The following interview took place at the Opium Bar and Grill in London, on May 30th 2014, prior to the Terracotta Far East Film Festival 2014 UK special screening of 'Moebius' and Q&A with actor Seo Young-ju:
Hangul Celluloid: Before we get into any real depth, a very general question:
You began your acting career in earnest when you were just ten years old with a small role in 2008’s ‘A Frozen Flower’. Since then, though you’ve largely balanced TV work with cinema acting, gradually there seems to have been somewhat of a move more towards films than serial dramas. How did you actually begin your career and was it always your intention to work in both TV and film?
Seo Young-ju: I guess you could say my acting career grew from working as an extra as young boy. Supporting roles followed and I soon began to realise how much I loved acting and that I wanted this to be my life. It all seemed to happen so quickly, looking back, and almost before I knew it I had become a child actor. From then things have progressed over the years to the point where I’m here in the UK promoting ‘Moebius’.
Hangul Celluloid: I have spoken to a lot of directors and cast members who have worked in both TV and films who find acting in TV dramas especially difficult because of the speed with which episodes are created. In fact, most have even said that they feel that very speed often results in the quality of television dramas being far lower than that of films. What are your feelings about that issue and which medium do you ultimately prefer?
Seo Young-ju: I prefer working I film, by a large margin. I think the ‘speedy’ filming process in serial dramas does indeed lessen the quality of the work and diminishes its power as a direct result. Not only that, but I find films allow a subject to be delved into to a far, far deeper level and I specifically like film work because of the ability it gives me to talk about deeper subjects within a character.
Hangul Celluloid: So, considering that, as your career continues and you become more of a ‘name’ actor will you continue to act in television and film or would you ideally like to give up serial dramas entirely and wholly focus on cinema?
Seo Young-ju: So far, I have switched between film and drama because I honestly feel that my acting is far from perfect yet and playing as many different roles in as many situations as I can is one of the ways I’m trying to improve. If my acting ever approaches perfect even though I could theoretically still work in both mediums I would choose to focus on film work and give up TV altogether. However, who knows when I would feel the time is right for that move or even if I will ever feel my acting is good enough.
Hangul Celluloid: You first major starring role was in ‘Juvenile Offender’ – a performance for which you have received both acclaim and awards. Do you see that role as your breakthrough acting role into ‘stardom’ or did you already consider yourself to be known in the industry because of the many TV drama characters you have played?
Seo Young-ju: I don’t think I’m that well known yet in the industry in spite of the TV dramas I have acted in. So, from that perspective, ‘Juvenile Offender’ was a huge step forward for me and, yes, I definitely see it as my breakthrough role… if I have actually broken through, that is [Seo Young-ju laughs].
Hangul Celluloid: Did ‘Juvenile Offender’ and your performance in it directly lead to you being cast in ‘Moebius’? How did working in Kim Ki-duk’s film come about?
Seo Young-ju: Yes, definitely. Director Kim watched ‘Juvenile Offender’ and was pleased enough with my performance to consider me for the role in ‘Moebius’, and subsequently cast me in his film.
Hangul Celluloid: ’Moebius’, like the majority of Kim Ki-duk’s films, has rather a controversial narrative and is at times even a difficult film. Were you fully aware of the storyline before you signed up for the film? Also, while Kim Ki-duk has a huge following of devotees internationally, domestically in Korea he was deeply criticised for a number of years with many claiming his films are misogynistic and are far too preoccupied with making female characters suffer. Did that play any part in your thoughts when you were offered the role?
Seo Young-ju: In all honesty, though I was aware of the way many people in Korea see director Kim, I really didn’t care what they said about him because I felt he had something very, very special in ‘Moebius’ and I knew he would be able to create an important film. I still believe in that, too. The storyline itself dealing with such difficult subject matter did lead me to question if the role would be right for me, but ultimately being brave and choosing to detail such a dark role, the likes of which had not really been done by such a young actor as me before, soon drew me to really want to take the part. I can only hope I have done the film justice and created a memorable character and role.
Hangul Celluloid: Most of your films have been either fairly dark or even somewhat controversial: 'A Frozen Flower' detailed what could have been described as a taboo subject in its day, ‘Juvenile Offender’ has a main character who is on parole, and ‘Moebius’, well, its controversial nature almost speaks for itself. Have you deliberately chosen hard-hitting film roles because they are perhaps more interesting than the average TV drama storylines?
Seo Young-ju: I didn’t chose strong roles intentionally, per se; I just liked the scripts of the films I subsequently played, although perhaps that does indeed mean that hard-hitting narratives subconsciously called to me. Does that mean I in fact did choose them after all, without realising it until now? I may need to have a rethink on my thoughts [Seo Young-ju laughs].
Hangul Celluloid: Not only is ‘Moebius’ hard-hitting, but it also features no dialogue whatsoever. How did you find working with Kim Ki-duk in general and on a dialogue-free film specifically? Was he very hands-on when working with you or did he largely leave you to your own devices to bring whatever you wished to the character?
