Both myself and contributor Brice recently took part in a group interview with Ha Jung-woo at BAFTA…
Part of a series of events organised by the Korean Cultural Centre UK, Ha Jung-woo completed the Year Of The 4 Actors that also saw Choi Min-sik and Moon So-ri come to London (though sadly Jeon Do-yeon did not make it in the end). The final event took place at BAFTA on 18 December 2013, with a special screening of The Terror Live, followed by an extended Q&A with the star. But of course, we got to talk to him shortly beforehand.
From an acting family – his father Kim Yong-geon is a veteran actor of film and television – Ha first came to prominence in television dramas and comedies like Lovers In Prague and Honest Living. A low-budget independent production with friend Yoon Jong-bin, The Unforgiven, brought Ha to the attention of maverick director Kim Ki-duk, with whom he made Time and Breath, but it was Na Hong-jin’s thriller The Chaser that brought him to an international audience.
Since then, Ha has become increasingly in demand, with notable roles including The Yellow Sea, The Berlin File, Love Fiction, Nameless Gangster and My Dear Enemy. In person Ha Jung-woo was incredibly friendly and open, answering our questions in an easy going manner. The interview was transcribed once again by the brilliant Hangul Celluloid, and originally appeared on his website.
Hangul Celluloid: Throughout your career, you have balanced acting in hard-hitting narrative-led movies such as The Berlin File with roles in far gentler character-driven films like My Dear Enemy. How do you go about preparing for a specific role and do your preparations differ between films that are largely story-based and those that are essentially character studies?
Basically, I am full of curiosity and I am very interested in people. In fact, I love people. I normally get my first ideas about a specific character I am to play from screenwriters but in Korea most directors are also screenwriters so I always ask directors lots of questions like “How did this character start out” or “How did you begin to develop this character”. Essentially, I do a lot of research about a character whether it is for a story-led film or a character study and that’s how I build the way in which I will play the role. For example, the character I played in My Dear Enemy was actually modelled on the director’s friend and so I was able to learn a great deal about him by asking the director. I read lots of novels, too, and that also helps to build up characters, in general. For each role I play, I endeavour to take on the persona of a real-life person to make the character more believable. If you take the example of The Chaser, you probably know that the character I played was a real person in Korea, the film was based on a real story, and so I looked into the police investigations of the case and how the main investigator had written descriptions of that person in his reports and how he had detailed that person’s reactions to questions so that when the police interrogated the suspect in the film I could make my reactions as true-to-life as possible.
SumGyeoJin Gem: Fasten Your Seatbelt was your directorial debut. Why did you decide to move into directing and what were the challenges you faced directing the film?
Being a director has always been part of my plan. It’s not a new idea, I always intended to direct as well as act. I love working around films and yes, of course, I began my career as solely an actor but my plan for the future is to be both an actor and director. As far as the challenges of directing Fasten Your Seatbelt are concerned, as I am an actor and I know how acting works I probably expected too much from the actors involved and perhaps my aim wad too high. The Terror Live – the film that is screening tonight – was filmed right after I finished directing Fasten Your Seatbelt and because of that I was able to understand the director to a far greater degree – having been a director myself, I was able to communicate a lot better with the director of The Terror Live. Communication is, of course, very important in day-to-day life but it’s even more so in film.
easternKicks: I’d like to ask you about Ryoo Seung-wan’s The Berlin File which I think was really your first much more straightforward action film; in terms of stunts and particularly the martial arts sequences. How did you find the training for the film and was the chance of doing some of that work what attracted you to the role?
I’ve always very much liked director Ryoo Seung-wan’s action films and we always had a plan to work together on a film. However, we were unsure of what project that would be until The Berlin File came up, and that was the film we ultimately ended up working on together. In my opinion, I would say The Berlin File is a drama rather than an action film, but there we go, and for the action scenes I just did what I was told by the fight choreographer. I did a bit of action before but as an agent doing martial arts The Berlin File was the first time so I guess because I felt I had no real experience I went to train at ‘stunt school’ and practiced rally hard; basically starting from learning how to punch properly.
Mini Mini Movies: You’ve mentioned acting and directing. I believe you have a film coming up called Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, based on a Chinese novel, in which you act and direct at the same time. I wondered how that came about. Was it something you were a fan of or did someone else approach you?
