Why are we ignoring the disturbing allegations against 'Squid Game' star Lee Jung-jae?

Why are we ignoring the disturbing allegations against ‘Squid Game’ star Lee Jung-jae?

Photo illustration by Kelly Caminero/The Daily Beast/Getty

Lee Jung-jae won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series at Monday night’s Emmys for his role in Netflix’s global hit squid gamesurpassing the tastes of You better call Saulis Bob Odenkirk and Successionis Jeremy Strong and Brian Cox. In the process, he made history as the first Asian male to win the Emmy for Lead Actor.

For his role as Seong Gi-hun, a divorced father and heavily indebted gambler who is lured into a deadly game of survival with a huge cash prize, Lee became the star of squid game, which still ranks as Netflix’s most-watched series (even though it had a storied career in Korea for decades, including Grand Bell and Baeksang awards). Lee is arguably the most recognizable Korean actor in the world right now – and his star will soar even higher after landing a starring role in The Acolytenext one star wars To display.

But if we’re going to use Lee to celebrate all that’s great and different about Korean TV, we also have to recognize all that he stands for, including how, like in the West, Korean male stars reap the benefits of an industry that leans backwards to protect and preserve their image.

In 1999, Lee was arrested by Gangnam police for driving under the influence and causing a collision with another driver, a 23-year-old woman. His blood alcohol level was 0.22% (in South Korea, the limit is 0.05%). Lee refuted the charge, saying his manager was driving. Three years later, he was charged with the same offence.

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That same year, 1999, he and a friend attacked another drunk man and were charged with assault. He was again charged with assault the following year after he allegedly dragged a 22-year-old woman from a nightclub in Busan and kicked her, causing injuries that took two weeks to recover from. to the hospital.

Fast forward to 2013 where, in an interview with vogue korea, Lee appeared to his friend and prominent stylist, Woo Jong-wan, shortly after his suicide. Before dying, Lee claimed, “I told [him], ‘You should stop being gay. Haven’t you been enough like that? He went on to describe Woo’s homosexuality as an “inconvenience.” The quotes were later taken from online versions of the interview.

Fans claim it was so long ago that it doesn’t matter. Indeed, we should recognize and encourage the growth if We see it. But we didn’t. Lee has not fought the allegations in interviews or shared information about the steps he has taken to rehabilitate; instead, they were all but swept under the rug. We also don’t know if it’s the sum of Lee’s past. We can only judge by what we see, and as you can probably tell from the disappearance of these quotes, what we see of Korean stars is heavily organized – by the film and television industry, by the media and by the fans.

Much of what we see from many Korean artists is a heavily curated image that eliminates imperfections to create an idealized avatar. It’s more evident in K-pop. Groups like BTS and Oh My Girl are carefully managed by labels. Group members live in dormitories, sometimes sharing rooms. Their performances are tightly controlled, both on and off stage. No improvisation; nothing improvised. They become brands – a perpetual reality show that fans can’t tear themselves away from.

It’s not entirely unique to Korea. It is, in many ways, universal for modern celebrities. But while this kind of reputation smoothing in the West often focuses on humanizing celebrities, in Korea it’s about cementing an unrealistic and ambitious ideal that cannot be compromised.

After all, when we recognize public figures as human beings, it is easier to relate their transgressions to them. In Korea, red flags are neatly concealed under layers of markings that may be impossible to dislodge, at least if you’re male.

The leeway Lee enjoyed on these reports has been compared to Johnny Depp. It’s the same kind of fabricated, entrenched image that allows Depp fans to completely dismiss the overwhelming evidence of his abuse, if not punish it.

Likewise, Lee’s fans casually ignore reports of his assaults and homophobia. We do not care? they ask, much more interested in the image they’ve helped build over the years. This kind of violence just doesn’t fit the Lee Jung-jae they’ve convinced themselves they know, driven by the sprawling tendrils of misogyny that protect men in the film and television industry across the globe.

The same misogyny that isolates Lee from these reports means that in Korea, men can survive accusations of sexual harassment and assault, while rumors of bullying can derail Seo Ye-ji’s career, or that Song Ji-a wearing fake designer clothes makes her wear the mark. dishonest and kicked out of social media.

This same misogyny allows Depp to continue garnering endorsements and acting gigs while Amber Heard may never work in the industry again – and other men use it as a way to vilify their own. accusers.

It’s easy for Western audiences to forget all of this while watching Korean TV, getting lost in a culture that many of us know very little about. But if we’re going to engage with Korean TV (and we should, it’s amazing), we have to understand that what we’re seeing is a carefully constructed fabrication of what Korea should look like, where everything that could being considered a flaw is censored off the shows. And its stars are also isolated from ideas that run counter to Korean ideals – for example, that one of Korea’s biggest stars might not be as sharp as managers, assistants and goalies want him to appear. .

I want people to fall in love with Korean TV – it’s a rewarding love story – and hail the success of its stars in a global market. But we also need to understand that beneath ostensibly positive stories of men like Lee Jung-jae achieving global stardom, there can be as much darkness as there is in places like Hollywood.

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