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Acting since she was in high school, Han Ji-min long ruled the Korean dramaverse with shows like Padam Padam and Rooftop Prince, and made her mark in features like Detective K and The Fatal Encounter.  In Director Kim Jee-woon’s Japanese invasion spy thriller, The Age of Shadows, Han reveals a gritty side as the lone lady in a nest of Korean freedom fighters, showing viewers she’s much more than just a pretty face.

Be warned!  There are The Age of Shadows spoilers.  But otherwise…

Dig it!


The Age of Shadows

Han Ji-min


The Lady Miz Diva:  The Age of Shadows is under consideration to represent South Korea at the Oscars.  How do you feel about such an honour?

Han Ji-min:  I’m not sure if I’m in a position to actually comment about this honor {Laughs}, but I will say that I am honored that this sort of film has been selected to become a candidate.  I will say for an actress, personally, just having the opportunity to work with Director Kim and such great actors as Song Kang-ho and to collaborate with them has been a very meaningful experience.


LMD:  Please tell us how you read your character, Yeon Gye-soon?  She’s really the only woman in a dangerous world full of daring men.

HJ-m:  When I first read the screenplay, Gye-soon came to me as quite a colorless character, but the reason that I wanted to work with Director Kim Jee-woon was because he’s very open to suggestions and he’s very into collaboration with the actors.

For example, the torture scene, we weren’t really sure how that was going to be depicted in the film, but because we had filmed that in sequence later in our filming schedule, I was able to follow along with the emotions of the character.  So that was a bit better for me.  And while I was filming, yes, I did get physically bruised and there was a lot of physical pain involved, but I felt like more than that, the pain of the Korean history at that time period was something that was more psychologically burdensome and difficult for me to bear.

To elaborate a little bit more on that, the torture scenes that are depicted in the film; in actual history, the torture was a lot more brutal and a lot more inhumane.  There is a scene where the actor Song Kang-ho’s character sees Gye-soon going to be buried and he cries in that scene.  He told me later on that that came to him because he felt like Yeon Gye-soon was a symbol of all the lost lives during that time period and he wasn’t even able to give her his hand as a gesture of comfort.  So, when I was playing this character, Yeon Gye-soon, I kept on repeatedly asking myself, if I were in her shoes, would I be able to sacrifice myself for my country?  So, because of that, it had been quite emotionally hard for me.


LMD:  What was it like to be the only female actor amidst the all-male cast?

HJ-m:  First of all, because as any actor in Korea, working with actor Song Kang-ho was a dream come true for me.  So just that in itself was a meaningful experience.  And secondly, I would say being the only female, I didn’t really regard it as a special thing; it was more so my character was a symbol or metaphor for the sacrifice of that time, so that’s how I approached it.  Thirdly, I guess I did get some special treatment in light of I was treated well on set because I was the only woman.


LMD:  Did Director Kim give you any special points of research to help create your character, whether it was films or books, to help you not only depict this 1920s era, but the life of a resistance fighter?

HJ-m:  One of the acting points that Director Kim requested of all of the actors, not just myself, was “small acting.”  For example, he told me to watch a few films, one of the films was A Most Violent Year, and another was Margin Call.  As far as books, he asked me to read a Korean book called The People Who Shook Up Seoul in 1923.  It deals with the real-life event that this film is based on, so he asked us to read that book. 

If I was to give an example of “small acting,” it would be one of the scenes where my character encounters Hashimoto {the Japanese agent} in the pharmacy: When you see that moment in the film, she understands that something is immediately wrong, but then she tries her best to cover it up; so it’s very subtle in the movements, it’s very small.  So for the character and the acting, that’s what I researched.


LMD:  You mentioned that the torture that Yeon Gye-soon would have received during the time of the Japanese occupation would have been much worse in reality.  Besides the research that Director Kim gave you, did you perhaps also look into the plight of the freedom fighters, or researched what torture victims actually go through when they are captured?

HJ-m:  As a Korean, I was aware of the types of torture that independence fighters went through, and also I had previous prior research when I was working on a Korean drama {Scandal in Old Seoul/ Kyeongseong Scandal} that deals with that time period, so I have done my research.  But there was one sentence in the screenplay that depicts the torture scene for Yeon Gye-soon, and this one sentence is, “Her scream sounds unhuman.” 

For me, I was wondering how Director Kim would direct me in that scene and also from an acting technique point of view, I was wondering how to portray that in the film?  So, I actually went on YouTube and sort of Googled “torture,” but a lot of brutal stuff came up, so I didn’t really work with that.

So, I think that sentence, “Her scream sounds unhuman,” was really important for me.  Because I’ve never experienced that kind of screaming before, and as an actor I still take acting lessons and acting classes and I tried it out with my coach, as well, but it all just seemed quite contrived and awkward.  But once I walked on set - the set really informs your acting and your choices - I felt like just by sitting in that chair, chained to the chair, having blood just spilling out on the floor; just by being in that environment really give me the chills.  So when the camera started rolling, the sound, this animalistic sound just came out of me which I wasn’t even aware that I was capable of.  So, I feel like once I was in that environment, that really informed me and helped my performance.  Even after the director yelled “Cut,” I really didn’t even know how and what was going on, and because I was so overtaken by emotion, the tears just kept on flowing even after the cut.