Seo Young-ju: I spent a great deal of my time while working on ‘Moebius’ just reading, reading, reading the script to get a feel for who the characters were; as there was no dialogue to help me understand. Director Kim was a bit quiet on set but he made his plan clear scene by scene each time we worked together. I think the fact that I was working with such great co-stars was also really beneficial to my performance. Both Lee Eun-woo [playing both mother and girlfriend] and Jo Jae-hyeon [playing the father] helped me a phenomenal amount throughout shooting and were always ready to listen to my questions; give me their thoughts and much needed advice. My final performance is a combination of what we all brought to the character.
Hangul Celluloid: If we can briefly move on to your latest television drama, '18 Years', which is again quite hard-hitting with bitter young characters, violence etc. Do you feel your performance was ultimately different that it might have been before starring in ‘Moebius’ and can you give us some of your own thoughts on the story?
Seo Young-ju: Yes, as I feel I’m still learning all the time, any role I play has I feel an influence on my work in the future and having had to detail ideas without dialogue in ‘Moebius’ really did stick with me. As far as the drama itself is concerned, I honestly didn’t think all that much of ’18 Years’ as a drama and I feel it rather missed an opportunity to really detail the true pain of youth, which is why I was interested in the role. Maybe I shouldn’t be saying this… or maybe I should shout about it even more loudly; I’m not sure which.
Hangul Celluloid: You mentioned earlier that you don’t feel you’re well known as an actor as yet. I’m not sure I’d agree and I personally received a number of messages of surprise and excitement from your fans when I announced I was doing this interview. As your popularity and fan base increases, are you excited about and looking forward to the fame aspect of being a well-known actor and star or does it perhaps worry you to an extent?
Seo Young-ju: I don’t think I’ve yet shown my full ability as an actor so in a way I’m excited about the fame aspect because hopefully it will come from audiences seeing my acting improving with each new role. However, it does worry me to a degree and I wonder if there’ll ever be a point where I won’t be able to walk unrecognised down a street and I’m unsure of how I’ll feel about that if it happens. Then again, I guess the whole idea of being well known is why I’m here in the UK at the moment, so maybe it’s not scary, after all. Can I say that I’m excited and worried at the same time?
Hangul Celluloid: When you look at a script for the first time, what is more important to you: Character depth or overall storyline?
Seo Young-ju: I almost said character without thinking but, no, I think overall storyline is more important to me. The story is always what attracts me to a role and a character and it’s really never been the other way around… not so far, anyway.
Hangul Celluloid: A number of well known Korean actors and actresses have taken steps to extend their careers outside of Korea. – such as Jeon Ji-hyun and Lee Byung-hun who have worked in Hollywood productions and even your ‘Moebius' co-star Lee Eun-woo has signed up to star in a (partly English language) film in the US. Does the idea of working internationally as an actor appeal to you and would you perhaps like to one day star in a Hollywood movie?
Seo Young-ju: Oh, yes, yes, very much so. The whole idea excites me greatly. I think Korean audiences might get bored eventually if I stay only acting in Korea [Seo Young-ju laughs]. I’m a huge fan of big, exciting Hollywood films and I think Korean audiences would be proud of me if I succeeded internationally as well as domestically. I hope so, anyway.
Hangul Celluloid: Is there any particular actress or actor, either in Korean or internationally, that you would really like to work with in the future?
Seo Young-ju: Kim Yoon-suk, the actor from ‘The Chaser’… Yes, without question Kim Yoon-suk.
Hangul Celluloid: Do you already have plans for your next project?
Seo Young-ju: I wouldn’t say that the plan is made as yet but there is a role I’m very interested in so I’m currently having meetings about it. I can’t really say anything specific about it, for now.
Hangul Celluloid: What would you like to saw to anyone who is about to sit down and watch ‘Moebius’?
Seo Young-ju: I’d like to tell them that what they are about to watch is both shocking and controversial but there is a meaning so they should try not to be so shocked that they run away [Seo Young-ju laughs].
Hangul Celluloid: Speaking of the controversial and shocking nature of ‘Moebius’, the narrative features not only castration but also religion and both the indulgence in and sacrificing of personal needs. As you said you were drawn to the character you play, do you personally have strong religious beliefs?
Seo Young-ju: I honestly don’t believe in anything religious but I think ‘Moebius’ has something worthwhile to say to everyone whether they follow religion or not.
Hangul Celluloid: I think we’re just about out of time, but as a final question: Which film did you find more difficult, ‘Juvenile Offender’ as a dialogue-filled starring role or ‘Moebius’ as a dialogue free controversial tale?
Seo Young-ju: I think both films were hard because in each I was trying to produce a better quality performance than I ever previously had. I got a lot of help on both films too but ultimately ‘Moebius’ was maybe easier, in my mind at least, because I knew that my performance in ‘Juvenile Offender’ had been good enough to secure me the role in director Kim’s film in the first place. In hindsight, ‘Moebius’ has allowed me to visit London to promote the film so maybe my next role will be even easier, as a result.
Hangul Celluloid: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me at such length.
I'd sincerely like to thank Terracotta Distribution and the Terracotta Far East Film Festival for allowing me to interview actor Seo Young-ju at such length.