Kim Ok-vin is an actor you need to know; her on-screen presence exudes infectious energy, she is commanding and steadfast, and her career keeps going great guns.
If many actors prioritize being seen the way the audience wants to see them, the gutsy ones go for the anomalies—roles regardless of whether a character is complex, crazy, likable, or not. That’s my impression of Kim Ok-vin or Kim Ok-bin, the 37-year-old Korean actress who commits herself to challenging portrayals, carving out something fine invariably. Kim may embody the wrath, audacity, brazenness, and unspoken desires of characters while remaining fierce and fascinating, adeptly navigating through dramatic personality shifts in her works.
The ghoulish movie Voice—the fourth entry in the Whispering Corridors film series—was her first. It marked the feature film debuts of director Choi Ik-hwan and three actresses, including Kim. During its 2006 San Francisco Korean American Film Festival screening, Kim stole the show with her turn in the film, earning nods for Best New Actress at the Baeksang Arts Awards and the Blue Dragon Film Awards. She lacked an acting background to aid her, so it was off to an impressive start, and the rest is history.
Her physical and mental fortitude are inherent, given that she is an avid fitness enthusiast who trained for a while in boxing, Muay Thai, and other forms of martial arts. If not, what could’ve driven a young, novice actor to sign for the role of the “poor girl” in the musical comedy film Dasepo Naughty Girls (2006)? She portrayed a breadwinner for her family, living off prostitution. Thus, she had to have the courage to pull off the bold part, which she did, and she did it with proven poise.
Her succeeding roles entailed experimenting, testing, and pushing limits. Playing traits out of her comfort zone, Kim has dared to explore new ground and succeeded. From a starring role in the drama Hello, God (2006) as a swindler to being an aspiring pop star in Over the Rainbow (2006), which called for her to perform breakdance and sing, to a Joseon-era kisaeng in her next film, The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan (2008), a significant portrayal that she described as difficult, citing Korean media.
My admiration for Kim swelled tenfold once I saw Thirst, filmmaker Park Chan-wook‘s gem of abject terror. After a botched medical experiment turns Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), a Catholic priest, into a vampire, he discovers his obsession with Tae-ju (Kim), his dear friend’s wife. Thirst is surprising, erotic, and vicious. Don’t interpret it as another vampire flick if you haven’t seen it. And see Thirst if you haven’t seen any of Kim’s other works. You will love seeing someone veering from subservient to dominant with ease. She’s hot; her displays of lust and passion are terrific, as is her uncanny capacity to kill without pause to feed her killer instincts.
Besides the film’s many wins, Kim was nominated at the Blue Dragon, Green Globe, and Baeksang Arts Awards at the time, and she co-won the Best Actor award at the 42nd Sitges Film Festival, alongside Elena Anaya for Hierro.
Kim Ok-vin’s oeuvre implies her penchant for crafting characters that draw you into their worlds. Among the finest of these vibrant, quirky characters are Cha Tae-Kyeong, a North Korean sniper from the 2011 war film The Frontline; Han Dong-hwa, a pink-haired character from the 2012 heist film Over My Dead Body; Young-eun, a researcher from the 2013 sci-fi thriller 11 A.M.; Princess So-hee/Moo-young, who assumes the identity of a male warrior in the 2013 period epic TV drama The Blade and Petal; Kang Yoo-na, an ace pickpocket from the 2014 romantic comedy crime drama Steal Heart; and Gong Soo-kyung, a reporter from the 2015 courtroom drama film, Minority Opinion.
Kim Ok-vin has an unreserved urge to flex herself in an action account, I feel. In her titular act as The Villainess (2017), directed by Jung Byung-gil, she almost detonated on screen, reclaiming her charisma and competence. The film opened at the 70th Cannes Film Festival and was given a long-standing ovation.
It’s filled to the brim with obscenely thrilling and baffling ingredients directed at an erratic and merciless act of payback by Sook-hee (Kim), acting as a professional executioner, who initiates a violent and vengeful mission for her personal freedom and traumatic past. As soon as she walks into a hallway right off the bat, she executes many people, giving us a preview of what’s ahead. With Sook-hee, it seems Kim made a mark for herself in the genre of high-octane action Korean films.
More projects thereafter: A military thriller action film The Discloser (2018); the fantasy thriller drama Children of a Lesser God (2018); the period fantasy drama Arthdal Chronicles (2020); and of course, the stupendous romantic comedy Love to Hate You (2023), securing a place in our list of the 10 best K-dramas of 2023—are other notable titles in her set that reiterate what Kim Ok-vin’s acting encapsulates. It’s freewheeling at times, unpredictable at others, yet consistently controlled.