Lee Byung Hun is brushing up on his English to take on Hollywood

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 28, 2013

South Korean actor Lee Byung Hun wishes he had studied English more when he was younger, because he now has to read movie scripts in both English and Korean.

It is not a bad problem to have, of course. Lee has seen his stock in Hollywood rise in recent years, and as he appears in the new G.I. Joe: Retaliation opposite Dwayne Johnson, Channing Tatum and Bruce Willis, the 42-year-old is getting offers from both the United States and South Korea.

"Yeah, I should've learnt more English, but I was lazy, I guess," he tells Life! in Beverly Hills.

During the entire one-on-one interview, he speaks in English, turning to the interpreter sitting next to him only once. His conversational fluency comes from attending a language centre in Seoul for two years when he was 18, and having English-speaking relatives who live in Los Angeles and Seattle.

But he explains that "speaking in English and acting in English are very different".

"It's much harder acting in English in front of the camera. I need to express a lot of things, but it's their language."

A mega star in Asia, the actor is reprising his role as the assassin Storm Shadow in G.I. Joe: Retaliation, having played the same character in the first instalment in 2009, G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra. Retaliation opens in Singapore today.

With the movie studio hoping to turn G.I. Joe into a franchise, Lee knows his large fan base in Asia is excited about his role in the new film.

"G.I. Joe is a really big blockbuster worldwide, and they think it's amazing. My part is even bigger in this one, so I guess they're excited about that. Their reaction to the first film was good, maybe they'll like this one, too," he says.

Between the G.I. Joe movies, the star of Korean television series such as All In (2003) and Beautiful Days (2001) returned to the small screen in a leading role in the hit spy show Iris (2009).

The G.I. Joe franchise and his roles in internationally acclaimed Korean films such as the "kimchi" comedy western The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008) and the noirish A Bittersweet Life (2005) earned him a spot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame last year. He and 61-year-old fellow South Korean Ahn Sung Ki became the first Asian actors to leave their handprints on the famous sidewalk.

Lee says he is trying not to think too much about this and other recent successes he has had in the US because of the burden of expectation that comes whenever it looks like an Asian actor is finally cracking Hollywood.

"If I get more famous, there's definitely more pressure there. A lot of pressure and responsibility," says Lee, who is dating South Korean actress Lee Min Jung, 31. "And if an actor feels that, then he cannot move or think freely. So I try not to think about those things. I live my life and I do my job."

His raised profile is another sign of what some in the US have described as a South Korean "invasion".

Its entertainment products and stars, already well-known across Asia, have also been making inroads into Hollywood and American pop culture recently, with rapper Psy's viral hit Gangnam Style being the biggest triumph to date.

Director Kim Ji Woon, who made The Good, The Bad, The Weird, was chosen to direct Arnold Schwarzenegger in his big action comeback this year, The Last Stand. Oldboy auteur Park Chan Wook, who directed Lee in Joint Security Area (2000), helmed the recent psychological thriller Stoker, starring Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode.

On the other side of the camera, actress Bae Doo Na had a major role in the blockbuster Cloud Atlas last year, while Lee himself is due to appear in Red 2 alongside Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Helen Mirren, later this year.

Despite the language issue, the actor says he has found things to like about acting in American films.

"The timeline is more reasonable in the States. They start at 6 or 7am, and they don't work for more than 12 hours. That's good because if they know when they finish, they know when they start, and they can make another schedule after that.

"In Korea, they don't know when they will finish, and sometimes they work through the night for a few days."

The downside: He is wary of being pigeonholed the way many other East Asian actors have been - trotted out only for standard-issue martial arts films or other racially stereotypical roles.

"That's a big concern for Asian actors. I like every genre of movie, as long as the story is good. I also don't want to be typecast. Fortunately, I am also getting offered romantic comedies and drama. I think that's a good sign."

G.I. Joe: Retaliation opens in Singapore today.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 28, 2013

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