Although Ko A-sung was a child actress that did not have a breakout film under her belt, director Bong Joon-ho cast her to play Hyun-seo in his film “The Host” in 2006 and hit homerun with it. Ko was only in seventh grade at the time but she was able make her name known by well-depicting on her character among the film’s A-list cast members Song Kang-ho, Bae Doona, Park Hae-il and Byun Hee-bong. Ko then appeared in French director Ounie Lecomte’s film “A Brand New Life” and played Kang Peul-lip in KBS drama “Master of Study” alongside actors her age. Now in 2013, she is back as Yona in director Bong joon-ho’s global project “Snowpiercer,” starring Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton, Chris Evans, Ewen Bremner and Jamie Bell. The actress opened up to TenAsia about the concerns she discussed with director Bong while shooting the movie. It turns out that Yona, who with her unique charm played a part to giving “Snowpiercer” a ‘Korean yet non-Korean’ mood, came to birth through much hard thought.
Q: Many people have watched “Snowpiercer” more than once. How many times have you watched the film?
Ko: I’ve only watched it twice so far.
Q: Were you happy with how it turned out?
Ko: Actors always feel that their movie lacks in some way upon watching the finished product. But I felt a bit different watching “Snowpiercer.” I couldn’t believe that it came out as a movie because it was in production for so long. I felt such a huge surge of emotions that I couldn’t even watch the movie properly.
Q: As is the case with all of director Bong’s films, there have been many interpretations to “Snowpiercer.” Have you read into some of the responses?
Ko: Yes, a lot of them. When I take part in a movie as an actor, I either become curious about how people will respond to the film or what people will think of my acting. “Snowpiercer” was the former so I was dying to know what people thought about it. I came up with a lot of ideas for the movie and got to see how the script changed so I had even more affection for it.
Q: Is there a response or interpretation that you liked in particular?
Ko: (Showing the screen of her smartphone) “The only safe place in ‘Snowpiercer’ is inside the arms of Yona (Ko A-sung).” I saved this comment because it was very amusing. In the film, Yona is always safe, even in the middle of a bloody fight, and that too till the very end. So there were humorous comments like these but also serious ones. And I like it.
After reading what people have said, my perception on “Snowpiercer” is changing bit by bit as well because they point out things that I hadn’t realized myself. For example, I thought that the conclusion was despairing because it must have been terrifying for Yona to step out of the train for the first time after living inside it her entire life. But some people said that it was a hopeful ending which made me realize that I thought of it too much just from Yona’s perspective.
Q: During the online showcase for the film, you said that you gave up on looking pretty the moment you were cast in director Bong’s films. Was it easy to?
Ko: I just said that to be funny (laughs). As an actress, I’m much happier taking on characters like Yona or Hyun-seo (of film“The Host”) than pretty characters because you can always make yourself look pretty in everyday life or while promoting something.
Q: Your character’s name Yona reminded me of indie singer Nastyona. And you’re known to enjoy listening to indie music so was the name your suggestion?
Ko: Nastyona is actually a really good friend of mine. Almost a soul mate. When I was seventeen, she even wrote me a song titled “To the Seventeen-year-old You” (translated title). And director Bong was working on the script for “Snowpiercer” around the time that the song came out.
He usually comes up with the names for his characters before he starts his scripts but he couldn’t come up with one for Yona so he had just called her “Inuit girl.” I happened to give him Nastynona’s album and he said, “This is it!” The name went well with the figure from the Bible and sounded right too.
Q: The moment that left the strongest impression of Yona was when she yelled out “Kronol.” It showed her chic yet cute side well. But you didn’t have that many lines to say nor were they long. Was this something you had decided on with director Bong?
Ko: When Yona asked for Kronol, I was originally supposed to say, “No Kronol, no opening,” which basically meant that if I didn’t get the drug, I wouldn’t open the door. But when we went into shoot, the director said, “Why don’t you just say ‘Kronol’?” So that’s how that happened. But a lot of my other lines were cut short too. Yona’s ability to see through things wasn’t supernatural. It’s just that she had an over-developed sense of hearing.
And to explain that, there was supposed to be a scene where Yona tells Curtis (Chris Evans), “I see sounds.” But director Bong said we should take that out because it doesn’t have any appeal. And that actually hurt me a bit. I thought it was because my English pronunciation was bad so I even asked actor Ewen Bremner if it was the case.
Q: I thought your pronunciation was good.
Ko: I wasn’t trying to sound fluent in English at all. Yona is a character that speaks a little bit of all the languages that the people on the train speak. So I mixed Filipino-English, Indian- English and American-English into my English lines. People in Korea complimented me on my English pronunciation but I’m sure it’s nowhere close to being good for actual English speakers. And the same went for my Korean lines.
Although Yona’s father was Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) who is Korean, her Korean wasn’t supposed to be perfect so I spoke like the high school students at international schools who speak different languages and sound slightly awkward with Korean.
Q: At the end, there was a bit of a twist to Namgung Minsu’s attitude toward Kronol. Do you think that Yona knew what he was up to?
