Class landing: Park Seo-joon and Hyun Bin inhabit their characters with different degrees of restraint. Photo from JTBC (right), tvN (left)
Culture Spotlight

Mano a Mano: Park Seo-joon vs. Hyun Bin

These South Korean superstars compete this June 5 for the coveted Best Actor trophy in the 56th Baeksang Arts Awards (the rest of the nominees obviously don’t matter to Filipino audiences) and we're keeping score. By VIVES ANUNCIACION
ANCX | May 29 2020

Strictly speaking, it would be the first Best Actor for TV trophy of their careers should either Park Seo-joon or Hyun Bin take home the award next Friday night.

In fact, none of the other equally-deserving nominees in the category —Kang Ha Neul for the ensemble comedy When The Camellia Blooms, Ju Ji-hoon for the legal comedy Hyena, and Namkoong Min for the baseball drama Hot Stove League — have won the Baeksang for the specific category. That makes the 2020 Baeksang Arts Awards on June 5 even more exciting to anticipate.

An awards-bait moment: grieving his brother's death in Crash Landing On You. Photo by tvN

Pout vs chestnut hair 

But the contest seems to loom over the lead actors of the two most massively-popular Kdramas of the season. Between Hyun Bin’s childish pout in Crash Landing On You and Park Seo-joon’s chestnut haircut in Itaewon Class, audiences around the world binge-watched on these shows like children on a sugar rush, consistently keeping both shows on Netflix’s and Twitter’s Top Ten. While their eventual nominations were somewhat expected, the winner for this year is really anyone’s guess.

Seo-joon behind the scenes of Itaewon Class. Photo by JTBC

Prior to this year’s nominations, actors Hyun Bin and Park Seo-joon have established themselves as some of the most bankable film and television stars in South Korea, even extending their popularity beyond the peninsula thanks to the hallyu wave.

 

Bin there, done that: Hyun Bin’s career highs

Hyun Bin crash landed to fame as the rich restaurateur in the hit romcom My Name is Kim Sam Soon back in 2005. Two years later, Bin would earn his first Baeksang nomination for TV Best Actor for his portrayal of the unfortunate Tae-woong in The Snow Queen

A pivotal accidental stopover in the CLOY love story. Photo by tvN

He has then appeared in eight dramatic and action films, as well as earning a Daesang (Grand Prize) for TV in the 2011 Baeksang Awards for the Cinderella drama Secret Garden.  Bin’s portrayal of the reserved North Korean elite officer Captain Ri Jeong-hyeok earned him his fifth Baeksang nomination for TV Actor.

 

Hitting it out of the Park: PSJ’s career highs 

Park Seo-joon on the other hand has a slew of Popular Actor and New Actor awards under his belt since appearing in Dream High 2 in 2012 (by a slew I mean more than twenty awards.) His breakout year came in 2015 when he starred in two hit shows, Kill Me, Heal Me and She Was Pretty as well as in the movie thriller, The Chronicles of Evil. 

Park Saero-yi walks to a new chapter in his life. Photo by JTBC

Seo-joon earned wide acclaim in the TV youth drama Fight for My Way with a KBS Drama trophy for Actor in a Miniseries as well as his first Baeksang Best Actor TV nomination. His layered portrayal of the downtrodden Park Saeroyi is Seo-joon’s second Baeksang nomination.

In CLOY, Bin takes advantage of his long experience with romcoms, playing romantic leads and bodyguard roles to come up with the steely and cautious Captain Ri. 

 

Bin’s award-bait moments in CLOY 

We witness several aspects of the guarded captain in the course of the show: as he straddles the border between loving and hating Yon Se-ri (Son Ye-jin) while sporting a North Korean dialect (although a YouTuber formerly from North Korea has said that Bin had the least convincing accent among the male actors.) Whether it’s a soft-spoken Ri jealous over finger hearts that resulted in the now-famous pouting face in Episode Five, speeding on a motorcycle like a legit action star in Episode Seven, or barely containing his emotions as he bids farewell to Se-ri at the borders in Episode Nine, Bin shows amazing restraint, combining more than a decade’s worth of character experience to encompass the range required of his role in what is essentially a love letter to the reunification of the Korean peninsula.

Restraint is a hallmark of Bin's Captain Ri. Photo by tvN

There’s a lot going for Hyun Bin to win this category this year, but Seo-joon, like his character Saeroyi, will not take this war sitting down.

 

Seo-joon’s award-baits in Itaewon Class

In Itaewon Class, Seo-joon internalizes a surfeit of emotions arising from Saeroyi’s multiple struggles that span years—in a story that tackles ageism, racism, transphobia and more. Seo-joon sheds his usual romcom persona for heavy drama right off Episode One, as the young student who loses his loving, principled father and attempts to avenge his death. From there, audiences get a determined prisoner Saeroyi (Episode Two), a heroic Saeroyi who saves Yi-seo from a potential assault (Episode Four), and a tender Saeroyi cuddling an overworked Yi-seo  (Episode Seven) - all emotions contained in Seo-joon’s eyes, framed by that famous haircut. At times, Seo-joon breaks this motionless look whenever Saeroyi is forced to think of his options by gently patting down those flat bangs - a gesture perhaps that the actor has created while embracing his character, but doubly heart-rending when he does it while in tears.

Saero-yi walking wounded in an early scene from Itaewon Class. Photo by JTBC

The Baeksang Arts Awards are Korea's only general arts awards given to the production staff and cast of film, TV and theater shows over the past year. Begun in 1965 by publishing company IS Plus Corp. to promote the development of Korean popular culture and arts and to improve morale among artistic circles, the Baeksang Arts Awards is considered the most coveted award among acting circles, sometimes called the Oscars of South Korea.

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If you ask us, if it’s just a battle between Bin and Seo-joon, Bin has this in the bag. 

Nominees for the 56th Baeksang Arts Awards were announced last May 8 by the Baeksang secretariat. The awards ceremony will take place on June 5 at KINTEX in Ilsan, Gyeonggi Province, but without a live audience to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

So if it’s not a question of acting range and not a pageant on most stylish looks, the Baeksang contest really boils down to who captured their characters the darnedest best among all the nominees — which, for the jurors, probably means toss a coin.