Han Ji-min is a South Korean actress who first gained mainstream attention with her performance in 2005 Korean TV series Ressurection. She continued a successful TV career, starring in some of the K-drama world favourites – Yi San, Padam Padam, Rooftop Prince, and Hyde Jekyll, Me. At the same time, she started building a successful career as an actress of the silver screen, with her most memorable roles including the femme fatale Han Kaek-ju in Detective K: Secret of the Virtuous Widow (2011), Queen Jeong-sun in The Fatal Encounter (2014) and most recently, as Yeon Gye-soon, a spy for the resistance in the acclaimed period action thriller The Age of Shadows (2016), which was directed by Kim Jee-won.
At the 3rd London East Asia Film Festival, Han Ji Min won the Best Actress Award for a role that is unlike any of her previous characters – that of a gritty ex-convict Baek Sang-ah who, after having lived the toughest of lives, shuts herself off from the world, but then finds herself unable to walk away when she encounters a small girl who is a victim of domestic abuse.
In a stark contrast to the grim, realistic hues that rule the film she stars in, we sat down for an interview with Han Ji-min on a sunny afternoon, which seemed to reflect her bright personality. The interview took place right before she had to attend the screening of Miss Baek, and we talked about her role in the film and also the wonderful work that she’s been doing as a volunteer, involved in various charities, which deservedly earned her the title of a UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador.
Let’s start with your latest role in Miss Baek. Your character in this film is very different from your previous roles. What drew you to this project in the first place?
When I choose to do a character, or a certain film, it’s always for a different reason. For this film, when I read this script, I thought to myself, this girl – or rather, this woman – looks really strong and tough from the outside, but she’s not really either, because she was abandoned as a young girl. She looks like an adult, she’s grown-up, but inside, she’s still a child. That’s how I felt.
When I read a script in general, I usually envision the whole story, the whole film, but this script was a bit different, because it is based on an actual story. We hear about child abuse on the news, a lot, but I felt that, when I read the script, it was almost like I witnessed something like that happening before my own eyes. I thought to myself that even though people – and I as well – have seen cases of child abuse being reported on the news, I felt that if people see it in the form of as film, they will be able to go deeper into this issue and feel something different from what they feel when they are watching the news.
Since this role is different from your previous roles, how did you prepare for it and what kind of research did you do, given that it is based on a true story?
The most important thing to do was to fill in the blanks, so to speak, and to work on the things that were not mentioned in the script. I spent a lot of time with the director, building that up. Like you said, this is a character that is very different from the other characters that I have played, so initially, I was working on and talking to the director about the tone – the tone of her voice, the way she talks, the way she acts, how she looks on the outside, but that was partially because certain aspects that I have, her character doesn’t. So I was trying to work through that. Then, I started thinking and working on how this girl would behave. She had to look tough on the outside because of her circumstances, she was rebellious, and so in order to show that kind of aspect of herself, she wore a heavy red lipstick, and wore leather jackets… Because of the way she grew up, there were certain things that she wasn’t used to, that she was not aware of. For instance, when she is dealing with the child, she doesn’t know how to give things to the child, so she kind of pushes them towards her – things like that.
Working with children actors can be difficult, especially in such emotionally demanding roles. How was it for you to work with Kim Si-ah?
What was really difficult about it was that I actually love kids. (Laughs) My problem was that in the beginning, because of the relationship between Ji-eun and Miss Baek, I had to keep my distance.
Baek Sang-ah obviously went through a lot of difficulties throughout her life. The character of Ji-eun, played by Si-ah, actually had to withstand the cold weather, wearing thin clothes, so her character required for Si-ah to pour a lot of emotional energy into it. Because she was such a young child, everyone was very careful to make sure we kept the character of Ji-eun separate from Si-ah, the child actor. There was always a councilor on standby to talk to her, to help her if necessary, and I really had to think about my interaction with her, because for her, it was the first time she was acting in a major role, but… she wasn’t really acting. It was as if she was playing the role of Ji-eun in real life.
