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Ma Dong Seok – the muscular man that ruled over the Korean cinema

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Fans of Korean movies have to acknowledge that actor Ma Dong Seok, also known as Don Lee, has his own brand that cannot be replicated by anyone. 

The online research company PMI recently asked Koreans from 20-60s the keywords they’d associate with actor Ma Dong Seok. The answer, in sequential order, includes :”Muscular”, “Strong”, and “Mavely” – a combination of “Ma” in Ma Dong Seok and “lovely”. 

Ma Dong Seok
Keywords most associated with Ma Dong Seok includes: “Muscular”, “Strong”, and “Mavely”

Just like the aforementioned results, Ma Dong Seok’s cinematic image isn’t always song and muscular. Instead, he also shows kindness, maturity, and a complex range of emotions through his roles. In Korea, Ma Dong Seok is as iconic as “The Rock” (Dwayna Johnson) or Arnold Schwarzenegger in Hollywood. 

The unique brand of Ma Dong Seok 

Debuted as an actor since his 20s, Ma Dong Seok has been active in the industry for 2 decades. A “frequent” role of the actor is a middle-aged man with a rough exterior and a much softer personality. 

Ma Dong Seok
A “frequent” role of the actor is a middle-aged man with a rough exterior and a much softer personality

This is most apparent in cop Ma Seok Do from “The Outlaw”, a role that would also appear in the movie’s sequel “Roundup”. The role is so much like Ma Dong Seok that it almost seems like the actor is playing himself. Even the director admitted that the character’s name, Ma Seok Do, is a sort of anagram from Ma Dong Seok.

Originally a personal trainer, Ma Dong Seok boasted a muscular frame with weight surpassing 100 kilograms, which gave him the ultimate badass image. Audiences burst out laughing in anticipation when the main antagonist of “Veteran” unexpectedly runs into Ma Dong Seok’s very grumpy character in the third act, making his 30-second cameo among the most talked-about scenes in the movie.

Ma Dong Seok
Ma Dong Seok’s cinematic persona is not just a brawny figure

However, Ma Dong Seok’s cinematic persona is not just a brawny figure. In “The Outlaw,” Ma Seok Do is ruthless to local gangsters but cares for civilians, and his key motivation is to protect.

In “Train to Busan (2016),” he plays the soon-to-be-father Sang Awa who throws himself to the horde of zombies to protect his pregnant wife. 

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “The Eternals (2021),” he plays Gilgamesh, an immortal protector of the Earth with unmatched strength – and a caretaker of his loved ones.

Ma Dong Seok
Ma Dong Seok played Gilgamesh in Marvel’s “The Eternals”

Even when he plays a gangster in “Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos (2019),” his violence is aimed mostly at the greater evil, making him a type of “cider character.” A “cider character” is a reference to a Korean non-alcoholic carbonated beverage called Chilsung Cider, and is used for characters who deliver rightful verbal or physical violence against hated villains.

Typecasting in Korea

Typecasting is nothing new on small screens in Korea. A phrase that showcases this is “melodrama queen,” a title claimed by numerous actresses who play stereotypical female leads in romance dramas.

Song Hye Kyo, who started her career as a cheery teenage daughter in a sitcom, built her reputation as a melodrama queen through her breakout drama “Autumn in My Heart (2000).” She then went on to make her career as a female lead with a tragic backstory, struggling from miserable fate or serious illness throughout other hits like “All In (2003)” and “That Winter, The Wind Blows (2013)”.

Song Hye Kyo
Song Hye Kyo is the prime example of a “melodrama queen”

Choi Ji Woo, the star of K-dramas “Winter Sonata (2002)” and “Stairway to Heaven (2003-04),” is another actress who seems to be crying in just about every production she is in. Despite all of this, however, typecasting has been mostly confined to TV series, rather than films. 

Son Ye Jin was one of the most popular melo queens of her time, but has since expanded her acting range through roles on the big screen. She earned various awards for her roles in the period drama “The Last Princess (2016)” and the action and adventure film “The Pirates (2014).”

song kang ho
Recently crowned Best Actor at the 2022 Cannes International Film Festival, Song Kang Ho was nicknamed “a treasure of Korean cinema”.

Looking at the list of recipients for best lead actors at the Dae Jong Film Awards, one of the country’s oldest and most prestigious movie awards, there are few typecast actors on the list. Son Ye Jin and Jeon Ji Hyun both won the best actress awards, but both of their wins were far cries from their regular melodramas. 

Movie legends like Youn Yuh Jung and the late Kang Soo Youn, along with established male actors like Song Kang Ho, Choi Min Sik and Lee Byung Hun, all boast extraordinary versatility. This wide range is considered one of the most important acting skills on the big screen. Song Kang Ho, for example, is not only one of the most talented actors, but also one with top-notch box office success.

Ma Dong Seok
Ma Dong Seok is still one of the most respected movie stars in Korean cinema, despite typecasting. 

In 2020, the Korean movie magazine The Screen compiled the number of tickets sold, of all Korean actors’ works from 2009 to 2019. It took into account how many tickets were sold in the country each year to evaluate their relative success. Song Kang Ho was ranked 3rd, while the top place was claimed by Ha Jung Woo, another actor known for his versatility.

What’s notable is that Ma Dong Seok came in 10th, as one of the few typecast actors in the ranking. Still, despite being limited to one certain type of role in most of his works, Ma Dong Seok is still quickly becoming one of the most respected movie stars in Korean cinema.

Source: The Korea Herald

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