New York Asian 2019 Interview: Han Ji-min on Challenging Society with MISS BAEK

Featured Contributor; New York City, New York (@TheDivaReview)
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New York Asian 2019 Interview: Han Ji-min on Challenging Society with MISS BAEK
Starting her show business career while still a teenager, Han Ji-min quickly became a familiar face in South Korean television dramas and films, beloved by audiences for her sweet, wholesome image.  Han turns that image on its head with her gritty portrayal of a child abuse survivor in Miss Baek; a career-changing role that has won Han the Blue Dragon -- the Korean equivalent of the Best Actress Oscar.
 
At the first annual New York Asian Film Festival Winter Showcase, Han spoke with LMD about her passion to get Miss Baek made, and her hopes for its positive influence on Korean society.
 
 
The Lady Miz Diva:  Your performance as Baek Sang-ah is raw and completely heartfelt.  Had you done research with child abuse survivors?  Have any come up and shared their impressions of the film with you? 
 
Han Ji-min:  It was difficult to actually meet child abuse survivors, especially in Korean society.  It’s very difficult for the victims to come out, or reveal what they’ve been through.  And also, as someone who’s doing research, I felt very reluctant and cautious about possibly poking into their wounds and past trauma.  So, there weren’t any face-to-face interviews with actual victims.
 
Even for my director, I don’t think she was in contact with any actual abuse survivors.  But she worked with secondhand anecdotes from people who worked in hospitals, who had worked with such abuse survivors.  So, that’s how my research, I guess I would call it, happened. 
 
It was more building her backstory to really figure out how this person had lived until this day, and what kind of experiences had shaped her as a human being.  I would say, because we were doing a lot of detailed backstory building, we really were working on how Baek Sang-ah would interact with the world and with people.  
 
For example, in our conversations, we were talking about how she would not be able to look a person quite in the eye, face-to-face.  So, for example, when she first meets the character of Kim Ji-eun, she never looks at her directly in the eye; it’s just sort of this downward glance that she gives, which I thought was appropriate for her character.  And then when she offers Kim Ji-eun water, it’s not just like a direct offering of water; it’s just sort of this elbowing of an offer -- it’s like a half sort of offer.  So, it was really the process of building the backstory scene by scene with the director that I was really able to flesh out this character of Baek Sang-ah. 
 
LMD:  I felt your performance spoke for so many people who have survived child abuse.  As you mentioned, it was difficult to approach real survivors because of the feelings of South Korean society.  In any society, when you show something that is unpleasant, you are risking a backlash.  Were you worried about bringing this very sensitive subject to the face of society, and how that might backlash on you?
 
HJm:  There were some people who would actually just straight out not want to watch it, just by hearing that it dealt with issues of child abuse.  And I think that’s one of the reasons why it was difficult getting distribution for the film, and also why it opened at the box office little later than we were thinking it would. 
 
But I feel like when it comes to these social issues, if you don’t at least try -- if you don’t make an effort -- nothing will change.  And nothing will change for the future of many children out there who are still struggling under this kind of abuse.
 
I think I wanted people to watch the movie with a sense of compassion and empathy, where you could ask yourself, ‘If this were my child, what would I do, and how would I feel?’  That is the question that I wanted to ask the audience.  And I think as a result of this, hopefully, it will be the start of some sort of change as a result of this project. 
 
As we’ve seen with another Korean film called The Silenced in 2011 -- as a result of that new laws were implemented -- as a result of the influence that that film had.  So, in that sort of vein, my hope is that Miss Baek also sheds light on this sort of overlooked issue in Korean society, and that hopefully small but steady change can lead to a much bigger change in the world.  
 
There was also a journalist who said that this was really, really hard to watch, but I feel that you can’t satisfy every single audience member.  But if there is one thing that I hope with this film, is that people are able to watch as if watching their own child, and if I achieve that, I think that’s what I set out to achieve, and have achieved.
 
LMD:  MISS BAEK was directed by Lee Ji-won.  This was her first feature film.  What made you trust her with such a delicate subject matter?
 
HJm:  How I first approached this project was because the script got into my hands, and the director, Lee Ji-won, she had actually written the script, and I was surprised, because it was so well written.  It felt different from other scripts that I had read in the fact that the emotional through lines of the characters was so detailed, and so intricate, and I really just lost myself just reading the entire script.
 
