—a perpetual actuality present followers can’t tear themselves away from.
This isn’t fully distinctive to Korea. It’s, in some ways, common to modern-day celebrities. However whereas this sort of reputational smoothing within the West usually facilities on humanizing celebs, in Korea it’s about shoring up an unrealistic, aspirational best that can not be compromised.
In spite of everything, once we acknowledge public figures as human beings, it’s simpler to connect their transgressions onto them. In Korea, pink flags are rigorously hidden underneath layers of branding that may be not possible to dislodge—no less than for those who’re a person.
The leeway Lee has loved over these reviews has been in comparison with Johnny Depp. It’s the identical sort of entrenched, manufactured picture that enables Depp’s followers to fully dismiss overwhelming proof of his abuses—and even sanction it.
So, too, do Lee’s followers casually ignore reviews of his assaults and homophobia. Who cares? they ask, much more with the picture they’ve helped assemble through the years. This sort of violence merely doesn’t gel with the Lee Jung-jae they’ve satisfied themselves they know, pushed by the sprawling tendrils of misogyny that shield males within the movie and TV business throughout the globe.
The identical misogyny that insulates Lee from these reviews signifies that, in Korea, males can survive accusations of sexual harassment and assault whereas rumors of bullying can derail Web optimization Ye-ji’s profession, or Track Ji-a carrying pretend designer garments causes her to be branded dishonest and chased off social media.
This identical misogyny permits Depp to proceed to assemble endorsements and appearing gigs whereas Amber Heard could by no means work within the business once more—and different males use her as a method to vilify their very own accusers.
It’s straightforward for Western audiences to overlook all of this whereas watching Korean tv, shedding oneself in a tradition about which so many people know treasured little. But when we’re going to have interaction with Korean TV (and we must always, it’s unbelievable) we have to perceive that what we’re seeing is a rigorously constructed fabrication of what Korea ought to appear to be, the place something that might be considered a blemish is censored out of reveals. And its stars are equally insulated from concepts that run opposite to Korean beliefs—for example, that certainly one of Korea’s largest stars may not be as clean-cut as managers, assistants, and minders need him to seem.
I need individuals to fall in love with Korean TV—it’s a rewarding love affair—and welcome the success of its stars in a worldwide market. However we additionally should perceive that beneath ostensibly feel-good tales of males like Lee Jung-jae attaining world stardom, there could be simply as a lot darkness as there’s in locations like Hollywood.
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