Kim Yoon-seok is a renowned South Korean actor with an extensive filmography and even a few TV-series (K-dramas) under his belt, even though he initially debuted in 1988 as a theatre actor, in the role of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, originally portrayed by Marlon Brando on Broadway. It is impossible not to draw a parallel between the two actors – not only due to their looks and charming personalities, but their ability to play charismatic characters on-screen. Just like Brando, Kim Yoon-seok is both an established character actor and a leading actor; not only that, he has garnered himself quite a reputation also among his male co-stars due to his incredible ability to not only showcase his own immense talent, but by helping his co-stars go that extra mile and truly shine.
This year’s London East Asia Film Festival honoured the actor by putting his work in focus, screening 4 of the newer works from the long list of films that Kim Yeon-seok starred in – Hwayi: A Monster Boy (2013), The Classified File (2015), 1987: When the Day Comes (2017) and Dark Figure of Crime (2018).
It was during his visit to London that we met with the actor and talked about his latest role in Dark Figure of Crime, the differences between stage and on-screen acting and his upcoming directorial debut project.
First of all, what attracted you to the role of Hyung-min?
Usually, a police officer or a detective investigates cases that have already surfaced, cases that people heard about – that is the main focus of a police officer’ or detective’s job. In the case of Hyung-min, he tries to work on cases that haven’t happened in the public eye, because no one knows about them.
What drew me to his character was this guy’s morals, his principles; he knew that out of the seven cases Tae-oh mentioned, the majority could turn out to be false leads, but even if there was one victim that was real, he still had to find out the truth. That was the kind of a mindset that drew me to his character.
What kind of research did you have to do to prepare for the role of Hyung-min and how did you approach the character himself? Did you find it harder to prepare since the character was based on a real person?
When the director was working on the script, he researched the character for a very long time. The major parts and the major elements of the story were based on the actual case. However, because this is a film and not a documentary, it does have fictional elements, and when I thought about this character, Hyung-min, one of the first images that came to mind was – Colombo. Because he’s not super sexy, he’s not macho in any other way, and he just goes around, does what he does, on his own, and the most important thing about this guy is that he never gives up.
So he’s smiling, and he keeps on talking with the killer, and he wears him down with logic. He beats him with logic, and that’s what he does. So this is not a character that is powerful or sexy in any way, unlike many of the detectives – or rather, detective-type characters – that we see in films nowadays. Now, everything is fast paced, and the detectives are all really muscled, and handsome… and I kind of miss people like Colombo.
You just said that your character is not super sexy or good-looking, and yet you’ve been called “Master of Chemistry” by many of your co-stars; not only that, your male co-stars have been called “Kim Yoon-seok’s men”, and it’s been said that young actors become famous after working with you. What are your thoughts on this?
First of all, I’m not interested in men. (Laughs)
What I want to see in younger actors that I work with, when I work with them, I tell them: “Don’t overdo it. Whatever you’re doing or are thinking of doing that is just for show, don’t do it. Keep it real.” I try to make them focus on the story, on the character itself, on the drama. It is very important that we all create a very good kind of energy – a synergy. When you have a partnership with your co-star, it’s important that you portray your characters in a way where you work with each other, and you complement each other, and one person does not outshine the other, because it’s an ensemble, not a solo play. If you do that, that will enrich the film further, and that’s very important. So if actors that worked with me gained popularity, or moved on and were able to do even better roles, that makes me very happy.
Talking about your co-stars, we would love to talk about your work with Ju Ji-hoon. Your scenes, especially in the visitors’ room, were very tense. He is seen as the heartthrob of Korean cinema – how was it like for you to work with him?
Ju Ji-hoon was a model before he switched to acting. Around 10 years ago, I saw a TV-series where had a role, and when I saw him, I said: this guy has potential. The title of the TV series was The Devil. Around 2 years ago, before we started working together, I met him at a party. He came to me and introduced himself and said, “I’d really like to work with you someday.” And I felt the same way, because I remembered seeing him in that TV series and I remembered being impressed by his performance. And then, coincidentally, this project came along and we were able to work together.
What is really good about Ju Ji-hoon is that he puts everything, that he pours everything into his role. He goes all in. And he’s bold; he has the courage to just drop everything, leave everything, forget about everything, he just focuses on his character. He also has the ability to get really immersed in the role; his level of concentration is very high. The scenes that take place in the visitors’ room were very important, everyone knew that before we even started filming, not just the director, but everyone.