There is a moment in that scene where the arm of the chair falls off, and I didn’t know at the time - we shot that scene for two days - and during that time when I came home, I would see my arms and they were just bruised all over.  But at the time, because I was so in the moment, I didn’t realise what I was doing with my arms to the chairs.

Also, during that scene, Yeon Gye-soon doesn’t say much, but she keeps on saying, “I don’t know anything.”  In the beginning, prior to going onto the set, I had sort of planned in my mind to do it in a very tough and resilient way, but that sort of felt unrealistic to me, and while talking with the director, I felt like even if you are a freedom fighter, when you are in that sort of situation, when you’re faced with torture and pain; it’s only natural for your fear and fragility and vulnerability as a human being to seep out.  I felt that was the more realistic portrayal.  Director Kim and I worked on a few different versions of how to deliver those lines.


LMD:  I have an question I’ve wanted to ask someone of your experience and calibre.  You have been working in television and film since you were in high school.  Do you feel that the level and expectation of acting excellence is different for men and women in the Korean film industry? 

Perhaps it’s my limited experience as someone from the west, but sometimes I get the sense that once an actress is sort of placed in this box where she is considered “cute” or “pretty,” it’s much harder to be taken seriously for your performance, and that your work is taken for granted.  Considering the depth of your portrayal in The Age of Shadows, I really wanted to get your opinion on that observation.

HJ-m:  I will say that in the past in the Korean entertainment industry, it was possible to be just pretty and then it would be like, ‘Okay, you’re pretty, so you get the lead role.’  But I think because Korean people have been exposed to so many different types of film and dramas that the period has come where that’s not enough.  ‘Well, yes, you’re pretty, but if you can’t act…’ People tend to be critical of you.  So, that’s why in the case of Korean dramas and film - in dramas there is definitely a limitation from an acting point of view; especially once the love story starts, the character sort of loses its agency and its color and I feel like that is why I have this constant thirst to satiate my need for quality acting. 

Which is why, especially in the Korean film industry, there aren’t many films that are centered around women; so, for me, my job - regardless of whether the part is big or small - is to really try and get those roles and satiate that thirst that I have for acting.

In the case of The Age of Shadows, sometimes I see comments like “Song Kang-ho is great. His acting is great,” but then there are comments like, “Oh, Han Ji-min was pretty.”  Those comments, they don’t come across as the most flattering response.  I guess that is right and I guess this is like a piece of homework for me, the actress, as well, to be able to act in a way and perform in my work so that audiences will be able to see the work and not just an image.


LMD:  What would you like audiences to take away from your character, Yeon Gye-soon?

HJ-m:  I’m very curious, actually, to see the audience response here New York, because for Korean audiences; they have a basic understanding of Korean history, so it’s easier to get into.  However, for audiences here, that’s not the case. 

Rather than wanting to say something just about my character, I feel like at first glance, The Age of Shadows looks like a spy movie, and there is some fun in trying to figure out who the spy is, but for me, I feel like it really deals with an era of pro-Japanese and anti-Japanese people trying to not be heroes.  It’s not a heroic story; I feel it’s more a story of people who are striving to just survive, and those blurred lines between good and evil.   So I hope that the audience will get that inner turmoil that is happening within these characters.


LMD:  You have so many fans of your films and dramas from around the world, would you please give a message to your western well-wishers?

HJ-m:  I will say that on Facebook, I get these messages from fans worldwide and whenever I just read their comments, that comes as a big surprise for me.  Just the other day I was having a beer with my friends and this African-American man came up to me and said, “You’re an actress, right?”  And so I asked him, “Oh, do you watch Korean dramas?”  And he said, “Oh, yeah, I watched Padam Padam.  I just saw that, you were great.”  So, I saw that he was sitting with a Korean woman, so I asked him, “Is your girlfriend Korean?”  He said, “Well, yes, my girlfriend is Korean, but she doesn’t watch Korean dramas. I just watch them on my own.” {Laughs}

In a way, just meeting these fans is such a surprising and a very, very grateful experience for myself.  Whenever I’m on set, or when I am in production, there are times when the schedules are so tight and it’s just a really, really grueling schedule, so that sometimes I feel, ‘Okay, maybe I’ll just do this much, instead of going higher than what is required,’ but knowing now that my work is internationally shown worldwide really gives me the motivation to really do my best in my work.  And also, I feel very thankful and a sense of responsibility and I want to tell my fans that I would love to meet them again in a new genre or possibly a new performance.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

Sept 20-21st, 2016


Special praise and thanks to the wonderful folks at Korean Movie Night/Korean Cultural Center NY, CJ Entertainment and BH Entertainment for making this interview possible, as well as our eternal blessings for the wonderful translation of Ms. Estelle Lee.

Click Here for our Exclusive Interview with The Age of Shadows Director Kim Jee-woon.


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Stills Courtesy of CJ Entertainment










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