The following interview took place at BAFTA on Thursday April 4th 2013, prior to the Korean Cultural Centre UK screening of Hong Sang-soo's 'HaHaHa' and Q&A with Moon So-ri..
Hangul Celluloid: I’m sure we all have a lot of questions so I’m going to start by asking about a fairly hard-hitting subject, straight away:
Over the course of your career you have played many roles in films the narratives of which centre on issues relating to equality, female empowerment or women reclaiming their sexuality and sexual independence. How much do you feel those films have helped feminist causes in Korea itself and do you feel there is still as great a need for such narratives in Korean cinema today as there was in days gone by?
Moon So-ri: I have tended to accept roles that other actresses were perhaps a little reluctant to play. In terms of how I came to play those roles I think it was largely split 50/50 in that directors sometimes specifically wanted to give a strong female role to me while other times I chose a strong character role because I just wasn’t drawn to conservative or passive parts at the time. Over the years things have continued in that vein, so far at least. I feel that through the characters I played the range of female characters portrayed in South Korean cinema has broadened and I’m incredibly proud of having somewhat contributed to that widening of characters and subjects. There are some roles that Korean feminists are, I feel, not that crazy about and some that they praise greatly. For example, Korean feminists do seem to be a little bit torn about director Hong Sang-soo’s films but if we look at his film that is screening tonight, ‘HaHaHa’, many feminists were very supportive of my role. So, I think that somehow my presence in director Hong’s film maybe changed feminist views in a way or made some kind of contribution to gender roles and, as such, I feel that addressing such issues and subjects is every bit as important in the present day. Actually, I’m not sure director Hong would appreciate that perspective [Moon So-ri laughs].
London Korea Times: Throughout your various roles in films – you acted in Oasis as a disabled person; in ‘HaHaHa’ you played a Korean tour guide etc. etc. – but what was the most difficult character portrayal you undertook?
Moon So-ri: I find that in every new film - whether in terms of becoming a new character or more generally the shooting or production - I’m rarely working with the same people or in the similar situations. Sometimes the director is someone I haven’t worked with before, or the actors are different and the stories we are telling are different, so overall every role is kind of challenging but attractive at the same time. There were some roles that I found either mentally or physically challenging but I would find it hard to pinpoint one specific role that I found more challenging than any other. I guess that understanding each character is the most challenging for me.
Korean Class Massive: Even though you’re now a really sought after actress, you’ve still gone back to working in plays. What is it about acting in the theatre that keeps drawing you back and what do you see as the differences between acting for the camera and a live audience?
Moon So-ri: I would almost describe acting on the stage as healing in the way a hospital heals. It allows me to heal and rejuvenate so that I am able to go back to acting in film. That’s really why I want to do both; they complement each other and have a sort of synergy.
easternKicks: You’ve mentioned all your roles being a challenge but with one of your earliest roles being in ‘Oasis’ I wondered if you realised just how challenging a role that would be and could you talk about the reason you chose it?
Moon So-ri: I really had no idea [Moon So-ri laughs]. In fact, I don’t even think director Lee Chang-dong knew what kind of imagery he had in mind when I began the role. He preferred an almost carefree attitude to how we ended up or where we ended up and I think that was an encouragement for me. Actually, in the middle of shooting I ran away [Moon So-ri laughs] and said “I can’t do this anymore” and director Lee dragged me back. It was indeed challenging but at the same time it was a kind of process in itself and not a process where I could particularly enjoy the acting, due to the character. In the beginning, it was rather difficult to like the character and once I fell in love with the role I almost felt isolated. Since the character could not communicate with people, once I immersed myself in the role I rather became an isolated character and feeling unable to communicate certainly was very challenging for me.
MiniMiniMovies: How did you research your role in ‘Oasis’? Was it a long process? And in terms of filming, there are two parts of the film where the camera looks away and you change from a character with cerebral palsy to one without, and there is only a limited time for you to get back into character. I wondered if that was your decision?
Moon So-ri: To answer your first question, first I got to know some disabled people, spending time with them, and subsequently I tried to emulate gestures by myself. So, it was largely a dual process of observing and creating. With regard to your second question, it was the director’s decision to move back and forth but instead of cutting the camera moves away or I was out of frame for just a second and one of the major differences in appearance is the brace I wore: If I took the brace out while out of frame then when the camera returned I could switch role. However, in such a short space of time to change appearance and mindset was really hard and at the time I actually wondered why he was using the same take rather than cutting and it turned out that the director thought that a single take was needed as he was showing different aspects of the same person; one normal, one disabled but still different sides of the one. When disabled friends saw the film, that was the scene that they liked the best and they said that was sometimes their wish – to just kiss someone or complain or burst into song – so that desire was manifested really well, I think. I found it more challenging to be the non-disabled character because I found myself acting as Moon So-ri in those situations.
