It was noon in London and a late night in Melbourne when Lee Song-yi, a South Korean model and actress, and I sat down over a Zoom call and finally caught up after a year of not seeing each other. In the past few years, Lee Song-yi has worked incredibly hard; she has modelled, filmed Level Up, a K-drama, and starred in Dutch-Korean co-production Battery Life by Hugo Keijzer. She has also set herself a new goal of becoming a yoga teacher while staying in Melbourne, suffice to say, she’s kept herself pretty busy during lockdown.
“I’ve worked non-stop for the past 12 years. [As a result,] I felt really tired and empty inside, I was lost. One day, I checked my bucket list and there was a mention of studying English and living in an [English-speaking] country. Without hesitation, I decided to leave things behind in Seoul, and give myself time to recover and to improve myself. Australia seemed like a good choice,” Song-yi admits honestly.
Although Los Angeles was another destination in Song-yi’s mind, it was Melbourne that won over her heart: “I think Melbourne is quite good for education. Also, the city is surrounded by beautiful nature. I’ve been to Melbourne twice before, so choosing this particular city was the right choice.”
Photo © Mandy Wood
Song-yi debuted as an actress in 2016 in a short film titled Right Now, followed by a feature film called Walking Streets. Later, in 2019, she starred in the aforementioned Level Up alongside Sung Hoon, and Battery Life. In addition, she has done some advertisements, including one for Samsung. There is no secret that filming in South Korea differs from what it’s like in the West, including the work on set with the crew.
“Level Up was a big challenge,” Song-yi exclaims, before continuing with a smile: “As you know, I’d never tried [acting in] a typical K-drama before. Prior to this show I used to be more focused on script learning etc. However, in terms of Level Up, I tried to look at Sung Hoon’s other dramas and the main female characters in them. I needed to understand what sort of persona they have so it could help me imagine what a Korean romantic comedy with Sung Hoon is like.”
In terms of Battery Life, as there were no lines to learn Song-yi had to use her body language more than ever. Once she received the script, the actress only had two days to prepare, and, because English is her second language, she needed more time to grasp the meaning of the short film. While it was Song-yi’s first opportunity to work with a European filmmaker, she found it very exciting and less stressful when compared to working on a Korean film set.
“If you asked me to compare Korean and European working ethics, they are divergent; undoubtedly they have very different atmospheres”, she claimed, considering the differences between the two. “For instance, in South Korea I had a lot of responsibility. And, as I had a supporting role in Level Up, I realised that I wasn’t given enough time to discuss my character, as well as other things with regards to the drama itself,” Song-yi responds passionately.
“Working with a Dutch filmmaker was pleasant, it felt like I was working with my brothers,” Song-yi adds with a laugh. “I was a little bit confused and anxious about filming on the street, however, with Hugo Keijzer’s help and guidance, I managed to perform well.”
Photo © Mandy Wood
Prior to moving to Australia, Song-yi received the Entertainment Media News Award for her role in Level Up. “[Knowing] that I won the award was a slightly weird feeling, but at the same time, I was calm and happy,” Song-yi tells me of the experience, with a big grin on her face. “I achieved something new in my life. It was the first time I said to myself, ‘you are an actress’; before, people used to call me ‘model, model Lee’. It’s definitely [kick-started] a different and new chapter in my life.”
During the interview it was hard not to talk about Song-yi’s adventurous life in Australia. Although she came to Melbourne to enhance her acting knowledge, she ended up doing various other things, such as embarking on yoga studies and having English classes.
“As of now, I’ve finished my 6 month English course. I was planning to do some acting classes, but everything was stopped due to the pandemic and the lockdown,” she explains. “I am not really interested in doing online acting classes, I think doing it face-to-face would be more valuable. And, while waiting for everything to resume, I decided to study yoga and become a yoga teacher. I’m currently halfway through my training.”
While giggling, we both agreed that there is no such thing as too much education, what matters is to enhance one’s knowledge. Song-yi is an inspirational individual; she is vocal about environmental issues and the empowerment of women, she is also passionate about living a healthy lifestyle, and Australia surely provides that way of life.
Photo © Mandy Wood
While waiting for her acting to resume, Song-yi wishes to improve her English and work harder on learning more about yoga, and other things: “I decided to remain here [in Melbourne], I want to study English more and study something new as well; yoga makes me really happy these days, especially the philosophical side of it,” says the actress enthusiastically.
“What is important in my life is definitely not money, definitely not having a career – my career is important but not everything, it is a secondary choice for me. I modelled for over 10 years, and I recently really realised how much material the fashion industry is wasting, and slowly damaging the environment. I’m a human first, so I should look after the environment as much as I can. I used to be obsessed with new things, like designer bags, but that wasn’t happiness. Growing my own vegetables, taking care of recycling, reconnecting with nature here in Australia, has really brought me back to life.”
Being an emerging actress, she must face various challenges, but what are Song-yi’s biggest fears and challenges?
“I’ve known [within me] that I’ve been an actress for a while now, but I do believe that mental and physical health is my priority, and being a full-time actress can easily affect that,” she claims. “Schedules are often demanding, sometimes there’s only a short time for preparing for auditions. At times, it feels like there is too much to plan for an audition, meetings, or shooting etc. Everything has to be handled mentally and physically.”
She then adds nervously: “If I am in distress, whether mentally or physically, I panic and it is hard to get back on track and get new opportunities as an actress. And, as you know, we don’t get many chances these days due to the situation we are living in.”
Photo © Mandy Wood
Being a female performer in a male-dominated industry comes with its own challenges, including a lack of equal pay: “I wish female actors, all females for that matter, could earn the same money. We deserve the right payment in the acting industry; we are not volunteers,” she says. Song-yi laughs and continues, “we do work hard, but sadly the industry and people who hire us, do not bother to pay us, or pay us very little.”
While working and trying to figure out what to do next, Song-yi honestly admits that she fears returning to Seoul simply because of her age. Getting older is something that South Korean women often dislike, not because they are getting grey hair or wrinkles, but because of how society pressures them over accomplishing things by a certain age.
“In Korea, age means a lot, especially as a woman. I’m really afraid to go back to South Korea because I haven’t gotten married yet. That really makes me freak out sometimes because society might think that I have a bad personality, which makes it harder for me to get married,” she admits honestly.
While that thought petrifies Song-yi, for now she can relax and enjoy her life back in Melbourne and focus on doing things she loves. The pandemic has changed millions of lives, but the only thing that has changed for Song-yi is that she has to study online. She has also made sure that she has organised a good plan for her future career: “The pandemic has not really changed my life [drastically]. I just try to live my life as an actress, as an environmental activist, and a human. This year, I plan to go back to Korea and keep [pursuing] my acting career. Furthermore, I am looking forward to going to America.”
Song-yi dreams big, and that is inspiring. No matter what she plans next, she knows that her journey will lead her to success, sooner or later.
Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler
Featured photo © Mandy Wood
Photo © Mandy Wood
View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, arts and fashion, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, arts and fashion, worldwide.