One of the feature guests at this year's edition of the New York Asian Film Festival was Korean actress Kong Hyo-Jin, present to support the one-two punch of her festival-screening films Crush and Blush and Dachimawa Lee. Charles Webb had the chance to sit and talk with her.
[Twitch would like to thank Grady Hendrix of the NYAFF and interpreter Mina Park and of course Ms. Kong for facilitating this interview]
Charles Webb: How are you enjoying New York so far?
Hyo-jin Kong: Good.
C: Have you actually seen any other films at the festival?
HJK: No. Not yet.
CW: So, how did you come across the role of Mi-Sook?
HJK: First I read the script and the character’s very unique and I really was tormented about whether to do the role because there’s a lot of construction going on for an actress. Her face reddens and it’s not the most attractive of roles. I really wondered for the longest time and met with the director and was tormented. But this poor girl of a character keep creeping and grabbing on to me. She kept saying “Do something with me!”
It really felt like - just like the character in the movie - you don’t want to get close to her but there’s something about her that draws you in. I felt like she was kind of a poor soul and I felt this need to become creative with this role and something about it gave me a creative impulse.
As you know there is a lot of makeup involved in the unattractive instead of in the attractive way and that gave me a little pause. I felt like it was a very charming role that might not come back to me in my lifetime and I thought, “Okay, I’m doing it.”
CW: There seemed to be a lot of character quirks – the way she moved her body, the way she interacted with everyone else. There seemed to be something beyond the makeup, even in the way she spoke and moved. What kind of preparation went into this role?
HJK: In the beginning I felt “What can I do to make this character more appealing, less unattractive?” You know, she’s very unpopular and she actually didn’t have, I felt, a sense of existence. It became about how could I draw her out. But then I realized she did have a sense of existence, it’s just that people ignored her and didn’t want to be around her. The reason for her unattractiveness and unpopularity was very very clear.
So I thought that it was actually more effective that way and that the character was already drawn that way. What helped were the actual circumstances of the shooting. We did a lot of night shoots and the set was… you get tired from the actual circumstances of the shoot. And to have that makeup done and that red face that in itself… there was an instance with the director where she thought I was angry even if I was just sitting there because I had that getup on. People just assumed with the slightest little twitch of my mouth something was wrong. I really feel that redness of the face plays an enormous part in real situations and not just in the movie itself.
So, during that time I did do a lot of frowning and got a lot of wrinkles in my forehead and did a lot of twitching of the mouth. And it became a part of my life, because when I would meet with my friends at that time that would say that I’d developed a very strange expression. They would say that I twitched at the mouth and people started to perceive me very negatively in the sense that I was very negative towards the world. Ultimately, that played on itself and like I said before the whole situation along with the makeup kind of fed upon itself so during this film I became like a very different person.
CW: It sounds like it was kind of a challenging shoot.
HJK: Yes it was. It was a bit of a difficult shoot. If you see my role, it’s a large role and I’m on the screen a lot. And it was low budget – I think the whole budget was about a million. There’s a lot to shoot in a short amount of time. And the director’s style is that she did do a lot of takes. For two months we would have a 24 hour shoot then rest a day, then another 24 hour shoot then rest a day… if you start off at 7 in the morning then by 2AM from the slightest nudge I’d be frowning. Also, the role itself was very physically tiring because she’s angry so much of the time and I had to play angry so much of the time. So emotionally, it was very draining. Being angry takes a lot of energy. So yes, in that way it was a very tiring shoot.
But I think the tight schedule actually worked for the role of Mi-Sook because when I watch the film now I look at those expressions that I’m doing and I wonder if I could actually do that and get those expressions again. Because I think they were really, really derived from the situation of it all. You know as an actress you’re usually smiling and attractive and pretty. But here I look at those faces and I’m wondering in retrospect [if I could do that]… that’s the sense that I get.
CW: You mentioned the physicality of the role. And a lot of it involved your co-star with Woo Seo (who plays Jong-hee Seo in the film). You note the physicality there and there’s a lot of time that the two characters spend together during the course of the film. Did anything grow out of that in the role? Did the relationship between the characters change because the two of you were spending a lot of time together, fighting and propping each other up?