She actually kept a journal as Ji-eun, the character, and she purposely didn’t wash or cut her nails to stay in character, which is amazing for a child. I actually felt that all I had to do was respond to what she was doing. I said this in the interviews in Korea before; it wasn’t like I was working with a new actor. The kind of attitude and dedication she showed on the set was the same you would see in an established actor.
Besides your work in cinema, you’ve worked on several dramas – what, for you, is the main difference between working on TV series and working on a film project?
If you were to compare the environment of working on a K-drama series and environment while working on a feature film like this, they are obviously different. But for me, personally, the way I approach my roles is quite similar and the way I build up my characters is also similar. But when I work on a film, I have more time. When I work on TV series, there are more time constraints, you have to stick to a certain schedule, but with a film, there’s more time to really think things through, also possibly to change certain things and improvise; there’s time to talk with other people about the scene and there’s more time to spend working on a scene. Time is what makes a big difference.
Apart from not being close with Kim Si-ah, which part of your role would you consider to have been the most challenging?
When I first decided to do this role and started working on it, I focused less on trying to change myself, to transform myself into this character. What I did was – I kept in mind that the general public, the viewers, will have in mind a certain image of me before they would watch this film and see me in this role. I felt like I needed to close the gap between Han Ji-min – myself – and Baek Sang-ah, the character. I needed to do it faster than usual. Compared to the other roles that I’ve played, I think I dug deeper for this character. With the director, we talked extensively how and why she could have been abandoned by her mother, to close the gap between the two of us faster. It was challenging, but it was also a very valuable experience for me, and it was fun to do it.
According to our research, this is Lee Ji-won’s first film. How much trust did you put in her as a first-time director, and how much artistic freedom did she give you?
Actually, when the director was considering possible actresses for the role, I wasn’t on the list. (Laughs)
It was like fate; after I worked on The Age of Shadows, we had an after-party for all the cast and crew. The place where we had the party happened to be the place where director Lee Ji-won and her production crew met for drinks. I walked by and director Lee told me that at that time, I didn’t look like the Han Ji-min that the director was familiar with. (Laughs) I was just passing by – just walking. I didn’t even talk to her. But there must have been some sort of energy around me that must have been different from what the director previously assumed I had. (Laughs)
Afterwards, we had a meeting. Because director Lee was working as a member of a production crew for a long time, it took her quite a while to debut with her feature film. Out of all of the directors I’ve worked with, this director had the strongest affection for the main character. On the day when I had the filming, director Lee would send me songs and long writings that would help me get in character for a particular scene; I gave her a lot of ideas and suggestions, and some were accepted, because the director thought they were good. Also, because I wasn’t on the original list of choices for the role, I think quite a few changes were made. We had to talk a lot about everything.
Since Sang-ah is such a strong, complex female character, and there has been a lot of talk about strong female characters in cinema on a global scale, what are your thoughts on representation of female characters in Korean cinema?
Like you said, Sang-ah is a very complex character. Internationally, we see more and more strong female characters in lead roles. But in Korean cinema, it is very rare that a female character is the main character in a film. It is also very difficult to get funding or investments for films where the main character is a woman. And that is also one of the reasons why it took such a long time for this film to be made and released.
Once I worked on it and it was released, I was worried how my acting would come across to the audience and what would people think. I was losing sleep over it and I was very stressed out. But because of the things that have been happening in the society nowadays, with women being the force that is bringing about change, there has been a lot of support for the film. Now that people have more channels to communicate, through social network services, there has been a lot of support.
This film deals with a female character that is the lead character, AND it deals with social issues. Even though, when compared to the big commercial films, this is a small project, but it is doing quite well and it has been running for three weeks and is still ongoing, and because of that, I feel a stronger sense of responsibility, to the film and to the world, especially after it’s been released, because people started adding more meaning to the role and to the story. If this film does well at the box office, then hopefully, there will be more and more films that have female leading roles in the future, and in a way, that puts even more weight on my shoulders. I didn’t quite think about it while I was shooting the film, but after it’s been released, I’ve been thinking how lucky I was to have been given the opportunity to play this role, because this kind of opportunity is very rare for an actress.
