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Korean idol Lee Byung-hun makes waves overseas

  • Story Highlights
  • South Korean actor Lee Byung-hun is starting to connect with global audiences
  • The "James Dean of Asia" sizzles in Korean western "The Good, the Bad, the Weird"
  • Lee is due to make his Hollywood debut in next summer's blockbuster "G.I. Joe"
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By Grace Wong
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Lee Byung-hun's arrival in the packed auditorium at a London screening of his latest film, "The Good, The Bad, The Weird," causes a well-behaved sizzle of excitement to run through the largely female and Asian audience.

Lee (left) and co-star Song Kang-ho promote the action-packed western at the Pusan International Film Festival.

Lee Byung-hun takes a walk on the dark side in "The Good, The Bad, The Weird."

His name is whispered breathlessly between friends, but in a classic display of Asian politeness, the only indication there is a genuine heartthrob in the room are a couple of poorly contained shrieks.

Tall, exquisitely chiseled and with the kind of smooth line-free skin that belies his 38 years, it's not hard to see why Lee is also known as the "James Dean of Asia."

In his native South Korea he is best known for brooding, soulful performances in romantic films and TV dramas.

He's a hot star now, especially after his eye-catching performance in "The Good, The Bad, The Weird," says Jean Noh, deputy Asia editor based in Korea for global film trade magazine Screen International.

"He has huge popularity, it seems, in Japan and amongst their diaspora as well, thanks to his TV and film roles," she says.

And, now, he is starting to make a name for himself outside Asia.

Lee is set to grace UK screens in January when Kim Jee-woon's so-called Kimchi western, "The Good, the Bad, the Weird," is released.

Next year will see him co-star with Josh Hartnett in the crime thriller "I Come with the Rain," directed by Vietnamese Tran Anh Hung who made his name on the global movie scene in 1993 with "The Scent of Green Papaya." Lee has also wrapped up filming on the highly anticipated Hollywood action flick, "G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra."

Lee is in London to promote "The Good, the Bad, the Weird," and is polite and unassuming in person, taking time to reflect as he delivers his responses in English.

"People told me, 'Your eyes changed. You look so bad,'" Lee says of playing the film's titular "Bad," a sadistic killer who heads up a gang of bandits. "I was so happy about that."

From his black leather-clad hands to his wild, psychotic eyes, an air of cool, remorseless detachment envelops him. In a review, Variety described Lee's eyes as "commanding" and having a "Korean psycho-gangster mentality."

It is an unsettling performance, and one of the film's many highlights.

After playing primarily romantic leads, Lee says playing a villain was a refreshing experience for him and something he'd been thinking about for his entire acting career.

"Actors always want to play the villain role at least once in their life. I had a good time because I could finally realize a full range of expressions and emotions," he told CNN.

Set in the 1930s, the film follows three Korean outlaws on a chase across the desert plains of Japan-occupied Manchuria on a hunt for a legendary treasure map.

The movie hits on a trifecta: It stars three of South Korea's leading actors (Lee is joined on screen by Song Kang-ho and Jung Woo-sung), has a massive $17 million budget and is helmed by the award-winning Kim.

With stunning wide shots of endless horizons filmed in China's Gobi Desert and edge-of-your-seat action from start to finish, Kim's homage to Sergio Leone's 1966 classic "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," with more than a hint of "Indiana Jones" delivers a steady stream of adrenaline. Have you seen "The Good, The Bad, The Weird?" What did you think?

Lee says his character was perfected through several conversations, discussions and arguments with Kim, a close friend who also directed him in 2005's "A Bittersweet Life."

Everybody has bad characters in their mind, even if it may be small or in their subconscious, Lee explains, referring to his preparation for the role.

"Of course, I have that kind of character inside of me, I think. So, I amplified my bad side. But the main thing is the mind, I think, which comes from the inside," he told CNN.

Lee has always had star power, says Noh from Screen International. "But he had to grow into his acting chops. He worked prolifically in TV and film, and seems serious about his career choices," she says.

This role is the screen idol's latest step in a slow break out from "type," since his turn as an enforcer for an underworld boss in the film noir "A Bittersweet Life."

In South Korea, where celebrities are closely scrutinized by the public and Internet gossip is rampant, Lee, who is a target because of his film star status, says he tries his best to steer clear of online chatter.

The spread of rumors over the Web is one of the biggest problems that exists in South Korea. The recent suicide of one of the nation's leading actresses was blamed on online gossip.

"There has to be change," Lee said. "I try not to read those kinds of things. I think it's better to do that."

This may have been easier for him recently, as he has been busy working on projects outside of South Korea, although, he says these too hold their challenges.

Working in Hollywood was difficult, especially acting in English which, says Lee, made it harder for him to focus on his emotions and expressions.

Lee plays Storm Shadow in the action movie "G.I. Joe," which is due for release next summer. The movie, based on the popular comic and cartoon series, boasts a star-studded cast, including Sienna Miller and Dennis Quaid.

"Everything was so different. It was really hard," he said about filming "G.I. Joe." "But it was a very good experience for me."

He's now back in Korea working but isn't ruling out the possibility of returning to Hollywood. He says he could envision going back and forth between South Korea and the U.S.

"Of course, if they have good projects for me, then I would participate."

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