This is not the kind of film where you have fast-paced action sequences or car chases, so the tension between the characters was very important. All the things that brought feelings to the audience were in those scenes, when the two characters were just facing each other. And we poured everything into those scenes. So much so that when we were done with each scene, when we finished filming, both of us were really, really tired. We were exhausted. But in those scenes, we were able to show the strength and density of those emotions, and the palpable tension. Those scenes were really important to us.
You are actually a classically trained actor and you debuted in 1988, in A Streetcar Named Desire. How difficult is it to apply classic training into contemporary cinema?
Like many film-related people, John Malkovich, Al Pacino, and certain UK-based actors, some people in Korea started out in theatre. Because there are so many who did it, nowadays it seems very natural for people to transition from theatre to the screen. However, in the old days, there were some people who could do that, and some people who couldn’t. For some people, the differences between theatre and screen acting were too much to overcome, while others did a really good job at it.
In Korea, in the 1980’s, small theatres were sprouting up everywhere. You didn’t have to work on a large stage in a large theatre; the audience in small theatres was right in front of you, so it wasn’t too difficult to communicate with the audience. I think that approach, and training in that sort of way, helped us transition to cinema.
Also, in Korea, there is a type of play called madang, which takes place in an outdoor area and where the audience interacts with the performers. I think that type of acting also helped actors transition to cinema.
Many of the Korean actors who did well as theatre actors in the 1980’s, including myself, are now among the top-billed actors of the film industry.
Looking at the difference in formats, because you have experience in theatre and in film, which format would you consider closer to your heart?
Film. Theatre has it’s own attributes, but when it comes to cinema, the ways in which you can express yourself are almost infinite. That is why my interests lie more in the field of cinema.
Talking about your previous roles, was there a time you had difficulty turning yourself into a certain character?
The film Hwaji: The Monster Boy, directed by Jang Joon-hwan – my character in that film was one I obviously prepared for, but when I started playing the character, I realized that I had to do more, I had to go deeper. So that character was very very difficult to play, but it is also why I have a lot of affection for that character.
You have been working on your own project titled Underage, this is your directorial debut, is that correct? How did the project come about?
Yes, it is correct, it is my directorial debut. Actually, I plan to release the film in January two years from now.
Also, I want to take this chance to set something straight, something that people have been getting wrong. The film is not based on a Russian theatre piece, but on a different theatre play. Not an actual play, but an in-house presentation for a group of people within a small theatre group, who worked on it. It was a 50-minute play. Only the people who worked on it actually saw it. So no one else knows about it – I only know about it since I was there. And I decided to turn it into a film.
A lot of people, however, think that my film is based on another theatre piece that actually exists, and that one is called Underage. That is why you have that information. But my film is based on a different play and the English working title for my film is actually Another Child. Now you can set everybody straight. (Laughs)
So – I saw that in-house performance and I wrote a script based on that. No one actually knows what it’s about – yet.
Last question – which one of the films being screened here, at London East Asia Film Festival, are you looking forward to seeing the most?
(Laughs) Hmm… 1987: When the Day Comes.
I always hoped that both a lot of Koreans and non-Koreans would see the film, because in pretty much every country, there was a time like that. At that time, similar things were happening in many other countries as well. I actually wanted for this film to be screened and released in London as well, so I am beyond happy that this film will be screened here. It is a part of the retrospective of my work as an actor, but still, it’s going to be screened here. Tomorrow, we will have director Jang Young-hwan here with us, so I’m really happy. Some Koreans actually call the film the Korean ‘Les Misérables’. I think this is a topic that is sadly universal – it happened in many countries across the world, not at the same time, but similar events happened in different countries across the world, so many people can identify with the events. It just goes to show how powerful films can be.
We would like to thank Kim Yoon-seok for taking the time to answer our questions and London East Asia Film Festival for organizing this interview.
Written, transcribed and edited by Sanja Struna
Interviewed by Maggie Gogler and Sanja Struna
The Classified File photo © Showbox
Hwayi: A Monster Boy photo © Showbox
1987: When the Day Comes photo © CJ Entertainment
Dark Figure of Crime photos © Showbox
All other photos © London East Asia Film Festival