Conscription in South Korea has existed since 1957, and it is mandatory for male citizens between the ages of 18 and 35 to perform military service.
Typically, anything that is compulsory doesn’t engender passion towards it. Thus, most men complete their national service out of enured obligation, but Hyun Bin is not most men. He volunteered to serve in the Marine Corps, considered to be the toughest branch of the Korean military. With a competition rate of 4:1, Hyun placed within the top five per cent of applicants, eventually becoming one of 16 top marksmen in his cohort of 720 Marine recruits.
Seeing as how the Korean Armed Forces suddenly had a bonafide celebrity and military hero-in-the-making, they had originally planned to put him on public relations duty but intense public scrutiny and Hyun’s own desire to serve his country as a true soldier saw him assigned to the literal front lines of Baengnyeong Island, close to the Northern Limit Line and Yeonpyeong, site of a November 2010 artillery engagement between the North and South Korean forces.
By the time he was discharged in 2012, the actor had earned the Secretary of Defense Award and the Marine Corps Commandant Commendation for being an exemplary soldier.
It is often said that real life can be stranger than fiction. In Hyunʼs case, it would appear that his reel portrayal as the heroic Captain Ri Jeong Hyu in Crash Landing on You ‒ the third-highest-rated Korean drama in cable television history and the show that cemented his credentials among South Koreaʼs celebrity A-List ‒ is closer to his real life persona than viewers realise.
A humanitarian and animal lover, Hyun made a secret donation of 200 million won to the Community Chest of Korea, to help fight against the COVID-19 outbreak. A member in the “Honor Society”, a group of major private donors, for his many donations to different causes, Hyun has continually supported projects by organisations such as Save the Children, Community Chest of Korea and international relief NGOs
The taciturn actor is reminiscent of Captain Ri, a man of few words exemplified by great action and moral duty. Ri leads by example, demonstration qualities like servant leadership, humility, altruistic self-sacrifice, valuing women, and devotion to the well-being of those he cares for.
While he was already a superstar in Korea by 2005 for the romantic comedy series My Lovely Sam Soon, Hyun Binʼs filmography is proof of his resolve to not be swayed by fame or money. His dramatic turn in 2009ʼs low-budget indie film I Am Happy was an opportunity that he described to GQ as “having plenty of curiosity, it wouldn’t come to fruition if there were no opportunities.
Those chances found me at a favourable time, so I think I just took my shots.” Hyun mused, “If I went back in time with the mindset I have now, the productions I take part in could change, since it depends on when I read the script. The inspiration you get from a book changes depending on when you read it, right? I think that I made what I thought were the best choices for me at that time.”
Crash Landing on You, which streamed on Netflix, catapulted him to international acclaim, garnering favourable reactions not only in Asia but across the globe. “Daniel Henneyʼs friends in America told him to make sure to take a picture with me,” recalled Hyun in an interview with W Korea.
After Crash Landing on You, fans from Japan, China, the United States, and France have been heaping praises on you. It has been a while since the series has ended, but it is still captivating global viewers on Netflix, how do you feel about that?
I realised that through over-the-top (OTT) platforms such as Netflix, the whole world is watching us and empathising with us. It seems true that works produced in Korea are influencing the world in a different way than before. Not only Crash Landing on You, but also Squid Game, movies such as Minari and Parasite, and in the music genre, BTS… I feel that nationality and cultural background are gradually but surely being accepted by others. I’m just grateful for it al. But on the other hand, I also feel a weight on my shoulders, especially when I get unexpected fan letters from all around the world.
I’m curious about what’s written in those letters…
Usually, it’s about how much my fans empathised with and enjoyed my drama. About how they started watching other Korean dramas after watching Crash Landing on You, how they want to visit Korea when the situation gets better, and how they want to meet me in person at a fan meeting. (laughs)
It has been nearly 20 years since Nonstop 4, you’ve appeared in many critical films and productions including Secret Garden, Hyde Jekyll, Me, and Memories of the Alhambra; I Am Happy, was a film that greatly influenced your acting career… If we look back on the characters and stories that were “Hyun Bin-ised”, which of your characters were you most influenced by, both in body and mind?
I am asked this question so many times. Who was the most memorable character? Including the time that takes to prepare, from filming and premieres, it takes almost a year to think about and ponder the character. No matter how short it is, I can’t let my character down for at least six months. So, it’s difficult to choose one out of all the characters I’ve had such a strong connection with.
But at this moment, if I must choose only one (laughs), it is Im Cheol-ryung of Confidential Assignment. I just finished filming Season 2 last summer. I would say he’s the character that is currently occupying the largest part of my head.
Your soon-to-be-released movie The Point Men follows not the perspective of the abductees, but the perspective of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Intelligence Service, who must rescue them. I heard the key to the film is to maintain a neutral view of the Taliban hostage to the audience, while also taking a subtle stance in favour of the negotiators. What did you have in mind while playing Dae-sik, the employee of the National Intelligence Service?
Dae-sik is an NIS agent who has been active in the Middle East for a long time. I wanted Dae-sik to be portrayed as a person with a stark difference from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs employee who came from Korea to negotiate. I focused on thinking about how Dae-sik would support the Foreign Ministry workersʼ negotiation.
It is the public’s opinion that Hyun Bin is an actor with an eye for good scripts.
For me, the most important consideration when choosing a role is the story, and whether I can express that story well compared to other actors. Even if it is a show that I really want to do, and I don’t know if this is the right expression, but even if I think it’s a good show, it would be meaningless if I cannot properly express my character. So, from a certain point in my life, I started contemplating whether I can do well in a show compared to other actors.
Is there a scenario or story that you feel a special attraction to?
Looking closely at the scenario, the topic that moves my heart seems to differ depending on the timing and situation when I read the scenario. When social situations are as difficult like these days and when everyone is having a hard time, I think I want to show the opposite of what is happening, so that the audience can forget everything and at least enjoy their time while watching the show.
Do you have your own method for analysing lines or stage directions?
Let me give you an example: “very viciously” for stage direction. A vicious language used to condemn my opponent, the vicious attitude I act while doing so, and the vicious gestures that could be violent; this single phrase requires multiple layers of vicious acting. To be able to truly express “viciously” in that situation is to consider all the possibilities of what could cause “viciousness” in that situation, and then coordinate all these things with my opposing actor and my director during live rehearsals.
We still remember the irresistible Kim Joo-won from 2010’s Secret Garden. There were mothers who followed the series who wanted their sons to dress more like Hyun Bin. Is this your fashion legacy?
(laughs) Kim Joo-won of Secret Garden and the real Hyun Bin are actually quite different. In the show, Joo-won prefers unique styles, whereas I prefer something simpler and more comfortable. But when I need to dress sharp, I am ready to show a new look without hesitation.
Hyun Bin was appointed an official brand ambassador to Italian luxury brand Loro Piana in September 2021. The house saw Hyun Bin as a natural choice to represent it, viewing his interest in humanitarian and environmental issues as aligned with its own values.
(Images: Loro Piana)