Can one scene from a film change a young boy’s life? That seems to be the case for Lee Jin-mu, a South Korean actor, filmmaker and a model, who got struck by the acting bug when he saw an emotional scene from Eyes of Dawn, one of the most popular TV dramas of the 1990’s: “I couldn’t understand the exact meaning of the scene I was watching at that time, but I really cried when I saw it. I decided to become an actor like those people on the small screen.”
Jin-mu’s parents were quite conservative individuals at the time, so he kept his dream of becoming an actor to himself, burying it deep inside his heart. Nevertheless, when he was a high school senior, he said to himself: “It’s high time to prepare to become an actor.” His desire was to apply to a theatre/film university programme. Unfortunately, Jin-mu’s parents strongly disagreed with his choice, but left a small window of opportunity open. “They told me that if I go to a prestigious university, they might allow me to study acting. As a result, I studied hard and I got into Korea University. I also started to act.”
Acting is not the easiest of professions and, as every person knows, beginnings are hard in general. Jin-mu at first struggled to get suitable acting roles and ended up taking up modelling as well. Along the way, he experienced the bad side of South Korean entertainment industry. However, thankfully, bad things tend to be balanced out by the good. One day, he met Shin Ji-yeon, a theatre director, who offered Jin-mu a main role on stage. “When I faced the audience for the first time, I realized that my decision to become an actor wasn’t wrong. That particular moment felt like magic. Shin Ji-yeon has become my teacher, she’s the first director I worked with and now she is my best friend too.”
Performing is a demanding job, and difficulties when trying to adjust to a particular role/character are inevitable for every actor. To Jin-mu, the most difficult role to date was the role of Yoo Dal-su, a prisoner in Hu Tang play. “The play only had 3 characters, two men and a woman. I portrayed Dal-su, a prisoner. The play took place in a confined space, in a single room,” he explains.
“At first, the character of Dal-su is pure, but slowly – throughout the play – he turns into a horrific person. When Dal-su is in prison, unexpectedly, he gets put in the same cell with a woman. She is mentally unstable due to amnesia; and she is pregnant as well. He slowly falls for the woman and cares for her. However, the other male inmate is eager to help her regain her memory. The conflict between the two men grows, while the woman’s memory gradually comes back. The play ends in tragedy, Dal-su commits unimaginable crime against the woman – he kicks the woman’s belly to kill the unborn child. That last scene was a complex one for me as an actor, particularly on an emotional level.”
In South Korea, just like in the theaters of London, play rehearsals take place two to three months before the official opening. Even after practicing for several weeks, Jin-mu still felt uneasy with Dal-su’s persona and his character’s behaviour at the end of the play. Two weeks before the show, the actor still couldn’t fully comprehend the climax scene. However, one day, he arrived early to the theatre to contemplate on the role he was about to perform. “I sat in one of the audience seats and stared at the stage. A few minutes later, I imagined Dal-su onstage; his character, not me as an actor. Suddenly, in that particular moment, in my head, I saw Dal-su come alive on the stage, I ‘looked’ at him and after that, I started to rehearse for my performance.”
“Little by little, I started to understand the last scene; I “saw” it play out in front of me. Dal-su kills the unborn child, his emotions overflow, he bursts into tears and screams. I could feel his pain – I literally cried with him. I then realised that I now finally get who Dal-su’s character is. Of course, on the day of the show, I had little confidence that everything would go well, but when our first play finished, I knew that I did a good job.”
With the hardship of searching for that perfect role, Jin-mu’s motivation to push forward strengthened. To him, acting is an art that is his driving force. “I believe art has the power to make the world more beautiful. Good acting can make people cry, feel happy or sad. I want… I wish to make this world more beautiful through my involvement in acting and directing.”
“I really enjoy working with various like-minded people, people who have the same goal as me – to make the world a better place through the arts. And now, with great support from my family and friends, I cannot give up acting. Before my grandmother passed away, she said to me “Be a good actor!”. I was moved by her words; I believed that she disliked that I wanted to be an actor, she never really talked about it. Her words really keep me motivated,” Jin-mu adds.
Apart from acting and modelling, Jin-mu has ventured into directing. His short Everyone Can Be an Artist was awarded the third place during the MMCA Seoul PR Video Contest run by the prestigious National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. “An actor ought to show some skills as a writer or director. From time to time, I felt like I could pass messages to the audience by using more than just acting. I started to make some videos with friends for fun; but then, one day, I saw the MMCA notice that they were looking for a PR video. I came up with an idea for my short with the main message that LIFE IS ART in itself. I also wanted to show that art is not difficult, anything can be an art in its own right.”
