CHOI Hee-seo of OUR BODY
Oct 14, 2019
- Writerby SONG Soon-jin
“Our Body is a movie that really changed my life.”
CHOI Hee-seo, who was dubbed the new face of Korean cinema after playing Fumiko KANEKO in LEE Joon-ik’s Anarchist from the colony (2017), is back on screen with Our Body, which earned her Actress of the Year at the 23rd Busan International Film Festival in 2018. Our Body, produced by the Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA) and written and directed by HAN Ka-ram, is the story of a woman in her early thirties, Ja-yeong (CHOI Hee-seo), who has been prepping for the civil service exam. When she meets by chance a jogger, Hyeon-ju (AHN Ji-hye), Ja-yeong starts running along with her. Through running, she who was completely lethargic slowly feels her body and mind changing, and with each breath comes closer a full acceptance of her life. We talked with CHOI Hee-seo about Our Body, her first movie as the lead.
After touring the international film festivals last year, Our Body is about to release in Korean theaters, one year later.
Which means it took two years to reach theaters, since filming started in September 2017. When we filmed in fall the scenes where I’m running, we had the same weather as we’re having now, and the film was first screened as a Toronto International Festival world premiere last year, in September. It’s like, Our Body has been crossing my path every fall for three years now, with this year seeing the Korean theatrical release in September. Some movies feel like they are shot in a hurry and disappear as soon as they release, but Our Body seems to have been staying by my side for a long time, and for that I’m thankful.
The way you have been cast for this film is quite amusing. I heard that Director HAN Ka-ram was looking for someone who would look easy-going like a friend when she found your name in a portfolio sent to the KAFA.
After Okja, I left 10 copies of my portfolio at the KAFA. And then, around a year later, HAN Ka-ram contacted me, explaining that she had started working on Our Body for her graduation feature-length project and saw my portfolio. I read the scenario and found it to be a courageous scenario that looks into the changes experienced by a woman with minute detail. I believed I would become a courageous person too if I could just pull off the role of Ja-yeong.
This is also your first lead role in a movie.
This being a character that drives the story forward through the 90 minutes of a feature film, I couldn’t afford to neglect even the slightest scene. In fact, playing Ja-yeong was no easy task. Ja-yeong in Our Body is the complete opposite of Anarchist from the colony’s Fumiko. Whereas Fumiko is an exuberant character who is always the first to speak and act, Ja-yeong is a character who is more collected. Since Ja-yeong doesn’t feel alive until she starts running, and so it was important to portray such a character in a more restrained way, in a way that allows us to feel her importance as a lead character.
Jogging takes different meanings throughout the film. At first, it represents some kind of yearning, but later becomes the expression of self-confidence, escape and even masochism.
There is a scene in which Ja-yeong is running after Hyeon-ju, and suddenly she is out of breath and bursts into tears. Although these tears convey something like, “My body struggles so much I want to die”, they can be understood as, “Why is living so hard?”. In this film, emotions are important every time Ja-yeong runs like that. She suffers over the comments made by people around her and the expectations the world has for her, but she eventually indulges herself in what she wants to do. This movie is all about chasing our own happiness and becoming the protagonist of our life through jogging. That’s why I would rather call Our Body a workout and personal growth movie.
This movie must have been really challenging physically, given that you had to appear as a running beginner who gradually improves, and also had to show your body changing.
I do enjoy working out, but I had never tried running before. In order to feel the exact same emotions as someone who would be a beginner, I started filming just like that, with no prior training in running. Then I learned from HAN Ka-ram a training method that consists in slowly increasing your jog time by a minute in comparison to the time you spend walking, and later on I could run 30 minutes at a time. After practicing running like that, it was exhilarating to actually go out and run, even on the days I wasn’t in the mood for that. My life changed as I was training for the movie, and even now I keep working out and jogging. I, too, realized that “the honesty of the body becomes a consolation”, as it is said in the movie. I came to understand that, whether it is while studying for an exam or going to an audition, life doesn’t always go my way, but I can find comfort in the physical exercises that have honest effects.
You earned strong notice in 2017 for Anarchist from the colony, and yet, despite that, your film appearances have been surprisingly few.
Last year, I couldn’t do any movie because I filmed two TV series back-to-back, Mistress and Big Forest. And then, the movies I was about to film in the first months of this year all had various fortunes, like delays or cancellations. I’m willing to put more effort into appearing in Korean films, but at the same time I’ve been thinking that I should look for some place that offers more stories. And so, after going to three auditions in New York between April and May, I’ve finally been officially cast for a project. It is a title that has just entered production, a low-budget melodrama from producer Gary FOSTER, who made Sleepless in Seattle (1993). Our Body played a key role in that decision too, since the producers confirmed the choice after watching the movie. There is also a Korean movie I’m about to start filming soon.
You have also directed short movies in college, and are currently publishing your writing on the website Brunch(a Korean online publishing platform similar to Medium). Do you have any desire to branch out into other areas of work?
Directing isn’t something I am particularly interested in. The reason I wrote scenarios and directed movies when I was in college was that we had the idea we should try to make our own projects together, since we wanted to play but were often unsuccessful at auditions. For the time being, I just want to gain more experience as an actor.
Is there any role you would like to do in the future?
There are so many roles I haven’t tried yet, it’s impossible to point out just one. That said, I would like to portrait the life of a woman specialized in something like police or medicine. And also, I would like to try my hands at a romantic comedy, something that is enjoyable to watch and that allows me to show a more lighthearted acting.