One thing that has been happening in Korea is that people buy tickets even though they know they won’t be able to go see the film. For example, I am a graduate of a women’s college; younger students of the same college and graduates that are younger than me have been buying a lot of tickets. About a third of them wouldn’t be able to come, but what they did was bought the tickets to support the film, and then they gave them to someone else who could go. I think it’s not simply because it’s a film with the lead female character, it’s more that the message that the film is presenting and the sincerity of the film came across to the audience; I think that they probably thought, “We need to show this film to more people – more people need to see this film, and then maybe the children will have a brighter future.”
It’s not just this film that sends out a message that could help children, you are very active with your volunteer work and charities – due to all the great work you do, you have been named an ambassador to the United Nations. How did this journey start for you?
My major in college was social welfare. Actually, my role model is Audrey Hepburn; not just her, other artists who are working for a cause. Other people, regular people, are shouting out, to get the word out for a cause. Watching them, I realized that I, as an actress – a person who is more well-known – was in a position with more power to make people listen. I realized that I had the influence, so I started doing the work.
In the past, in Korean society, many people had the mentality that if one was to do a good deed, they should do it quietly. One should not toot their own horn. But things have changed and now people think that we should tell people about it so we can involve more people, so we can do it together, and that has changed a lot. If I can use my position as a well-known actress to bring about more change, I want to do that.
I do fund-raising for poverty-stricken kids twice a year, and I have been doing it for the past decade. In the beginning, when we started working on it, people didn’t know where the money would go and what it would be used for, so they were hesitant to donate. But because we’ve been doing this and I’ve been doing this consistently, twice a year, for the past ten years, the funds have been growing. People are donating more and more money.
Because I do this every year around Children’s Day in Korea, which is in May, and around Christmas, even my fans, especially fans overseas, who don’t really get to see me in person, know that if they come, they can see me, so they will come to see me AND donate. That has been great.
You published a book about the work you’ve been doing – would you consider writing another book, or perhaps even writing a screenplay with a strong female character?
No to the screenplay. (Laughs) I’m happy being an actress.
As for the book… when I published the book, I was very embarrassed about it. (Laughs) But it opened a door, so to speak, for donations to be channeled to the people who needed them. I wrote that book after I went to a very remote village in the Philippines and I went with the writer who got me into the volunteer, welfare work that I have been doing. She has been saying that we should go again, perhaps to India, and I am willing to consider that if it’s for a good cause.
What is next for you?
I’m currently filming a drama. This drama that I’m working on is with Kim Hye-ja, who is a phenomenal Korean actress and you may know her as the Mother in Bong Joon-ho’s Mother. She’s currently 77, and she’s the main character in the drama and I play the younger version of her. It’s not a big role, but because she is such an important actress and someone I watched on TV and in cinema since I was younger, I really wanted to work with her. This drama series is kind of dedicated to this actress; in the series, she plays the character of the same name. It’s a great honour for me to play this role. It’s directed by Kim Suk-Yoon and it talks about life and about ageing; that’s one of the things that appealed to me. My schedule with the drama series and the movie has been very hectic, I haven’t had any time to rest. Coming here is actually the first time I’ve been able to take a break.
Ah – the video of you dancing!
Oh, you saw it? (Laughs)
The entire staff smiles and nods.
Head of PR: I think everyone saw it.
(Laughs) I was just really happy to be here. (Laughs)
We would like to thank Han Ji-min for taking the time to answer our questions and London East Asia Film Festival for organizing this interview.
Written and transcribed by Sanja Struna
Edited by Sanja Struna
Interviewed by Maggie Gogler and Sanja Struna
Featured photo © LEAFF
All other photos © Little Big Pictures