For me, it wasn’t so much as important who the director was, who was going to be directing me; I just really wanted the film made, because I thought it was such a great project, and such a meaningful project.  So, when I did actually did meet with director Lee Ji-won, she also wasn’t as interested in this being a huge commercial success, but she really wanted to shed light on certain societal issues that she had witnessed, and also had experienced in her own life.  And so I think, in that sense, we were compatible, and it worked out really well.
 
LMD:  We must talk about Miss Kim Si-ah, who plays Ji-eun… 
 
HJm:  Yes!  She is amazing in the film.  It was her first time acting.
 
LMD:  How old was she when this was filmed?
 
HJm:  Nine in Korean age.  Nine or ten.
 
LMD:  The themes and subjects that MISS BAEK explores must’ve been very confusing for a child her age.  How did you work with her to make Kim Si-ah feel comfortable and safe, and to enable her to portray some of Ji-eun’s difficult scenes? 
 
HJm:  I think it’s great that you mentioned this, because the most important thing on set for us was to not get Si-ah hurt.  That was our imperative objective.  So, we actually worked with a counselor on set on the days that she was filming; and the counselor told us and the crew that it was really important to separate identities for her. 
 
When she was on set as the character, Ji-eun, she would be referred to as “Ji-eun” during takes, but once they would yell “cut,” and once she was out of the character of Ji-eun, the counselor would tell us to always refer to her as her name of Si-ah, not Ji-eun, and to keep on telling her that, “You’re not ‘Ji-eun,’ you’re Si-ah,” just to make that separation apparent for her, so that she wouldn’t be confused between these two identities.
 
It was interesting for me, too, because while she is nine or ten years old, she actually has three younger siblings -- her mom is younger than me {Laughs}.  She is a precocious nine or ten-year-old.  To me, too, when I was working with her, there is such depth in the way she looks at you, and there’s such a depth in her gaze, which is really astonishing for a ten-year-old. 
 
Later on, I didn’t know that at the time, but later on I also learned that while I was fretting about whether she was feeling safe, and if she was feeling all right on the set, she was actually journaling as the character Ji-eun about her day.  She would be, “Today, I met Miss Baek,” she would journal as her character.  To me, it kind of felt as if she had done more prep work on this character than I had.  {Laughs}  So, that was funny for me.  
 
But also, when she was on the set, I don’t think she had any bad takes, and another really astonishing thing was that she never complained, and I was really able to play off of what she was giving me, and not really even worry about how she was as a person, but to just really play off and respond to how she was reacting to me as her character, Ji-eun, which was really great. 
 
I do remember another scene in particular, where I am running up the stairs to hug her, and I sort of embrace her with such force, that we fall backwards together onto the pavement, and even in that moment, I was very shocked that we had toppled over each other, but even at that moment, she’s so grown up to say, “Oh my gosh, are you okay?”  Even though she was just a little girl, she was trying to take care of me, when she herself is the child.  So, she was just very thoughtful in her way.  She was a joy to work with.
 
LMD:  You are such an intelligent artist, with a very clear perspective and dedication about your craft.  Your determination to make MISS BAEK, which faced distribution challenges, put me in the mind of independent cinema.  Have you considered writing or directing your own films, or having a film production company to oversee bold projects like MISS BAEK? 
 
HJm:  Never. {Laughs} Never.  Thank you for the compliment on my work and picking scripts, but to be fair, I would say from script to box office, in the process of filmmaking, there are just so many factors that are involved: There are so many things that can make something go right, and something go wrong, at the switch of whatever.  I would say it’s not just me who is responsible for the success or failure of a film.
 
With regard to producing; my work is as an actor.  Though, with MISS BAEK, I have received awards in Korea, but just because you have received awards, that doesn’t mean that your work as an actor ends: There is always a development; a desire to keep on learning and growing as an actor, and I feel that in that process, I’m still doing that, and I think just doing that, in itself, is still quite a process for me, and a journey for me.  
 
So, I would say I wouldn’t have time to participate as a producer, or say, as a writer, but if there is more low-budget, indie films that are still meaningful to me, I would of course love to participate in the capacity as an actor, but when it comes to producing, I think that really requires finesse when it comes to getting the right people, and really leading people, and I think that is something that I really don’t quite possess, so I will leave that to the producers.
 
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
 
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AwardsBlue DragonDramaHan Ji-minKorean CinemaMiss BaekNew York Asian Film FestivalNYAFF

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