It isn’t until the setting sun makes the shadows grow long on the set of Hwang Jin-I, the KBS 2 historical drama that took a staggering 20 percent of the viewing rate at its debut, that Ha Ji-won can settle down for a moment’s rest. “This is the first time that I have felt jealous during acting,” she says. “The charisma of a world-class beauty, the intellect to keep her on a par with the scholars in a poetry contest: there was nowhere she was lacking. More than anything else, she didn’t give in to the pressure of her class or of the era in which she was born. She took the life she was given and lived it in an admirable way.”
To the brassy question, “Aren’t gisaeng just the girls who pour the liquor?” the actress kept her cool: “You can look at it that way, but they were at once entertainers and artists.” “Nowadays you can see celebrities on TV and on stage, but in the Chosun period it was the gisaeng that filled that role,” she said. “But they did have to pour the drinks, and sometimes they had to give their bodies, and since they could never love easily, their lives were often filled with pain.”
Through the role, the actress is living the arduous life of a Chosun-era entertainer for herself. “There was one extra who cried real tears during the shooting of a scene where their feet were bound and strung upside to perform a dance,” she recalls. “Physically and mentally, the life of the gisaeng is hard.”
And she added, “For a female entertainer, the closest companion is pain.” Asked if there is a line like that in the drama, Ha smiles. “Yes, it’s a line from the fourth episode. Since I’m going through the joys and sorrows felt by the gisaeng throughout the drama, certain lines speak to my heart word for word.” Ha is an actress who has a wide range of room to be analyzed. In an industry full of stars who have finely chiseled noses and wide eyes, Ha looks like the girl next door. Ironically it was that ordinariness that helped her to grow into a top class actor on the big and small screen. Most of the characters she played in some way broke the mold, and it was possible because of an appearance that can become any character as well as her fine dramatic craft.
For Ha, a drama requiring her to embody traditional feminine beauty is both an opportunity and a risk. “As you know, I don’t have a pretty doll-like face, nor do I have a lot of charisma. But because of that, I can fit better into various types of characters. I often wish I were prettier, though.” In the drama she refused to use a double for the tightrope walk scene. She set up a rope in the yard of her house and learned herself over the course of two weeks. “I felt like I lack something, and that’s why I always want to learn. Interestingly, whenever I want to learn something, there comes the chance to shoot a movie or drama related to it. When I started to get interested in dance, I ended up starring in Duelist, which allowed me to learn both ballet and tango. Do you think I have some sort of psychic power? It’s scary.”
doozy: Ha Ji Won sounds very modest and down-to-earth. “… nor do I have a lot of charisma.” What is she talking about? She does charisma because although she doesn’t have the most gorgeous face, she has that special appeal that makes her interesting to watch onscreen.