Cine_Asie: I wondered about the impact of ‘Oasis’ in Korea and about the awareness of and treatment of the disabled? And my second question: In ‘In Another Country’, again by Hong Sang-soo, you played alongside Isabelle Huppert, who is a very famous French actress, and ‘HaHaHa’ won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. What’s your perception of French cinema and French actors and do you perhaps have an interest in working in a French film?
Moon So-ri: After the release of the film, there were some lively discussions about sexual assaults of disabled females but it’s hard to say how those discussions turned into institutional policies or how they were implemented in the system. Of course, film cannot solve everything but given the limited part that film can play I think that it can direct people’s attention to certain areas and it can ignite a strong spark to trigger a change of perceptions. I think that most Korean films can translate to international audiences and still have an appeal so I see no dichotomy to Korean vs. international or local vs. global. However, I still regard myself as a model to interpret roles that represent Korean society and I've never really considered acting in foreign movies or films with French directors. As far as French cinema is concerned, working with Isabelle Huppert was an honour. Actually, one of the most impressive things about her was her enthusiasm while working in such a tiny environment, even though she was getting paid a tiny amount, and that was all because of her faith in director Hong.
Asian Global Impact: You’ve played a large number of different characters in a range of roles. How do you go about choosing the roles you play? Is the most important thing for you character, director or script? And also, is there a difference for you between working in an independent film vs. a commercial film?
Moon So-ri: One of the most important criteria for me is the script as well as what kind of film the director envisions. I’m far less concerned with what type of character role I have to play. I see little difference between acting in an independent film to a commercial one. In fact, sometimes the budget is so low that I don’t get paid at all and sometimes I forget that fact and find myself spending money, so maybe that’s a difference.
London Korea Times: You worked with director Lim Soon-rye on ‘Fly Penguin’ and I wondered if there is a difference between working with a female director than a male?
Moon So-ri: I worked with Lim Soon-rye on two films; ‘Fly Penguin’ and ‘Forever the Moment’ and she is more like a man when she’s director while after shooting she’s rather like a mother. She’s very strict so she’s more ‘manly’ than male directors during the hooting process.
Hangul Celluloid: As well as your numerous fictional films, you’ve also been involved in documentaries ‘Ari Ari The Korean Cinema’ and ‘Nine Lives of Korean Cinema’. Clearly your interest in film goes far beyond acting but in terms of your career to what point does that interest extend? Do you perhaps think about stepping behind the camera and has your interest in the film-making process been increased further by your marriage to a director?
Moon So-ri: For the sake of the happiness of my family I think it’s probably safer just to have one director [Moon So-ri laughs]. One director per family should perhaps be the rule. In truth, never say never and while I can’t guarantee that I won’t step behind the camera I also thought I would never marry a director and look what happened, so I guess you really can never tell. So, there may be a possibility – I’m not adverse to the idea – but for now at least I’m happy working with directors. I actually think I still learn a lot, or even more, from that relationship in terms of my acting and there’s room to improve or perfect my acting craft so for now that’s really the relationship I want to hold on to.
Korean Class Massive: I believe that your father was quite strict and you didn’t get to go to the theatre that much. What made you want to go into acting?
Moon So-ri: I never disobeyed my father until I was 20-years-old and after I turned 20 until I started acting there was sometimes almost a battle between me and my father. Then once I started acting then my relationship with him became more tense but over time we gradually became closer again. When I was in college I got a degree in Education and there was one month where I had teaching experience in high school. The Korean educational system is quite conservative and I just couldn’t see myself spending the rest of my life teaching in that environment. I was drawn to something more aggressive and free and so acting became my focus. Also maybe there’s maybe an element of destiny involved – the number of people I got to know and work with leading me in certain directions – so it’s not just the decision of a single person; things happen sometimes seemingly on their own.
easternKicks: In the last few years, it feels like there has been a shift in the Korean film industry towards blockbusters and away from independent films and it’s becoming more difficult for independent films to be made and distributed. As an actor who has played a variety of roles, would you agree with that and what do you think that means for established actors like yourself and those that are coming out now?
Moon So-ri: My fifth to seventh films were relatively low-budget but increasingly that kind of film-making is almost impossible and I am very worried about that condition and those circumstances. In fact, I actually experienced that whole change of environment. There are currently three big conglomerates in the Korean film industry but I still consider them t be my peers – companies that she wants to work with and has to work with – and I try to offer them different visions and show them different possibilities so that maybe they can fund different types of films but that’s a challenge in itself because they are so large. One Korean film critic actually said the diversity of films I’m able to act in over a period of time is largely an indication of the health of the film industry because my range is varied. So, for the sake of Korean cinema I’m trying to play a wide range of roles [Moon So-ri laughs].