Because it’s a very interesting, funny story is the main reason I chose to work on Chronicle of a Blood Merchant. About two years ago, I received a novel from a production company and the CEO of the production company is actually a friend of the writer. Initially I was offered a job as an actor in the production. The story, as I’ve said, was really interesting but I felt I was too young to play the character so at that time I refused. Two years later, the same CEO came to see me on the set of ‘The Terror Live’ and said there was no time to waste as the publication rights were close to running out, but I still refused because I’m in my 30s [Ha Jung-woo laughs] and I told him if the rights could be extended to when I turn 40 then I would be interested. Just a couple of days later, he came back and said he had asked the writer if he could wait but he was unable to as the film would soon be made in China, anyway. The CEO said how much he loved the story and how he really wanted to see the film made in Korea and he agreed that he would be happy as long as it was done by 2014. So, shooting will go ahead next May. As I said, up to that point I was only going to be an actor in the film but after I accepted the role we met up to discuss who would be the director. Around the same time, I was editing ‘Fasten Your Seatbelt’ and there were some good rumours going round the editing room and shortly after that I heard that I had been chosen as the director, too. That was a proposal that really made my heart leap and so I accepted the offer.
Korean Class Massive: Do any of the roles you play affect you outside of shooting? In The Chaser, for example, you play a very sadistic character. Is it difficult to switch off once shooting ends for the day?
I don’t find it hard to switch off because when one role is close to completion I’m always thinking of the next role to move on to. I try very hard not to bring what happens on set into my home and I make a real effort to separate my work and home life. I guess that’s why I find it fairly easy to switch off from a specific character.
Oriental Nightmares: You appeared in two of director Kim Ki-duk’s films, Breath and Time. I wondered what it was like working with director Kim as he seems to be quite hard on his actors to get the performance he wants out of them?
I know it’s rumoured that he’s quite hard on actors but he wasn’t like that at all when we worked together, and for me it was an absolute honour to have the chance to work with him. When you shoot a film, normally you met up to read the script together and that’s how you first met and get to know the character you’re going to play, etc. But with Kim Ki-duk there was no reading of the script for Time, and I don’t know if he always does this or if it was just the case for this film, but he said the acting and building of the character was basically down to me, in a very trusting way. Eight years ago, I was quite a ‘newbie’ and I didn’t have that much experience at the time, but the whole shoot was so comfortable I was really amazed that director Kim let me to decide on the character and the way to act. It was all done very comfortably and pleasurably as if I was working with my friends, unlike the rumour [Ha Jung-woo laughs]. When we worked on our second film together, Breath, it felt like we didn’t talk about the film; we just talked about other things, really.
Asian Global Impact: You seem to be a multi-talented actor and director in the vein of James Franco; an American, he too acts, directs, he writes and he also paints. I know that you do painting as well, and I actually went to one of your exhibitions three years ago. What is it about painting that you enjoy? Do you feel it allows you to express something different to that of your films?
When I graduated from university, I was practically unemployed. Obviously, I went for auditions but I had no tomorrow or certain future and it seemed just a continual repeat of mundane life. As such, I really wanted to do something creative and one day I just went to an art shop and bought a sketch book and paints and began painting. I found that while painting I was able to get rid of those worries about my future and it largely became both my life and my hobby. Once I began to get acting roles, my career moved up but still at times as an actor I’ve felt quite isolated and my painting has served as a way to get rid of that feeling and discharge that emotion. On the set, I’m forced to be logical and the director but I can feel quite emotional when I come home sometimes, whether I feel I did a good job of acting or not, and I guess when I see the end result of my painting it refreshes my mind and alleviates that stress. I guess my painting is my emotional diary.
Koreaffinity: I’ve been wondering why directors like Na Hong-jin and Ryoo Seung-wan are always choosing you to run in films. What do you think directors see in you that makes them cast you in such roles; your characters often escaping from one place to another?
Maybe because I was born in the year of the horse [Ha Jung-woo laughs]. Na Hong-jin and Ryoo Seung-wan, after The Chaser etc, recommended me to other directors saying “You’ve got to make him run, and your film will definitely be successful” [Ha Jung-woo laughs, again].
Asian Global Impact: If I could just add to that, you also have a lot of eating scenes. Is that a special skill, too?
