​Actor Focus: Baek Yoon-sik

by Paul Quinn

News category: Blog

Acting veteran Baek Yoon-sik has been Korean cinema's go-to guy ever since the country's new wave broke. Need a nuanced performance of guaranteed quality? Baek's your man. Here Korean film journalist Paul Quinn looks back over the career of this acting heavyweight.

The ability of an actor or actress to draw audiences to films simply because of their involvement has always had a part to play in cinema around the world, not least in Korea. This ‘Star Power’, as it is often called, allows film companies to give instant appeal to a production by marketing it as a vehicle for a particular, ever-popular performer, regardless of specific subject matter or indeed genre, or alternatively ensures the shining of a far brighter light on smaller, often independent films than would otherwise be the case. However, of equal importance – almost more so, in terms of narrative success –are character actors with the prowess to bring an absolute realism and believability to often somewhat smaller yet unique, eccentric or even controversial roles that lay a solid foundation for both the overall storyline and indeed the performances of the other actors involved, be they lead or supporting. In a cinema and television acting career spanning almost fifty years, Baek Yoon-sik has deftly traversed the line between leading and character roles. While he is without question a star of the Korean film industry, Baek Yoon-sik is also one of the best and most notable character actors of his generation.

Baek Yoon-sik’s acting career began in television dramas in the early 1970s after he was recruited by television station/broadcaster KBS, his first cinema role coming in 1974 when he secured a leading part in Excellent Guys. Similarly high-billing film roles in 1976’s romantic comedy Only with You, drama A Woman’s Castle and 1977 romance Chu-ha, My Love pointed to a cinema career set to go from strength to strength. However, after obtaining Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Theatre and Film at Chung-ang University, Baek Yoon-sik stepped away from cinema to concentrate solely on television work – appearing in numerous and hugely varied TV dramas through the late 70s, 80s and 90s, in roles large and small. It would be twenty-three further years before Baek Yoon-sik would finally step back onto the Korean cinema stage during the period that has become known as the New Korean Cinema wave.

In the spotlight, Baek Yoon-sik in Inside Men: The Original                               

In 2000, Baek Yoon-sik took a small supporting role in Shim Kwang-jin’s A Masterpiece in My Life – the story of a young film director whose personal and professional focus undergoes a monumental shift on meeting a beautiful, young female writer – but while the film was fairly well received, it would be Baek Yoon-sik’s show-stopping performance as a no nonsense company CEO (and possible extraterrestrial) in Jang Joon-hwan’s 2003 sci-fi/horror/comedy/thriller Save the Green Planet that would cement his position as a force to be reckoned with in Korean cinema and catapult his acting career to wholly new heights. Telling the story of a mano-a-mano battle between a young, mentally disturbed man who is convinced aliens are set to destroy the world and the company boss (Baek) he believes is their leader, not only did Save the Green Planet bring Baek Yoon-sik a slew of Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor awards at various film festivals and award ceremonies but its DVD release in the US and UK as part of the incredibly popular Tartan Asia Extreme label also put the actor front and centre in the consciousness of international Korean film fans, the film’s highly original, hilariously surreal offbeat sci-fi nature raising Baek Yoon-sik to almost cult status for many. Subsequently, Baek Yoon-sik's powerful performance alongside Han Suk-kyu ( one of, if not the, biggest male star of the New Korean Cinema wave) in Im Sang-soo’s imaginative cinematic recreation of the 1979 assassination of South Korean President Park Chung-hee, The President’s Last Bang, easily underlined his continued importance to Korean cinema as a whole and showed a fearlessness in tackling highly controversial subject matters.

Throughout his career since his re-emergence in cinema during the New Korean Cinema wave, Baek Yoon-sik has worked with big name Korean directors on more than one occasion – with Im Sang-soo in The President’s Last Bang (2005) and the provocative dysfunctional family thriller The Taste of Money (2012); and with Choi Dong-hoon in 2004’s The Big Swindle (almost a precursor to his massive blockbuster smash hit The Thieves) and 2006’s Tazza: The High Rollers, for example – as well as acting alongside numerous ‘Star Power’ actors and actresses in massively successful films –Song Kang-ho in The Face Reader (2013) and Lee Byung-hun in Inside Men (2015), to name but two. Regardless how large and leading or small and supporting those roles have been, Baek Yoon-sik’s aptitude as a character actor has noticeably stood out in each and every instance. 

Baek Yoon-sik’s latest role is as Emperor Go-jong in director Hur Jin-ho’s 2016 emotional drama The Last Princess – the true life take of Yi Deok-hye, the last princess of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty. Starring alongside Star Power actress Son Ye-jin, Baek Yoon-sik’s exemplary, pitch-perfect performance in this supporting role provides not only a solid base for the entire film narrative but also serves as a steady springboard for the performances of the entire cast. 

Ultimately, Baek Yoon-sik’s astounding talent as a character actor, and star, has made him one of the most instantly recognisable male faces in Korean cinema since the days of the New Korean Cinema wave and his almost five decade acting career continues to move from strength to strength, to this very day.

Baek will be appearing in person at this year's festival. For tickets to his film screenings, please follow the links below.