Ko: I don’t think so. I think that her dad didn’t tell her on purpose and I saw Yona as someone who didn’t really care about her father’s ambitions so even if she knew, she would’ve just been indifferent about it.
Q: I agree. Yona was someone who was carefree enough to drink wine while passing through the club section of the train (laugh). Do you think it was her first time to drink alcohol?
Ko: Yona and her father are the wanderers of the train. So I think they would’ve roamed about the train all the time and never stay put in a single section. Hence I’m pretty sure it wasn’t her first time.
Q: When Yona killed the boss, killer Franco’s eyes were scary. Yona had come off as the type of person that never gets intimidated by anything but for the first time, she was scared.
Ko: I put a lot of thought into how Yona would react in that scene. She’s the type that wouldn’t even feel any guilt. But in the end, she was shocked by Timmy’s death so I decided that she could be someone with a certain amount of guilt.
Look up Ko A-sung’s name on the Internet, and you will see the phrase ‘violent growth’ accompany several photographs of her. And although it’s supposed to be a compliment, it could be a burden for the actress who started her career when she was young. She may feel the need to break away from the image as a child actor or move on quickly. But such was not the case for Ko and there really is no reason to force yourself to change just because you’re an adult and taller. Ko is still remembered as the high school student Hyun-seo from film “The Host.” And she was aware of this. So there’s no ‘violent growth’ for her. She’s just taking her time to grow, steadily yet firmly.
Q: You said that you liked working on “Snowpiercer” because you got to speak with actor Song Kang-ho a lot. I was wondering what you two talked about and it turns out that is was about how the film would influence the Korean film industry and about the responsibilities that actors have to take on. Those are mature topics to talk about for someone your age.
Ko: I actually just listened to what Song Kang-ho said (laughs). But I do believe talking about that stuff is important because I can’t think of such things on my own. Song said it wasn’t our acting that should stand out in “Snowpiercer.” That actors should stand out in films like director Bong’s “Mother” and “Memories of Murder” as well as director Lee Chang-dong’s film “Secret Sunshine.” But in a film like “Snowpiercer,” he said the ensemble of the characters was what’s most important.
Q: Before you became an actress, you must have been an ordinary middle school student. And yet, it seems that your transition into an actress has been quite smooth.
Ko: I’ve been lucky. On the first day of interviews, a reporter told me: Ko A-sung has been Ko A-sung from the start. And it meant that I didn’t start my career playing the younger version of another actress’s character. I wasn’t trying to avoid it. I just got really lucky.
Q: Director Bong and Song Kang-ho picked film “A Brand New Life” as your best work.
Ko: [It’s because] My character was just in such a sad situation. She’s an orphan with a disability so she can’t be adopted and is eventually sold off as a maid. I don’t think I did a particularly good job in the movie. It’s just that it was such a great character that no matter who played it, I’m sure it would’ve looked like they did a good job.
Q: In film “A Brand New Life,” the director was French and the cast Korean while in film “Snowpiercer,” the director was Korean and the actors foreigners. Which did you find more difficult in regards to communication?
Ko: I think they came from differences in personality rather than nationality. Director Ounie Lecomte of film “A Brand New Life” was so fastidious that I had a really hard time. But if I may say so, director Bong is almost like a friend. That’s how good he is at listening to young actors.
Q: Well if you get used to director Bong being like that, you might feel some dissatisfactions when working with other directors.
Ko: That’s true. And it’s not like I can work with director Bong for the rest of my life. That’s why I sometimes think ‘Oops’ during interviews. I may disappoint other directors by complimenting only director Bong all the time. But still, for me, director Bong is the best director.
Q: What’s your favorite movie of his?
Ko: “Snowpiercer” because he likes having his latest film being called the best (laughs).
Q: Okay, let’s exclude “Snowpiercer” from the list.
Ko: Then it would be “Mother.” If “Mother” had been made before “Memories of Murder” or “The Host,” I think it would’ve been received better than his previous works. “Mother” is a movie that shows great directing in every aspect. It was also never off beat. It was like perfectly tuned music.
Q: You debuted at a young age and film “The Host” pulled in over 10 million moviegoers. By receiving attention from overseas as well for “Snowpiercer,” you could become quite vain. You could think, ‘Oh, I’m Hyun-seo of ‘The Host’ and Yona of ‘Snowpiercer.’”
Ko: I think people could definitely see me in that way. But I did appear in many films in between the two projects. Being in the film industry is like walking on thin ice. Having a successful film doesn’t guarantee you success with your next film. That’s why I’m always careful.
Q: People often say that you’ve gone through ‘violent growth’ but I’m looking forward to your ‘violent growth’ not just in terms of looks but also as an actress. What sort of actress do you want to become?
Ko: People have been telling me I’ve grown up a lot for a while now. But I’ve continued to play the role of a high school student as well. I think viewers are still used to seeing me as a teenager. So I don’t think I need to force myself into playing grownup roles. I just want to take on roles that suit me.
Reporter. Ki Myung-kyoon email@example.com
Photographer. Gue Hye-jung firstname.lastname@example.org
Translator. Lee Eun-ah email@example.com
Editor. Jessica Kim