Lee Da-hee: Dichotomy

I promise not to make this a regular feature, especially since it’s rare anyway. It’s something I’ve always liked about actors, when an already compelling turn is underscored by just how opposite the performer seems to be in reality. It’s a strange thing to write about, but the actress Lee Da-hee represents an extraordinary case.

After two days, I’m four episodes into Search: WWW, the most cinematic K-drama I’ve seen so far (which is good and bad), and this is immediately after finishing The Beauty Inside, which was absolutely lovely. I cried a lot. As you’ll dutifully recall, I started watching that show for Da-hee, and as a result, discovered she’s arguably been typecast in at least these two roles (and possibly her latest drama, which I haven’t seen yet).

To demonstrate, we begin with a sequence from Search: WWW, presented in its sliver aspect ratio, hardly befitting Lee’s stature perhaps — when they cut to the in-show K-drama, the aspect ratio changes, it goes from 2.35:1 to 16:9, I assume. Anyway, what you’re seeing here is actually the start of the face she makes as she’s being groped (not pictured). It’s a sort of “Is this guy kidding?” because he’s gonna find out. This scene is actually a flashback story told to the protagonist, Bae Ta-mi, whose earlier needling of Da-hee’s character Scarlett has her coworkers afraid for her. What Ta-mi doesn’t know is that Scarlett is a practitioner of martial arts and has a history of violence.

Scarlett says she wishes she were a rich girl (like Kang Sa-ra from The Beauty Inside) so that when she beats up the guys who deserve it, she can just pay the fee. After turning and slapping this elevator guy, she then kicks him in the balls, bringing him down. After the doors open to a witness who wisely chooses not the board the elevator, Scarlett puts her hair up in a ponytail and presses the button for the top floor, promising the man a long ride.

What I really wanted to do was clip this scene and put it on YouTube since it doesn’t exist there, but I don’t currently have the software for that. A shame, because it’s one of my favorite things ever. It’s not lost on me that we had to witness sexual assault to then have the glorious reprisal, but hopefully the pretense for Da-hee to unload her anger on further people becomes, I don’t know, a spectrum. I’ve seen from compilations that do exist on YouTube of Scarlett that she’s got much more in store. Hopefully they compete with the brutality she expresses here. I was actually shocked by this level of violence in a K-drama — but not complaining.

When the flashback ends, we see that Ta-mi’s frozen with fear by the story, her hands shaking.

Episode 3 is where Search: WWW really gets going, starting off with this sequence and then immediately suggesting that Scarlett and the third female lead share a romantic interest. I mean, it’s 2019 already, but it’s also K-drama. I don’t expect much development there. In the meantime, we’ve established something of a visual leitmotif for Da-hee, seen in the picture above and mirrored in The Beauty Inside:

Ah, there’s that 16:9 again. I feel like I can breathe again. But not so fast! Here, after Lee Da-hee’s evil fiancé pushed her into a coffee guy, spilling coffee on her boots, he refuses to apologize — “Buy a new pair of shoes,” he says — we cut wide and dreamboat Eun-ho is just down there. Where did he come from?? Well, a running joke in the show is that Eun-ho works every part-time job in the city, from barista to housekeeper to perfume salesman, and this is how he keeps encountering Sa-ra.

Out of context, this moment looks less romantic than it is. Sa-ra isn’t being domineering — even her body language is “shock stillness.” No, instead, she’s slowly realizing it’s okay to articulate her feelings. But for our narrative here, it’s good, as Eun-ho is the younger and kind-hearted man and Sa-ra is the older and eviler woman. It’s an exciting dynamic that certainly plays to Lee’s acting talents. Sa-ra is a scary and powerful lady, and while she doesn’t deliver any physical violence in this show, usually her steely gaze gets the job done.

For producers, I guess, Lee Da-hee is a woman who impresses upon those around her a power dynamic, one in which she’s on top. She absolutely delivers these two enjoyably comparable characters, the badasses Scarlett and Kang Sa-ra, so much so you’d almost expect her to be this fierce in real life (or at least, her variety show appearances).

Here we have a bright-faced Da-hee about to have her world crushed on Running Man #395. This is a popular variety/game show that’s been broadcast for more than a decade. Da-hee’s been running around and host Lee Kwang-soo lets her know she hasn’t quite apprehended the rules of this particular game. She has a hard time accepting that, so later, one of the producers pulls her aside to explain.

The two Lees make a fan-favorite pairing during Da-hee’s Running Man appearances, and they do have a fun chemistry. She’s at once easily excitable and blunt, so her outbursts are comedy gold. As a comedy veteran, Kwang-soo understands implicitly how best to facilitate and play off that.

From what I’ve seen of Da-hee’s appearances in Law of the Jungle, a reality show where celebrities survive on an island somewhere in the Pacific, she really got into it, smashing coconuts open and looking for things under rocks or at the bottom of the ocean. Getting a good screenshot of her in action was actually difficult because she’s too fast, always spinning away from the camera or rushing into the woods. Also, the floppy hat obscuring her looks of surprise or wonderment.

On Running Man #396, we have a nice reversal. Da-hee’s just so excited, but doesn’t realize that host Jeon So-min needs to concentrate if she’s gonna succeed here, at the ol’ kicking her shoe over a line. “Kick it hard,” Da-hee tells her. “Put it right there.”

So-min can’t take Da-hee buzzing in her ear, so she punches her in the stomach!

How the tables have turned!

By Running Man #400, all is right with the world, as Lee Kwang-soo pleads with her I believe not to be picked for something. (She picks him).

What’s interesting is that all of these variety show appearances precede her being cast in The Beauty Inside, which I have to assume is the birth of her archetype. So my earlier question about what producers see in her is actually in reverse. Either way, it pays off.

To conclude our Scarlett origin story from earlier, she returns to the office after a sparring session, so she’s continuing her stretch (Kwon Yuri-style). Of course, the pinwheeling arms look a lot like an overdue attack for Ta-mi and the others, so she throws her hands up in defense.

But we know — under that steely exterior is a heart of gold! And she’s so damn stylish, I forgot to mention. Her looks in both shows are incredible.

“If I sit here listening with a blank face I look really cold, and people wonder if I’m in a bad mood, I look mad. But since I’m not, I try to smile more. If I don’t, I look really rough.” (GQ Korea)

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