Recalling romance: the incomparable Ha Ji-won
Canto: Okay, so we’ve been so busy pretending to be sciency savants that we’ve forgotten about the romantic side of this blog…
Jacinta: You’re right, the Urbane Society for Skeptical Romantics must be a confusing name for some, unless they can find some romance in our scientific interests, which would be nice…
Canto: So we’re changing all that by doing occasional pieces on heroines around the world, since we’re both into female supremacy, right?
Jacinta: Okay and you’ve chosen a very romantic heroine first up, and I must say I approve of her wholeheartedly, though I may play devil’s advocate during this dialogue.
Canto: Fine, well I’ve chosen a real people’s heroine, the dazzling Ha Ji-won, from Korea. She’s a hugely successful star of film and television drama, a household name over there, but I’ve picked her for, inter alia, her many portrayals of strong women – from teenage misfits to action heroes to royalty to suburban divorcées, she’s one of those actors who dominate the screen and inspire women everywhere – at least everywhere in Korea – to be feisty and independent, and that’s a fine thing.
Jacinta: Actually I like her because she comes across mostly as a warm and sensitive person, a sort of ‘what the world needs now’ sort of person, but admit it, what’s the real reason you’ve chosen her?
Canto: Ah well, of course it’s purely a romantic one, I’m totally besotted with her and I’m sure my usual razor-sharp judgment has been blunted by my adoration, so you’ll have to provide the skepticism I’m afraid.
Jacinta: Well I’m quite attracted myself I have to say, though I definitely get the impression that girl-girl love, or lust, is much more frowned upon in South Korea than it is here.
Canto: Yes it does strike me as a rather buttoned-up, conservative, class-oriented and overly materialistic society by Australian standards, judging by their movies and dramas, but it’s a dynamic society, and a little more open, I think, than, say, Japanese society, so hopefully this obsession with the ‘right’ education and ‘pedigree’ instead of evident talent will be blown away by outside influences. Actually I think women like Ha Ji-won are contributors to this sort of levelling process. From her various bios I’ve not discovered whether she comes from a privileged background or not – she seems to have made it on ability, hard work and, okay, extreme good looks.
Jacinta: To those in the west who might not be familiar with her, I’d describe her as a sort of blend of Angelina Jolie action figure and a slightly more boyish version of Emma Watson. What do you think?
Canto: Mmmm no, neither of those women come to mind. For a start she’s no statuesque figure, she’s quite slim and slightly built. I don’t really compare her to any western actors – she’s incomparable. She’s definitely a sporty type with energy to burn, and with an independent nature…. It’s fascinating to me that she’s never married, though she’s approaching forty, and still absolutely stunning.
Jacinta: Well, we’ve been doing some background checks, via Google haha, and her private life, at least regarding relationships, is a completely closed book. I get the impression she’s something of a workaholic, with an extraordinary list of performances over twenty years, and a very healthy bank balance with her star having risen so much over the last decade. So what’s she doing with all that loot?
Canto: Are you being skeptical of her outwardly sweet character or just genuinely questioning? Let me first describe her in the most positive light. I doubt that she’s a fitness fanatic or anything, but I think that especially in her earlier roles, once she got established enough to pick and choose, she relished roles that were physically active and often beautiful, I mean physically, in terms of movement and grace. For example in Sex is Zero (2002) she played an aspiring national aerobics champion and went into full training for the role. For the drama Damo (2003) and the film Duellist (2005) she learned how to wield a sword, and for the ultra-energetic sci-fi action flick Sector 7 (2011) she learned scuba diving and other fancy stuff. But perhaps the most impressive thing I’ve read about her dedication to her craft was her months of boxing training for Miracle on First Street (2007), during which she actually got knocked out. There’s a description here of the filming by the director Yoon JeGyoon, which is essentially a heart-felt tribute to Ji-won. It brought tears to my eyes. And so it goes…
Jacinta: I can see you’re getting emotional again, mate. I agree with you she’s amazing in that way. And it wasn’t just in her early roles that she was doing all that physical stuff. In Sector 7 and and in the hugely successful Secret Garden (2010), in which she played a stunt-woman, she challenged herself to the utmost. And don’t forget the film As One (2012), in which Ji-won played South Korean table tennis champ Hyun Jung-hwa. We haven’t seen that one but it recreates a very touching event in recent Korean history, when the two Koreas united to form a single table tennis team in 1991, an act of reconciliation after the downing of a passenger plane by North Korea in 1987. It’s a movie all about women and friendship and I’m really really keen to see it. Ji-won had never played table tennis before and trained intensively for four months, though she was recovering from an ankle injury sustained while shooting Sector 7. She was under the tutorship of Hyun Jung-hwa herself, and was determined to imitate the details of her playing style.
