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Interview with Jang Dong-gun

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SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- Jang Dong-gun is the ultimate poster boy for Korean pop culture, smashing nearly all national box-office records with his leading roles in the films "Taegukgi" and "Friend." The one-time college dropout later starred in the joint Chinese-Korean-Japanese movie "The Promise" in 2005, and in his upcoming Hollywood debut "Laundry Warrior," he will play opposite one of China's hottest actresses, Zhang Ziyi.


South Korean actor Jang Dong-gun


R: So before we get into your career to date, I understand you're about to make your Hollywood debut. Even though you are this country's biggest star, surely the idea of going global must be a little scary?

J: There are some people easily regard me as a sport star representing the country rather than as an actor. But I feel more grateful before being frightened or somehow responsible, since I am working on my own and not as a representative of the country about to go into battle with another country. But sure, I do have cautions or slight worries that I might create some sort of stereotype of Korean actors in this new market or territory.

R: Now you recently found yourself on the cover of Time magazine. You're the first Korean actor to do so. How much did that mean to you?

J: Sure, I felt very happy and proud of being on the cover of such a global and widely read news magazine. I also have questioned myself if I am actually worth all the fuss. On the other hand, I'd be grateful if you happen to know, and could kindly tell me how many copies were actually sold, as I'm quite curious about it.

R: Things really started to take off for you in 2000 when you had the starring role in the movie "Friend," which at the time was the highest-grossing Korean film, ever. What was it like being part of something so huge?

J: When I first chose the film, even after we had filmed the entire movie, no one really expected -- I certainly didn't expect, nor did any of the actors expect -- that it would be so well received. My intention for the film was to show a different side of myself. I actually believed that it was more of an artistic film in that sense, but because it became so popular at the time, I somehow think that the popularity may have, in a sense, undermined the true artistic value that the movie might actually have.

R: That movie though paved the way for your starring role in "Taegukgi" about the Korean War, which again, smashed all known box-office records. Tell us about your experiences of that film.

J: The theme of the movie is the Korean war. The Korean war was one of the most significant historical events in modern Korean history. I think that its significance is something that could be well expressed and be presented in a film. Personally, my role in the film was quite appealing to me, and I was quite keen on doing it. And my grandfather's birthplace is in North Korea, and I had heard many stories about Korean War as a child when I was growing up. Throughout one year of filming, I was able to closely understand and to know more about the war itself. And I was also very glad to see that because of the popularity of the film, the younger generation, who are probably not that familiar with history itself, will probably be able to experience more and get more familiar with the topic. I am quite glad that I was able to provide such an opportunity by taking part in the movie.

R: Your work has turned you into a huge celebrity, not only in South Korea but also in China and Vietnam and Mexico, of all places. How does fame sit with you? How do you handle it?

J: I can't really say my fame influences me much in my everyday life. I'm definitely very grateful to all of my fans, for they support me despite culture and language barriers. A person doesn't just happen to like and support an actor in a film by random. I personally think this might be something close to what love is, and so I always think about ways I can show my gratitude back to them. The best is probably to be true to my job and my role as a good actor. They give me much strength and encourage me to perform better.

R: You certainly have a very ardent fan base. It must feel a bit weird, though, knowing that all these people turn up, every year, from all over the place, on your birthday to celebrate with you and to mark it as some sort of international occasion.

J: Once every year, if I'd shown myself as an actor on the screen, I think that birthday meeting would be an opportunity for me to show myself as a human being to my fans. The birthday meeting has a lot of meaning and significance to me. And I think it's the only outlet that I can express my gratitude to my fans directly. For the time being I plan on continuing those meetings on my birthday. And it's a very nice feeling not only seeing South Korean fans but also fans from other countries. We can't really communicate in the same verbal language but still able to share sentiments and feelings, and it makes me very happy.


R: So in 2006 you staged a one-man protest in front of the general assembly here against the government's policy on domestic films. Didn't last very long though, only a couple of minutes before you got swamped by thousands of fans. Still, what were you hoping to achieve?

J: At that time, I needed a lot of courage to stage that protest. I was aware of the negative public sentiment towards the voices from the film industry, but I thought it was a duty I had to do. Also my seniors had already staged a protest. So I thought it should be my turn too. I thought I should be the next person to step up to it. Of course, the protest itself didn't affect the outcomes of the policy, but it was something I felt I had to do. And personally, it was a very new experience for me, voicing my own opinion.

