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Who is Lee Dong-wook, star of K-dramas A Shop for Killers and Tale of the Nine Tailed and a household name for the best part of 20 years?

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As Lee looks to the next stage of his career, he reminds us that perhaps there is more to him than meets the eye – that he is an actor possessing a range he has not always been given the chance to show.

Lee Dong-wook in a still from “A Shop for Killers”.

Why we love him

Even among the ranks of handsome K-drama stars, Lee’s striking looks stand out.

His appearance has long been his calling card, ever since he won a major modelling contest as a teenager which landed him a part in a single-episode MBC drama in 1999.

This, in turn, got him noticed by a major television director, who cast him for an 11-episode arc in the second season of the popular “School” anthology series.

A Shop for Killers: Lee Dong-wook is a man of mystery in action K-drama

He reprised his role in School 3, making his character Lee Kang-soon the only student character to appear as a lead in several seasons of the series.

After working diligently for the following few years – he had seven credits in 2001 alone – he hit the big time in 2005 when he took on one of the leading roles in the hit romcom drama My Girl opposite Lee Da-hae.

The role made him one of the Hallyu (Korean Wave) stars of the day.

Lee Dong-wook in a still from “My Girl” (2005).
While he remained a big name, his celebrity gradually waned over the decade that followed – that is, until he soared to even greater heights thanks to his role as the Grim Reaper in the fantasy drama Guardian: The Great and Lonely God, a global hit in which he appeared alongside Gong Yoo and Kim Go-eun.

Following the end of the series, Lee and Gong remained close and their friendship, which includes bantering on each other’s social media accounts and going on fishing trips, has long delighted fans of both stars.

Before becoming a star, Lee grew up in the countryside as the eldest of four children. Having never forgotten where he came from, he has always supported his family.

Lee Dong-wook in a still from “Guardian: The Lonely and Great God” (2016).

Aside from his many drama roles, Lee is also a very familiar face on other television programming, frequently appearing on reality shows and even hosting his own talk show (Wook Talk) – and Gong was his first guest.

The star-making role

In the romcom My Girl, which peaked with a 25 per cent viewership rating on SBS, Lee plays the dashing heir to the L’Avenuel Hotel who hires Lee Da-hae’s tour guide to pose as the long-lost granddaughter of his grandfather, to fulfil his dying wish.

But when the ailing mogul makes a miraculous recovery they must continue to pose as cousins. All the while, a forbidden love develops between them.

Lee Dong-wook in a still from “Tale of the Nine Tailed” (2020).

The iconic parts

In Guardian: The Lonely and Great God, arguably his most iconic role, Lee plays a cynical Grim Reaper who is doomed to guide people to the afterlife as he pays for the sins of a past life he does not remember.

He lives with a “goblin” (a protector of souls) played by series lead Gong and, after falling in love with a chicken restaurateur played by Yoo In-na, he begins to remember his past life as a corrupt Joseon era (1392-1910) king.

Lee takes on the main lead role in his own fantasy drama Tale of the Nine Tailed, playing a 1,000-year-old “gumiho” (aka a nine-tailed fox, a Korean mythological creature) Lee Yeon. Lee Yeon carries out missions for the Afterlife Immigration Office while seeking the reincarnation of his past love, played by Jo Bo-ah.

Lee Dong-wook in a still from “Tale of the Nine-Tailed 1938”.
The 2020 series was so popular that Lee reprised his role in Tale of the Nine Tailed 1938, in which his character travels back in time to Korea’s Japanese Colonial era (1910-1945).

The unheralded performances

Though less well-known for his film work, Lee has played a range of characters on the big screen, including in the horror film Arang and high-concept romance The Beauty Inside.
Lee Dong-wook in a still from “The Recipe” (2010).

His most memorable film role is opposite Lee Yo-won and Ryoo Seung-ryong in The Recipe, a mystery drama about a bean paste stew recipe with the power to stop a serial killer in his tracks.

Tomorrow’s turns

In 2024, Lee will return as the grandson in a family of gangsters in The Good Man, the first drama from acclaimed filmmaker Song Hae-sung (Failan, Maundy Thursday).

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He is also set to play a role in the anticipated film Harbin, in which Hyun Bin plays Korean independence fighter An Jung-geun, who became a martyr after assassinating a Japanese politician who had served as the Resident-General of Korea.



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