Canto: Yes, that’s a must-see movie. Now, I’m sure that all good actors throw themselves whole-heartedly into their roles, but I’ve never encountered anyone so determined about it as Ha Ji-won. And what I get from all the sources I’ve read is that she virtually never complains and is always smiling and happy on set, always lifting the spirits of those around her. Everyone seems to love working with her, it’s almost sickening.
Jacinta: She’s very demanding of herself, though. She actually tried to drop out of As One because she felt her table tennis ability wasn’t up to scratch and she’d let the whole film down.
Canto: I could talk about her forever, it’s such sheer pleasure. Also I think it’s because contemplating her keeps me young and frisky….
Jacinta: You’re only as young as the one you love. Shame she doesn’t speak your language. Do you think she’d be into science?
Canto: Mmmm. An important question. I note from her bios that she’s not religious, that’s a good start. I’m sure she’d be open to it. It’s not just wishful thinking to believe she’s a very smart cookie…
Jacinta: I agree with you there – she’s been very smart about her career, having the foresight to see, once established, the kind of roles that would challenge her and excite an audience. Even though that foresight may well be largely unconscious…
Canto: I think she scores very high on EQ, emotional quotient, if that’s a thing. That’s what gives her the rapport she has with the team around her, and with her fans. She knows how to deal with people without even knowing how she knows how. She’s just a natural. Here’s an example. In this café interview (I can’t find it now – she’s done so many!), she’s asked by a young paparazzi type ‘There’s one question I need to ask you: when did you start to be so pretty?’. So Ha Ji-won’s face turns serious as this question begins to unfold: she’s expecting something heavy, then when it turns out to be frivolous, you can see her serious face registering it, after which she falls forward with a laugh, putting her hand over her face. Totally spontaneous and endearing, and much better than how I might’ve been tempted to react, i.e. with scorn. Then, quickly recovering, she answers with disarming truthfulness, ‘when I was born’, after which she breaks into embarrassed laughter again, as if she’d been immodest. But of course she was correct, she was born pretty, that’s to say very lucky, and she knows it. And she managed to convey that, and yet to keep everything good-humoured and light. Maybe it’s nothing, but I think it’s a kind of genius she has.
Jacinta: You’re in a bad way, mate. Tell me when they ask her some more interesting questions. So do you recommend any of her work?
Canto: Well I’m just exploring what’s available on YouTube, some of which is of poor film quality, and some of which is either poorly translated or not translated at all, especially her earliest stuff – and I want to trace her career from the beginning. So, yes, I’ve become addicted to Ha Ji-won, I’ve chosen her as my guardian angel and guiding spirit – I’ve even thought of dedicating a new blog just to her – but that might be a bit excessive….
Jacinta: Maybe a bit, but whatever floats your boat. Back to my question – any work you would recommend?
Canto: I’m not sure I’ve seen her best work yet, but the film ‘Miracle of a giving fool’ (2008), also known as ‘BA:BO’, has a lovely understated performance from her. A nice intro, though maybe not, as it doesn’t give much indication of her capabilities. The TV series ‘Damo’ (2003) might be better, but I’m having trouble finding a fully translated version. Horse-riding and swordplay aplenty. Anyway, she’s a wonderful woman, an inspiration, and I think you need to see a lot of her work – depth in diversity is her greatest achievement.