HJK: She’s a newcomer, actually and we met for the first time on this film. I think there’s a 7 year difference in our ages. I know in the film she plays a junior high school student but really she’s in her 20’s. This is her first film and she brought in this very fresh energy and there’s this sense that she’s not afraid of anything. She doesn’t know enough to be afraid yet and she’s very confident in that sense.
At first our relationship was very… we were very shy around each other. But after a few nights shooting around the clock our roles were such that we had to get in synch with each other. I think it’s like the film: our relationship grew as the shoot progressed. She’s a very pretty person, but in the role she’s actually made more attractive with the freckles and everything. After the film was over we’d be promoting the film and wouldn’t be the character she would be herself and in a way I felt sad because I felt like Jong-hee wasn’t there anymore and for me she’ll always be Jong-hee.
So we still call each other a lot and when it was announced that I was receiving an award, the three of us – the director, I, and Woo Seo – would call each other and start crying. I think she cried so much more when I received the award that there was a close-up of her being so happy for me. So we are very close still.
CW: Congratulations on the award.
HJK: Thank you.
CW: It seemed like an opportunity for you to mentor a young actor. Did you have anyone when you first started acting who helped you along?
HJK: [Laughs] Unfortunately, no. In my career, rather than working with older actors I usually worked with my peers - a lot of actors around my age and with similar experience. The roles that I’ve done aren’t so much serious but more stories that fit my age. So there weren’t a lot of adults in the projects to begin with. There was really no one around me to teach me or school me in that sense. Once you start acting you sort of get caught up in a style of acting and you get to rely on your technique. Like anything, acting’s also a profession so you tend to fall into something that’s more comfortable or familiar.
Since I didn’t have anyone scolding me or telling me how to do it I think I found for myself a fresh style of acting. Throughout the 10 years that’s sort of stayed with me, the style that I was able to develop. And in Korea, you’ll notice at the time that I came onto the scene actresses were very intent on looking pretty and doing the “pretty” acting. When I came on it became a cool trend to do the unattractive or strange roles. After I started acting I found more and more actresses – dare I say – following in my style of acting.
CW: That’s something I’ve noticed in a lot of your roles. Your characters seem to have strong personalities, forceful personalities. Is some of that coming from you? The script?
HJK: Well my first foray into acting wasn’t a strong character with a strong personality. Since that was my first role it became my image of myself as an actor. At the time no one wanted to touch roles like that. They wanted the more traditional, “pretty” role. So having started off like that it kind of became my image. So when roles came my way including TV dramas I’d get these strong characters who would get mad like a man or a sort of wild woman. I did try different types of roles but I don’t think it’s all acting. You take a part of you and you dramatize it. So I suppose there’s a part of me that lends to these characters. I think it’s also because I was much younger at the time. Right now, I’m older and I’ve calmed down and have more experience. But when you’re in your early 20’s you’re young and not afraid of the world and passionate. I think the media would enlarge that aspect of me, so I continued to do those types of roles.
CW: I think what’s admirable is that you still bring some vulnerability to these roles. Even broad characters like the one you played in Volcano High are larger than life and aggressive but they end up being someone who just wants to be cared about.
HJK: You must have seen a lot of my films?'
CW: I have, yeah.
CW: So at this point what’s next for you?
HJK: I haven’t finalized any plans for my next project yet. It’s been a while since “Crush and Blush” opened but since then there was a film I did called “Sisters on the Road” that’s only been open in the theaters for less than two months. I don’t feel there’s this rush to jump into the next project. It’s taking a little bit more time after these two films to decide on my next project. I think to overcome the image or the un-image of Yang Mi-sook I think I’ll do something more feminine or pretty. But I really haven’t found the role that type of role or met the script that I want to jump on. I think after doing a film that I’m very satisfied with and happy about it takes that much more time to find the next role to do in that sense.
CW: Like one-upping yourself.
CW: Thank you so much for your time today.
By Charles Webb