MiniMiniMovies: I believe you’re a fan of music and play the violin. Have you ever thought of playing the role of a character that plays music? Also, considering the fact that you are a fan of pansori, if you ever got the chance to work with Im Kwon-taek would you be interested?
Moon So-ri: Just this morning I heard about a script about a character who plays the violin. I’m not sure if I would be the character if I accept the role but I said to the person who told me about it “Did you know I play the violin?”, and the person responded “Of course you can, you’re an actor, you can become anything and play anything” [Moon So-ri laughs]. Of course, as I said earlier, part of playing a new role is getting to know someone and if you already know something about that person that may expediate the process but that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily become best friends. So, I’m intrigued but it’s not a main reason for me accepting or rejecting the role.
London Korea Times: As there are many newcomers entering the Korean film industry, who are the new actors and actresses you have enjoyed working with or want to work with in the future on a new project? Do you see established actors such as yourself helping to improve the performances of rookies; perhaps mentoring them if there is a chance?
Moon So-ri: Short answer, I prefer them to be male [Moon So-ri laughs]. Sometimes children can perform better so instinctively new actors and actresses might work or perform better than already trained actors and actresses, so that’s always something to celebrate, I think. In terms of specific names, it’s hard to pick one. Rather than mentoring, working with new actors and actresses has allowed me to reflect on myself and how I started and built my career. So, it’s more a self-reflective situation.
Korean Class Massive: A lot of your roles contain a great deal of physicality: ‘Forever the Moment’ is obviously sports and ‘A Good Lawyer’s Wife’ contains a lot of dancing. Are you very active outside acting or did you have to do a lot of training for those parts?
Moon So-ri: Even if it’s not activities like sport or dancing, I’ve had quite a lot of roles that require physicality. Somehow, I enjoy physicality and move my body with ease, even outside sports, so maybe that’s a reason why I don’t mind playing roles that demand exercising. There is a tendency for female performers to either just be shown close up or focus on dialogue instead of the muscular quality of the body and from my point of view I don’t want to play pretty-doll characters and I think the body is important for regular actors as well.
Korean Class Massive: After such active roles, what was it like doing voice-only roles such as ‘Leafie’ and how hard was it to use only your voice to act?
Moon So-ri: I found it suffocating. I think that reaction and interaction are key elements of acting but when you are just recording your voice there is no image passing by and there’s no interaction with what’s in front of you. I found that very challenging indeed.
Hangul Celluloid: Your latest film to be released in Korean cinemas is ‘An Ethics Lesson’ which has been marketed as an erotic thriller. How would you describe the film and what are your feelings about the seeming increase both in sexual content in Korean films and the marketing of films with almost any sexual content as ‘erotic’?
Moon So-ri: It’s certainly true that films are increasingly being marketed in this way in an attempt to draw more people to see Korean films at the cinema but whether there is actually greater erotic content is another matter. I’m actually wondering if ‘An Ethics Lesson’ is erotic. Maybe it can be considered that way but I think it’s actually a new kind of film. It was incredibly difficult to get finance for the film so all the actors and others worked together to try to make it happen and bring it to fruition. Definitely, it was a new attempt to provide a route for low-budget films and I hope it is successful to provide an alternative method for a wider range of films to get financing but I guess we’ll have to see how it performs over time.
Cine_Asie: Having worked in both films and television, what would your advice to new actors be. Should they learn their craft by acting in TV dramas or should they concentrate on being cast in films?
Moon So-ri: I think the stage is the most efficient way for new actors to learn their craft but at the same time I think acting in front of camera is important too. So, I think my advice would be to get as much experience as possible in all walks of acting.
London Korea Times: You acted in the television drama ‘All About My Family’. What is the difference between working in drama and film and are you willing to work in TV drama again in the future?
Moon So-ri: Production time for Korean drama is quite short so if an episode is aired on Saturday, they will work through Tuesday to Friday and the next episode will be broadcast on the next Saturday. So it really is quite a tight schedule. Also, you wouldn’t get the script for the next episode until Sunday after the previous one has aired. Many actors and actresses find that ‘in process’ schedule quite challenging and that speed does have a huge impact on quality and if there is ever going to be improvement that has to change.
Dr Choi Jin-hee [Interview Interpreter]: We have time for one final, very, very short question.
Hangul Celluloid: Ok, very quickly: As well as starring roles you have also regularly played parts in films that are far smaller. What dictates whether a cameo or passing role attracts you?
Moon So-ri: I love movies. I have worked for over ten years but I don’t consider myself to be an actress yet and I don’t think that moment should come always. I honestly feel the same excitement regardless of whether it’s a large or small role or even a cameo appearance. That excitement and that experience is what draws me to a film and as soon as I feel it I know a film is worth being involved in.
I would sincerely like to thank the Korean Cultural Centre UK (and the London Korean Film Festival) for allowing us all to interview Moon So-ri at such length.