R: Are you concerned about the current state of the film industry in South Korea, as so many others are?

J: Many think the industry is stagnating, but I differ in opinion. In total I've had 15 years of acting. And in the film industry I've had 10 years of experience. Looking back on those 10 years, I can see there'd always been ups and downs within the industry. And when you say that things are slow and not going well in the field, the difference rather depends on how many good Korean films have been made. As of now, the reduced quota of films, rising wages, and also because of the poor performance of the Korean films this year, people are saying things are going bad. I think it only means good films have not been produced lately, that's all. So I still have positive outlook, and I believe as more good films are made, positive sentiments will be picked up quickly.

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R: So before you got your big break in showbiz, let's just say that school days didn't sound like they were the happiest days of your life. You failed three university exams and then dropped out of college. How tough was academia for you?

J: Thinking about it now, that period was probably the most emotionally unstable and difficult time for me. It is probably due to struggling with not having a dream and thus not being able to realize that dream. For most teenagers at that age in this country, their goal is to get into a university. But I couldn't find what I really wanted to do at that time. Ironically, those emotions and the struggles I went through are somehow benefiting me now in my work.

R: So you've made movies, you've made four pop albums, and you're a model, you still do your adverts for everything from beer to clothes to digital cameras. Do you ever worry about overexposure?

J: I do think about that sometimes, but I would probably say that I normally do what I feel like doing most of the times. There are times when I have to do things that I don't particularly want to do otherwise; there are things I shouldn't be doing, but I am naturally drawn to do anyway. But it's not necessarily about the degree of exposure, for instance, but how I show and express myself instead. I feel I don't have to be overly concerned of overexposure. As long as different sides of me get shown in each case, it's ok.

R: You've been named the man that most Korean women would like to marry. How does the heartthrob status sit with you?

J: I'm very grateful. I do believe I've reached the age to think about getting married and having my own family, or maybe perhaps I've passed that age already. But up until now I don't think I've had the time or opportunity to think it over. I think most of it depends on meeting the right person, if that person who I believe is out there for me somewhere, I hope that person shows up or appears soon.


A: So how often is it that you get to walk out onto a street and there's no one there?

J: I don't remember.

R: Must have been a long time ago. Oh look, here's some people now. This was an empty street three seconds ago. How was it for you like, you know, you make people appear?

...So I must say that I'm very honored indeed to be going on a private tour of Seoul with you, of course it's like the, you know, the black-out windows and the whole lot. What does your mother think about all this?

J: My mother has always been happy about it and supported me always. At first, when I told her that I wanted to be an actor, my father was opposed it a bit. But my mother has always been quite supportive from the beginning, and she has always been in that way.

R: What does your typical day involve?

J: It's not as special as people may imagine. Personally, I like baseball very much. We have a baseball team within the movie actors, and so when I'm not filming on the weekend, every Sunday we play baseball. Also I sometimes play games at home, and read books, listen to music, so my everyday life is actually quite normal.

R: I was reading also that you know when things just get a bit too hectic, that you say: I'm going traveling. How does that help?

J: At the end of each piece, I tend to go out, I tend to go on a trip, because in my everyday life I don't really have much time or opportunity to be completely isolated on my own. So at the end of each piece, if I go somewhere it's a great chance for me to be introspective and go over my thoughts, and also plan for what I'm going to do in the future. In everyday life, I think through these opportunities I may be able to go back to being human being, Jang Dong-gun, and just go back to daily life. I also believe in the saying that in order to have big dreams, one must look at big landscapes and beautiful scenes. Through this scenery, I think it's a good opportunity to think about different things I probably would have overlooked if I had just stayed home in my everyday life.

R: You do come over as incredibly humble and very unassuming. How do you stay grounded?

J: I tend to think that I have a rather positive mindset, probably because of the experiences I've had as an actor. The mindset has probably been formed through my work as an actor. I think that when I'm dealing with different people, it's important for me to be able to understand them, even if I cannot completely agree with them, because that is what an actor does. Even if I can't completely agree with a character, I have to be able to understand the person to be able to act. So at times when someone might disappoint me, I think I'm a bit more open to try to understand. The person must have had some good reason to behave that way.

R: Well, I do wish you all the best, and thank you very much indeed for being with us today.


J: Thank you.

R: And that's gonna do it for this edition of Talk Asia. Thank you for being with me, Anjali Rao, and my guest, the star of South Korea's silver screen, Jang Dong-gun. I'll see you again soon, bye-bye. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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