South Korea’s greatest action hero carries an American passport, and actually went to college in Ohio. Since his show-stopping role in Train to Busan, Don Lee (aka Ma Dong-seok) has become one of the most popular stars in Asia. And with his appearance as Gilgamesh in Eternals, Lee is now poised to win over American viewers as well.
With Oscars for Parasite and Minari and Squid Game dominating television ratings, South Korean culture is having a moment. Netflix is developing more Korean movies and TV shows, including Hellbound by Train to Busan director Yeon Sang-ho.
Ask Koreans who their favorite movie star is, and more likely than not Lee will be near the top of the list. A dominating presence, Lee mixes fearsome physicality with grace and humor. He commands the screen, whether star or supporting player.
Lee doesn’t look like a movie star. He’s short and burly, with rough features, thinning hair and bags under his eyes. He looks like an ex-con, a bouncer, an American interloper. Lee has followed the same path as Dave Bautista and Vin Diesel: hulking actors who rose from extras to leading parts. Like Jackie Chan, Lee cites Sylvester Stallone as a role model, and has gone after similar roles.
Whether hero or villain, he’s comfortable in straight action fare, sci-fi hybrids like Train to Busan, broad comedies, crime dramas — the bread-and-butter of cinema everywhere. And he is invariably the best thing in his movies: the strongest presence, the one you remember later.
Born in Korea, he moved to Montana at the age of 19. A US citizen, he’s lived all over the country: New York, Texas, California. A Phys Ed major at Ohio’s Columbus State Community College, he took a series of odd jobs — construction, truck driving, bartender, bouncer — before finding a niche as a personal trainer to UFC fighters like Mark Coleman and Kevin Randleman.
Lee returned to Korea for a part in Heaven’s Soldiers but had trouble winning more roles, mostly because he didn’t look like an actor. He went back to work as a personal trainer while continuing rounds of auditions.
He finally started to get noticed with 2012’s Nameless Gangster: Rules of Time, and as a cop in Chronicles of Evil (2015). That same year he played — yep, you guessed it — a bouncer in one episode of Sense8.
Train to Busan (2016) changed everything. Lee’s role as a quick-witted zombie fighter won over viewers around the world. Several movies followed in quick succession, comedies and fantasy as well as action.
Lee turned producer, forming Team Gorilla to develop projects. In 2018, he released five movies that cemented his position with Korean audiences. (That year he was named Gallup Korea’s Film Actor of the Year.) Two of the best, Champion and Unstoppable, were picked up internationally. The following year, The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil arrived, a high-concept crime drama that’s being adapted into a vehicle for Stallone himself.
As an American citizen, Lee is acutely aware of discrimination, an issue he tackled head-on in Champion. Simply by standing next to fellow performers, he forces Korean viewers to face up to their biases and prejudices.
Through all his success he’s remained a working-class hero. He’s taken roles that let him comment on society with the same scorn and sarcasm as Parasite. His movies underscore the realities of Korean society, the pervasive corruption, the crooked cops, the gangs who control the marketplace, the haters at sporting events.
He turns that hurt back onto himself, refusing to quit, to accept second-class status, to admit failure. His perseverance may be the quality that Koreans admire the most in him.
After a change-of-pace role in 2019’s sci-fi blockbuster Ashfall, Lee has stepped into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Chloe Zhao’s Eternals. Until — or perhaps after — you see it, here are the other Don Lee films you should focus on to get the full picture of his range as an actor (as well as a couple to avoid) …
Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time (2012)
An elaborate organized crime drama told with Scorsese’s gravitas. Lee plays a bodyguard to his brother-in-law, a second-rate crook being squeezed out of the mob. It’s a small part, but Lee nails his role as a wannabe thug in over his head. Dressed in a skin-tight suit and flailing his arms and legs with fake karate moves, he’s a sad-sack victim, but a funny one. Director Yoon Jong-bin was so impressed he kept finding ways to feature Lee in more scenes.
Train to Busan (2015)
Director Yeon Sang-ho’s zombie apocalypse thriller has already spawned a standalone sequel (Peninsula) and a threatened America remake from producer James Wan. Yeon’s latest effort, the Hellbound series, premieres on Netflix November 15.
While Gong Yoo as a selfish workaholic and Kim Su-an as his daughter are the ostensible stars, Lee is the character audiences root for. He plays a blue-collar worker fiercely protective of his pregnant wife, and his combination of anger and brawn anchors the film’s action scenes.
Taut, dark, gritty, this film noir has Lee in a supporting role as a mob-connected manager of an in-name-only karaoke bar that functions as a low-rent brothel. Four hapless teen runaways hiding from a violent felon just out of jail try to take advantage of Lee, setting off several violent chases that play out in flophouses, alleyways, and convenience stores. It’s a great role for Lee, his propensity for “good guy” villains undermined by a script that keeps emphasizing his bad side.
The Bros (2017)
A very broad comedy with a ridiculously complicated setup involving a car accident victim who claims amnesia, an archaelogical professor’s heavy debts, and succession battles after a patriarch’s death. Lee seems to be having fun playing a misguided professor, but this is a case where comedy does not translate well.
The Outlaws (2017)
Lee’s best film so far is a fast, tough crime drama about a war between Korean gangs and Chinese interlopers. Lee’s a cop, but he’s hard to tell apart from the bad guys. He steals freebies with prostitutes, passes out in gang bars, tortures suspects and shows the slums he patrols that he clearly doesn’t care about the law. The new Chinese crooks are casually vicious and have the old-line gangsters bewildered by how the rules have changed, and it’s up to Lee and his squad to somehow broker peace. It’s a joy watching Lee at work, not even bothering to make a fist when he knocks opponents off their feet.
Borrowed from Stallone’s Over the Top, including saccharine family scenes. Lee might just be playing himself here: a bouncer deported to Korea after getting in trouble with the law. He struggles to find his place in a society where people call him monster and beast. He complains, “I’m not human to them.”
Although he’s a popular celebrity, Lee portrays an undercurrent of bitterness and resentment that’s both startling and honest. He is forcing Koreans to confront their racism and bigotry in the very form of the popcorn entertainment they love the best. Still, it’s a sugar-sweet films about arm-wrestling and a dysfunctional family.
By this point in his career Lee knows exactly what audiences want: a loser anti-hero whose life is teetering on the edge until he turns into avenging hero in the final reel. A former crook-turned-fishmonger, Lee is at the mercy of gangsters who control the fish market, con men who trick him into king crab schemes, and sex traffickers who kidnap his wife after a traffic skirmish. It takes a long time for Lee to explode, but once he does, the movie attains a propulsive momentum.
The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil (2019)
Lee steals every one of his scenes in this entertaining if derivative genre piece. The movie pits a won’t-follow-the-rules cop (Kim Moo-yul) and a besieged-on-all-sides crime boss (Lee) against a serial killer (Kim Sung-kyu) who finds victims by crashing into their cars. Lee executes his stunts with bone-crunching precision, especially during a one-sided knife fight on a deserted street.
Your chance to see Don Lee aping K-Pop routines in a karaoke bar. In an otherwise middling coming-of-age story about two teen misfits, Lee plays a short-order cook with a violent past.
An earthquake unleashes a volcano that threatens to destroy Seoul in this big-budget disaster epic, a knock-off of everything from San Andreas to The Wandering Earth. Lee plays geology professor Kang Bong-rae, who concludes that the only way to save South Korea from annihilation is to steal nuclear warheads from North Korea. Unfortunately, no one wants to see Lee as a milquetoast professor who hides under his desk.
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