South Korean actor Lee Sun-kyun
South Korean actor Lee Sun-kyun Image Credit: Hodu&U Entertainment

The sudden news of the death of Lee Sun-kyun, a popular South Korean actor, on December 27, shocked fans across the globe sparking strong reactions on social media.

The 48-year-old actor, best known for his role in the Oscar-winning movie ‘Parasite’, was found dead in a car in Seoul, earlier today. Early reports suggest that he committed suicide amid an intense police investigation into his alleged drug use.

According to a report by South Korea’s Yonhap agency, the actor had recently gone through three rounds of police questioning on suspicions of using marijuana and other illegal drugs at the home of a hostess working at a high-end bar in Seoul's Gangnam district on multiple occasions since early this year. One round of questioning lasted for 19 hours.

The actor reportedly claimed he was tricked by the hostess into taking the drugs and that he did not know what he was taking.

Sun-kyun tested negative in both the brief reagent test conducted during police investigations and the lab-based drug test by the National Forensic Service last month, The Korea Times reported.

In his first appearance for questioning on October 28, the actor apologised for "causing immense disappointment”. He said: "I am sorry for my family, who are enduring extreme pain at this moment."

The actor also filed a complaint against two people, including the hostess, accusing them of blackmailing and swindling him out of money. Claiming his innocence, he also submitted to a polygraph test request the previous day.

His agency, Hodu&U Entertainment, said in a statement: "There is no way to contain the sorrow and despair. We respectfully ask that you refrain from spreading false facts based on speculation... so that [Sun-kyun’s] final journey will not be unfair."

Sun-kyun’s rise to fame

Sun-kyun rose to international fame with his role as Park Dong-ik in the 2019 South Korean movie Parasite. In the film, he played the father of the wealthy Park family, which is infiltrated by members of a poor family posing as unrelated individuals. The film swept four awards at the Oscars in 2020, including Best Picture - becoming the first non-English language film to win the Academy Awards prize.

However, Sun-kyun was a household name in South Korea way before Parasite. The actor has starred in dozens of films and popular Korean TV shows.

A graduate of South Korea's prestigious Korea National University of Arts, Lee Sun-kyun marked his acting debut in the year 2000, as the lead actor in the short film ‘Psyco Drama’, a story about a lonely nurse.

On television, he first appeared on South Korean broadcaster MBC's sitcom series ‘Lovers’ in 2001, playing an unemployed troublemaker.

His role as Choi Do-young in the 2007 medical drama ‘Behind the White Tower’, pushed him into the limelight. The drama, which portrayed the intense competition among doctors and administrators in hospitals, won him the Golden Acting Award for the best actor in a miniseries, at the MBC Drama Awards and a nomination for best new actor in the television category during the 43rd Baeksang Arts Awards the same year.

He continued appearing in hit TV dramas through the early 2010s, with major roles in ‘Coffee Prince’ (2007), ‘Pasta’ (2010), and ‘Golden Time’ (2012).

He married South Korean actress Jeon Hye-jin in 2009 and the couple had two children.

Sun-kyun also carved a prominent place on the silver screen with dozens of short films and roles in hit movies such as ‘Night and Day’ (2008), ‘Visitors’ (2009), ‘Oki's Movie’ (2010), and ‘Nobody's Daughter Haewon’ (2013).

The latter two movies saw him invited to prestigious film festivals around the world. According to a report by The Korea Herald, he went to the Venice Film Festival with director Hong's ‘Oki's Movie’ in 2010 and the Berlin Film Festival with director Hong's ‘Nobody's Daughter Haewon’ in 2013.

He was invited to the 67th Cannes Film Festival with the 2014 action flick ‘A Hard Day’ directed by Kim Seong-hun. The same role won him a Baeksang Arts Award for Best Leading Actor in Film in 2015.

He was also the first Korean actor to present two films at Cannes – ‘Sleep’ and action thriller ‘Project: Silence’, according to The Korea Herald report. The release date of ‘Project: Silence’ has not been decided.

His role in the critically acclaimed 2018 drama ‘My Mister’ propelled him to the top, bringing him a devoted K-drama fanbase.

The cast of the Oscar-winning movie Parasite also won other accolades such as ‘Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture’ during the 26th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards and the 2019 Seattle Film Critics Society Awards. It also won the ‘Best Ensemble Cast’, along with the ‘Best Ensemble’ in the 17th International Cinephile Society Awards.

In 2021, he starred in director Kim Jee-woon's Apple TV+ debut project ‘Dr. Brain’. Last year, he was nominated for the best actor award at the International Emmy Awards for his role in the sci-fi film.

Damaged reputation

Idols and celebrities in South Korea are held to high standards of propriety. Sun-kyun used to have a clean, family-man image before the alleged drug case. However, reports of the investigation cause significant damage to his reputation.

He was dropped from ‘No Way Out’, a mystery TV series that began shooting in October. The production of the second season of ‘Dr Brain’ was cancelled last month.

According to multiple South Korean media reports, some businesses were seen taking down posters and advertisements featuring the actor from their stores.

Police said they regretted that Lee had died amid investigations, but that the inquiry had been "conducted with [his] consent", News1 Korea reported.

Social media reactions

Many fans took to Twitter to express grief.

Tweep @undercoverARMY4 wrote: “I feel like re-watching ‘My Mister’ just to feel the sadness one more time. I can’t believe this is how we lost Lee Sun-Kyun. Such a heartbreaking way to leave this world when you had such a beautiful way of helping tell stories of loss and pain.”

And, @katsitsiyo posted: “Lee Sun-kyun has brought me so much joy from his acting in Coffee Prince alone. His passing makes me so sad.”