I always make sure they bring out hot food that you can actually eat, rather than just looking nice. In Yellow Sea, as you likely remember, there were many eating scenes; eating potatoes and hot dogs and they were really, really hot too – almost too hot to eat – and that really helped to make it more real and made expression easier. In Korea, there are many captured clips from films of me eating, with many of them online, and when I go to a restaurant with my friends there will always be one or two people filming me eating [Ha Jun-woo laughs]. So, it’s really difficult for me to eat out in public. These days, when I see people in certain postures or making specific gestures, I know that they’re trying to film me.
Cine_Asie: You come from a family of actors: Your father was a famous TV actor and your brother has started appearing in more and more television dramas, as well. When you started your career you acted in a TV series and you have since moved away into acting in films and have also added directing to your career. Earlier in the year, we met director Ryoo Seung-wan who has worked with his brother and as your brother is an actor, so far mostly in TV, are you considering working with him in film?
Once I get more experience as a director then I should be able to cast my brother in a film. I think to shoot a film together as a family, rather than just being in a film as an actor, would be a good experience and something to remember.
SumGyeoJin Gem: Tonight, there will be a screening of The Terror Live. How did you prepare yourself to be in character Young-hwa’s shoes as a news announcer in a very tight space; two locations within a news room?
I don’t think the small space matters that much. It’s more about how the audience will see the film without feeling bored – because a newsroom is essentially a boring space. We talked a great deal about how to ensure the audience wouldn’t feel bored in the space; different camera work, different cuts, and the use of multi-camera shots. The film comprises of 21 chapters and each chapter lasts for between five and ten minutes and we wanted to have a ‘live’ feel to it almost like a theatre. So, we shot non-stop for each chapter. The director had prepared for the film for five years and had prepared in such depth that he had shots from other films that he used and combined within the construct of the script and he showed me the demo film he had made. I think that in itself shows how much preparation he undertook.
Hangul Celluloid: On a much more general subject, I have spoken to a lot of actors and directors who have talked about the difficulties faced by smaller independent film productions as a result of Korean film studios’ continued focus on large budget blockbusters. As you are both an actor and a director, what are your thoughts on that issue?
I think the actual number of smaller film productions has increased in recent years because it’s now so much easier to film in numerous ways; even with a mobile phone, as has been done on more than one occasion in Korea. So, even though there is indeed still ongoing pressure from large Korean film companies and studios for films that are either large budget blockbusters or almost certain money makers, I believe that the passion of those people who truly love films will enable small and independent films to continue to exist and even flourish.
easternKicks: I wanted to ask you about E J-yong’s film-within-a-film Behind the Camera, which you star in: Working with all those big name stars over what I believe was a tight two-day shooting schedule, what was it like working with a director who wasn’t on set or even in the same country, for that matter?
It was amazing [Ha Jung-woo laughs]. To make it worse, I was working with E J-yong on a different short film at the same time. So, in Behind the Camera I had a very small part and in the other short film I was the main actor. Director E J-yong had a very clever idea to produce the film and we accomplished it through online chatting. I actually had another camera and I thought it was filming me, but it turned out it was just filming the background. In relation to the previous question about independent productions, because of directors like E J-yong I don’t think low budget films will disappear.
Mini Mini Movies: You mentioned working with E J-yong on another film and you have worked with other directors more than once, like Lee Yoon-ki, Kim Ki-duk, and Na Hong-jin. Is there one director you would still like to work with a second time, in the future?
Of course. I have talked about doing another film with director Kim Byung-woo, but we haven’t decided on anything specific at this point. I feel very blessed and lucky to have met such good directors throughout my career and having good people around me has regularly made me want to work with a director on more than one film.
Korean Class Massive: Fasten Your Seatbelt premiered at this year’s Busan International Film Festival. How did it feel to have your directorial debut premiere at such a prestigious film festival?
I went to the Busan Film Festival in 2005 with The Unforgiven as an actor and then this year I was invited to go as a director. So, it felt really great and the festival itself felt very different going in as a director and I felt much closer to it.
Oriental Nightmares: A number of Korean actors and directors have tried to make or appear in films in the US. You appeared in a US/South Korean film by Gina Kim [Never Forever] but would you choose to appear in or direct a film in the US?
I do have plans to, and I’d also like to but I can’t really say much about that specifically, at the moment.
