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Star-studded films shift industry : As top actors take up minor roles, rookies see opportunities fade

Feb 28,2017
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For A-list movie stars, taking on supporting roles used to hurt their pride, especially when their co-stars were actors seen as their rivals. That, however, has become passe, as an increasing number of top actors these days are actively and willingly taking on minor roles that used to be reserved for less renowned or fresh-faced actors. Though some may praise top celebrities for their change in attitude in accepting a new challenge, such moves could deprive other actors from already rare acting opportunities.

Actress Um Jee-won, who debuted in 2002 and has had striking leading performances in “The Silenced” (2015) and most recently in “Missing” (2016), chose to take on a supporting role in last year’s “Master,” playing a co-worker of an investigator played by actor Gang Dong-won. Though her charismatic performance was memorable, her role in the film was limited.

Another actress Kim A-joong was seen to have made a similar move by appearing in “The King,” which hit theaters last month. Best known for her lead role in “200 Pound Beauty” (2006), the renowned actress appeared in a small role as the wife of an ambitious prosecutor, played by actor Zo In-sung. One of the most sought for Korean actors Hwang Jung-min of megahits “Ode to My Father” (2014) and “Veteran” (2015) also played a supporting role in last year’s “The Wailing,” in which he played a shaman. Though many questioned Hwang’s decision, the 46-year-old said in a press preview in May that he was “honored to join the wonderful movie regardless of the role” and that his “role in the film wasn’t important since it was based on an impressive script.”

The trend will continue this year with one of Korea’s top actors Lee Jeong-jae of “Assassination” (2015) joining the upcoming “With God” (working title). His role will be a lot smaller than those played by less experienced actors, including Ha Jung-woo and Cha Tae-hyun.

Also, actor Yoo Hai-jin of recent blockbusters like last month’s “Confidential Assignment” and “Luck-Key” (2016) is also mulling over joining the historical film tentatively titled “1987,” about student activist Park Jong-chul who died during a police interrogation in 1987, after the main cast has been confirmed.

Several reasons lie behind the change in the attitudes of these popular actors. “When actors choose which movie to star in, they don’t just see the movie itself,” said a professor who teaches film at a university in Seoul and runs a production company, who asked to remain anonymous.

“Who the distributor is and what director is at the helm are also important factors that actors consider before deciding to be a part of a new project. In the case of Hwang Jung-min, for example, it is presumed that he also took into account 20th Century Fox’s distribution power, the amount of capital inflow from the United States, and the skills of director Na Hong-jin before making up his mind to join ‘The Wailing.’”

Actresses, however, may be forced to take on minor roles for survival. “The number of recognized movies made annually in Korea is limited, and the roles offered to actresses in those films are more confined,” said the professor. “In order to survive, they choose to play even minor roles by judging on how much influence the film may have. Also, the relations they may form with the director and production company, [which could lead to future roles] are other reasons they decide to join.”

Though the decisions that stars make do not necessarily intimidate the industry as a whole, it could pose a threat to individuals. “‘Asura: the City of Madness’ (2016), for example, was not orginally meant to be such a star-studded movie (with appearances by Jung Woo-sung, Hwang Jung-min, and Ju Ji-hoon),” added the professor. “But the power of its production company (Sanai Pictures) upgraded the level of the actors by two to three ranks, repositioning the film that was originally mapped out, and thereby, depriving opportunities for lesser known actors [that could have nabbed the roles].”

Cultural critic Ha Jae-geun expressed a stronger stance on this trend. “Simultaneously casting A-list actors has become a norm in movies these days because they have started considering characters instead of the weight of roles when deciding which film to join.”

This reduces the chances of less experienced actors that are at the stage of building up their career, according to Ha. “In the past, two top actors played main roles while the rest were given to less renowned actors. Now, however, filling screens with A-list actors has become a custom.”

“For audiences, they’re forced to see the same faces on screen over and over again. This trend in general takes away the vibrancy of the Korean film industry.”

BY JIN MIN-JI [jin.minji@joongang.co.kr]