“When asked “What is art?” some people tend to think that the perfect art is a beautiful painting on a gallery wall, but is that it?”
Jin-mu came up with a clever idea; he took his friend Soya’s painting from a gallery and took it to the streets of Seoul. He showed it to people and encouraged the passers-by to paint on the ‘already perfect’ painting. “Let’s make art together,” Jin-mu asked various people he met. “It was fun, since it showed that anyone can be an artist. A girl, who was a part-time coffee barista, poured coffee on the painting; a tattooed guy drew his tattoo design, and an old man wrote traditional Korean characters.”
“There is no particular, set way to make art. Everyone can be an artist, and many people enjoyed the experience, which made me very happy.”
Everyone Can Be an Artist is not the only short film that Jin-mu directed. Check-Out is yet another short project of his, which was screened at the 29s Film Festival in Seoul. The name of the festival comes from the fact that all of the submitted films have to be exactly 29 seconds long. The film festival gives the filmmakers a few simple words, from which they choose just one and make it the focus of their short. “I chose ‘journey’. I remembered my late grandmother and thought of the famous saying “Life is a journey”. I wanted to show the moment when her life journey ended, at her funeral. 29 seconds is such a limited time to tell a story; I would like to take this story and make it again, make it longer, with enough budget and a good location…” ponders Jin-mu.
Jin-mu spent some time in Hong Kong, modelling and acting; not only was he featured in the printed press as a model, but he also acted in a short film Last Dance, which starred Fiona Sit, a well-known Hong Kong singer and actress. The short was also made into a music video, in which he also appeared. How was it to film with Fiona Sit?
“It was a great experience! When I went to the audition, the director of Last Dance, Kit-Hung, gave me an example of a rough situation and asked me to act ad-lib. The scene described a man who finds his ex-girlfriend after 5 years of not seeing her. I started to ad-lib in English and Chinese, combined with some Korean. It was an interesting and refreshing experience,” describes Jin-mu.
To Jin-mu’s surprise, the director of Last Dance picked him out of many other actors. However, before shooting the film, Kit and Fiona were interested in knowing his past stories of people he was with so they could draw a more realistic narrative in the short and music video. Ultimately, there was no script when they shot the video; Fiona and Jin-mu were given a certain situation while filming, and both artists had to improvise. “This way of acting appealed to me straight away. Working with Fiona was great; she is a talented actress and singer and I hope we will work together again in the future.”
It is obvious that Jin-mu set a goal for himself to be an actor and a filmmaker, rather than a full-time model. Modelling also comes with a set of challenges – how big of a challenge was it for the actor during his stay in Hong Kong? And are there differences between working in the Hong Kong modelling scene, compared to the Korean modelling scene? “Well… I realized that I wasn’t tall enough to be a catwalk fashion model; for that reason alone I did modelling for the printed press and TV. I was invited to do modelling in Hong Kong by pure coincidence, even though my height was an issue. I couldn’t speak Cantonese, so it was impossible for me to take on acting jobs. In all honesty, I had no confidence when I left for Hong Kong for the first time. However, after spending a bit of time in the city, the tables turned, and I started getting good jobs.”
While most big fashion jobs in South Korea are taken by the big stars, Hong Kong offers more opportunities to the international models, regardless of their fame – it seems that Hong Kong’s market is more open. Having said that, while various modelling academies that train future models make Korea’s fashion market more competitive, Korean fashion industry is bigger and busier, with more job opportunities. “In Korea, being a model is kind of a full-time job – just like being an actor; however, in Hong Kong, I came across local models who had to have another job to make ends meet. For me, being in Hong Kong was exciting and sort of a learning curve.”
Looking to the future – between acting, directing and modelling, which path does Jin-mu wish to follow the most? “I don’t want to separate my acting from directing; both professions work well together. Of course, I work more as an actor, but every time I make a video or have an idea for another short, I feel like I can also understand acting more,” explains Jin-mu.
“The most important thing is to be able to get involved in meaningful projects – projects that would connect me with various people, from Korea and abroad.”
As a person who is motivated and willing to work hard to achieve his goals, there is no doubt that Jin-mu has a bright future ahead of him, and we wish him all the best!
Written by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Sanja Struna
Featured photo © Courtesy of the photographer
Black & White Photo of Lee Jin-mu © Courtesy of the photographer
Still from There is no Forest © There is no Forest
Ducati Hong Kong photo © Courtesy of the photographer
Everyone Can be An Artist © Lee Jin-mu
All other photos © Courtesy of the photographer
Fiona Sit Music Video © Sun Entertainment Music