Asian Global Impact: Could you tell us a little bit about your next project Kundo which I believe is a historical film? Is it more difficult or more fun to play in an historical film rather than a modern role?
It’s not fun at all. In the summer, Korea was very hot and I had to wear long trousers and big boots – layers and layers of clothing – and I had a shaved head and I had to have a beard and wear burnt make-up. So, it was incredibly difficult. There were also many horse-riding scenes and because it was so hot, the horses wouldn’t listen or do what they were told. Nothing was easy at any given time during shooting. People might think that having a shaved head would be cool, but I spent so long in the sun that at night I could even feel the heat coming up again. So, I was able to learn quite a lot about solar energy [Ha Jung-woo laughs].
Koreaffinity: Prior to Project 577 you made a promise to the Korean people that resulted in a beautiful documentary about Korea. Do you feel you freed your spirit and do you think the rest of the actors hate you now? [In 2010, Ha Jung-woo won an award at the PaekSang Arts Awards and promised he would walk across Korea if he won the award again… He won the award the subsequent year and convinced some acting friends to go with him on his 577km journey to fulfil that promise].
After that incident, I’ve never talked about anything like that again but through that three week cross-country walking trip I learnt a lot and realised that parts of Korea I didn’t know about are really beautiful. I was lucky that Korea is small [Ha Jung-woo laughs].
SumGyeoJin Gem: You have been in a number of action films, The Chaser, Yellow Sea, The Berlin File, and normally no stunt men are used and you have to do the action scenes yourself. How do you endure the pain until the director says “Ok, that’s the perfect shot”?
I didn’t do all the action and fighting scenes myself. There is a ‘double’ who looks exactly like me from the back. So, it wasn’t all me.
Hangul Celluloid: You are almost instantly recognisable in the majority of your roles but in 2006 you played a far less recognisable part in The Fox Family. What specific difficulties were there in working in a musical fantasy as opposed to a straightforward action film or drama and what attracted you to the role?
When I received the script, I was very much reminded of Tim Burton’s work and I tried to get the feel for the character from his films. That’s also what attracted me to the part and though I’m not sure how audiences felt about the role I played it was Burton’s work that I based my performance on. As far as the musical aspect of the film and the dancing sequences are concerned, because I began my career as a theatre actor I didn’t find any real difficulty in performing as I was required to.
easternKicks: You’ve been lucky to never have been typecast – you’ve played in a variety of roles from romantic lead to spy to serial killer. I wondered what sort of roles you like playing most and is there anything you’d like to try that you haven’t yet?
My dream role would be Hamlet on stage because I did theatre studies and being Hamlet to any theatre actor is a blessing and an honour. I was actually offered a job in 2009 but as I was so busy making ‘Yellow Sea’ I wasn’t able to do it, but hopefully before I get too old I’ll get the opportunity to play Hamlet. Choi Min-sik, who I believe was here in England recently, played Hamlet in 1999 and ten years later to celebrate the role I was offered the part, but as I said I was at that time too busy to accept.
Mini Mini Movies: We talked about the directing of Fasten Your Seatbelt but as far as the writing is concerned did you have some collaboration?
Obviously I got ideas from the actors and actresses involved when we were reading the script but the film was actually based on a real story, experienced by Ryoo Seung-beom.
Korean Class Massive: What has been the most physically demanding role you’ve had to date?
Without question, Kundo was by far the most physically demanding as a result of the heat alone. In that film I was using a very knife while the other actor was using a long sword and I was worried that I might actually get cut or injured. Whenever I talk about physically demanding roles, Kundo will always be the one I mention. Before that film, I would probably have said Yellow Sea because the shooting was for 11 months and also took place in suburban China.
Oriental Nightmares: Who are the directors and actors who have inspired you throughout your career?
There are many: Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Tim Burton, Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Robert Downey Jr, even perhaps James Franco [Ha Jung-woo laughs]
SumGyeoJin Gem: Choi Min-sik is going to star in Luc Besson’s Lucy with Scarlett Johansson. Are you interested in working with foreign directors and cast members in order to extend your work in terms of different cultures’ film productions?
I am open to the idea. In fact, I had a call from South Africa at one point but I thought it was too far to go. Hopefully at some point in the future a suitable opportunity will arise.
We’d like to thank the Korean Cultural Centre UK for organising these events, and giving us the opportunity to meet such big stars.