Yoo Ah-in in a scene from "Jang Ok Jung, Living by Love" / Korea Times file
Yoo Ah-in steals show in SBS 'Jang Ok-Jung, Living by Love'
By Do Je-hae
When broadcaster SBS cast Kim Tae-hee in its latest historical drama series, viewers wondered how this superstar actress with zero period piece experience would portray the most infamous royal concubine during the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910).
One of the prettiest faces on Korean TV, Kim is not known for her acting skills. While she does have sporadic moments of brilliance in "Jang Ok Jung, Living by Love," it is Yoo Ah-in who is stealing the show with a charismatic portrayal of King Sukjong.
Over the years, broadcasters and moviemakers have repeatedly used the romance between Jang Ok-jung and King Sukjong. Viewers will not have a hard time remembering the women who have played Jang but the men that have played opposite Jang were largely forgotten. "Jang Ok Jung, Living by Love" is likely to be defined as the first TV adaptation of Jang Ok-jung where the role of King Sukjong outshines the female lead.
TV dramas and films covering the life of Jang have focused mainly on her ruthless plots to become queen that ultimately brought her a death sentence and portrayed the King as a powerless personality unable to make clear decisions in private life or in politics.
Yoo is stealing the spotlight on a show that was supposed to belong to Kim Tae-hee, his female counterpart. / Korea Times file
But in "Living by Love," which premiered in April, Yoo has sought to break away from the stereotypes surrounding the king, and seems to have pleased the audience and the press with this unconventional approach.
In the last few weeks, Yoo has garnered favorable press reviews for his versatile acting skills unlike Kim, who is six years Yoo's senior.
The 27-year-old actor has called the role of King Sukjong one of the biggest challenges of his career. This is his third historical drama or "sageuk" after "Chilwoo the Mighty" in 2008 and the hugely popular "Sungkyunkwan Scandal" in 2010.
"I think people had doubts about my ability to play the part of a strong sovereign. Choosing this character was a big challenge for me," Yoo told reporters ahead of filming in early April. "I will try to show what was going on inside the mind of the king as he dealt with political conflicts and transformed into a powerful monarch."
The director, Boo Sung-chul described Yoo as a "a fine actor who has the perfect look for the part and delivers his lines with exactly the right tone."
Yoo's acting comes alive particularly in scenes showing him as a skilled politician, outsmarting opposing factions to attain political objectives.
What is special about his performance is how he seems to show his emotions in an unexpected manner. When he is enraged by an assassination plot, for example, he expresses it not with an angry outburst but more with a careful stare and a soft, yet poignant speech.
King Sukjong, who had a lengthy reign from 1674 to 1720, was the 19th ruler of Joseon. His reign was marked by some of the most intense factional fights in its history, some of which are shown in the drama.
Yoo, a Daegu native who dropped out of high school to pursue acting, has built an impressive resume as an actor in both TV and film since his debut in 2003. His breakthrough big-screen lead role was in the coming-of-age film "Punch," a box-office success in 2011. His next film "Kkangcheori" will be released in July.
His mature performance in Living by Love will likely boost his status as one of the most promising film stars of his generation, along with actors Song Joong-ki and Kim Soo-hyun. "In the next 10 years, he will be one of the biggest names in Korean cinema," Kim Yoon-seok, a Punch co-star, said during a TV interview.
The drama runs on Mondays and Tuesdays at 10:00 p.m. for 24 episodes. Given the popularity of sageuk among foreign fans of Korean dramas, Living by Love is already available on YouTube with English subtitles.