Born to Act
South Korea’s most famous child actress, Kim Yoo-jung, makes her U.S. debut in a horror-mystery short film inspired by a dark chapter in East Asian history.
by STEVE HAN
Fifteen-year-old Kim Yoo-jung doesn’t like scary movies. Acting since age 3, she has already starred in 15 films and 17 television dramas, but as diverse as her roles have been, horror is one genre she will never get used to.
“I watch scary movies with my eyes shut,” Kim said in Korean. “I keep my eyes closed and take peeks. I can’t really watch scary movies from beginning to end.”
And, yet, Kim was in Los Angeles in February to film Room 731, a horror mystery short film directed by Youngmin Kim, an award-winning graduate student at the University of Southern California’s film school. The film, expected to hit the festival circuit this summer, depicts the fate of an amnesiac young girl who finds herself abandoned in a prison cell.
The film, also Kim’s first outside of Korea, sheds light on the dark history of East Asia during World War II. Kim plays Wei, a tortured 15-year-old Chinese girl who has been traumatized from suffering at a Japanese torture camp. Asian American actors Tim Kang and Nikki SooHoo are co-starring with Kim. Kang, best known for his role in The Mentalist on CBS, also serves as the short’s executive producer.
“It was great for me that our director is Korean,” said Kim, during an interview in the lobby of The Line hotel in Los Angeles. Kim said she received instructions from the director, a South Korean native, in Korean during the filming process. “I can understand a lot of English, but just can’t speak it well enough,” she said. “When I talk to Uncle Tim [Kang], I speak to him in Korean because he understands Korean, and he’ll respond to me in English.”
If Kim was scared of watching horror films before this project, acting in Room 731 only heightened that fear. Even the set where Room 731 was filmed, Willow Studios near downtown L.A., which is often used to shoot scary movies, gave off a spooky vibe, she said. But, like a seasoned professional, she channeled that genuine fear into her performance.
“It was so dark,” said Kim of the set. “I went in there with our director to get used to the set, and as soon as I entered, I just wanted to get out of there because it was just really scary. I mean, really. Even as the director was giving me directions, I was getting teary-eyed, and I was truthfully feeling fear as we were filming.”
Kim and her mother, Mok Sun-mi, decided she should take on the role in Room 731 not only because they thought it was a good opportunity to work in the U.S., but also because it gave the teenager a chance to learn an important history lesson. Until recently, the actress admitted she knew nothing about the premise of the film, which centers on Imperial Japan’s alleged medical experiments on hundreds of East Asians during World War II.
“I didn’t even know why or how World War II started before this,” said Kim. “I only started doing research after I was cast. I read about it on blogs and I was really shocked. One of the reasons I chose to participate in this film was actually because this film had a message. If this film never came to me, I would have known nothing about any of this.”
Because Kim started acting at such an early age, she has no memory of those earliest days of her career.
Since debuting on TV in a Seoul Milk commercial in 2004 after Kim’s mother submitted photos of her for an online contest, she has emerged as perhaps the most famous child actor in Korea. Many of her 17 TV dramas—notably Dong Yi on MBC—were aired during Korean primetime, and her filmography includes a role in internationally acclaimed director Park Chanwook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeanceand the 2008 thriller The Chaser.
“I only realized that I was an actress later on in my life,” said Kim, who has earned the Best Child Actress Award at all three of Korea’s terrestrial TV networks—SBS, KBS and MBC—between 2008 and 2010. “I realized that, at a certain point, I’d accepted that I was an actress without really knowing how it even started. So I’ve always thought of it as destiny.” Kim, who’s currently attending her last year at Daesong Middle School in Goyang, South Korea, inevitably misses school for a large part of the year because of her career.
“I actually feel anxious when I’m not acting,” Kim said. “Whenever I’m on a break from acting and go back to school and start to have fun with friends and classes, I start this self-doubt and ask myself, ‘What if I start to dislike acting and like school more?’ And that scared me.”
Kim is fascinated by the differences in the working environments for actors in Korea versus the U.S. She was especially surprised to see how much more protective the American film industry is for child actors, who aren’t allowed to be on set for longer than seven hours per day to ensure that they get enough rest.
“Korea doesn’t have any of those restrictions,” Kim said. “I was so used to filming for 24 hours in Korea, but over here, I actually went to bed early! It’s impossible to get enough sleep in Korea, and I almost think that stunted my growth a little bit.”
Kim, who’s listed at 5-foot-2, has aspirations of bringing her career to the U.S. if the opportunity arises. She also has a specific role in mind that she wants to play.
“I want to play an evil role,” Kim said. “But it’s never been offered to me yet. My biggest goal as an actress is to play an evil role so well to the point where the audience would curse at me. That would really mean that my acting was accepted and done well. I want to be a bad person.”
This article was published in the March 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the March issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).