HAWAII INT'L FILM FESTIVAL
Lee Byung-hun plays gangster Sun-woo in "A Bittersweet Life."
Korean star says he’s just ‘a guy doing a job’
Lee Byung-hun seems to glow in the diminishing light of a Waikiki sunset, wearing a gleaming beige sports jacket, flared jeans, white sports shoes and a sparkling smile to match.
"A Bittersweet Life"
Screens at 9 p.m. Monday at Hawaii Theatre, and 12:15 p.m. Oct. 30 at Dole Cannery.
The Korean actor, a superstar in his own country and in Japan, has a boyish innocence and a gentle voice but the hefty handshake of a steel worker.
"Thank you for taking the time to talk with me," he says in his oceanfront suite. "It is very generous of you."
Byung-hun, 35, is attending the Hawaii International Film Festival with director Lee Jee-woon for the showing of their latest film, "A Bittersweet Life," which screens Monday and Oct. 30. Byung-hun's film "Bungee Jumping of Their Own" was nominated for HIFF's Golden Maile award at the 2001 event.
Asked how it feels to be a superstar, Byung-Hun seems confused, then blushes.
"It's the same as for a U.S. actor," he says. "I'm an actor but just myself, a guy doing a job.
"But like an American actor I get recognized a lot. Japan is more manic about their favorite celebrities, but they try very hard not to bother me.
"They love me in their minds and may look in my direction and cry -- oh, do they cry -- but they don't bother."
It's different in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, where fans are not shy about expressing emotions.
"It seems a little bit exaggerated," said Byung-hun. "They are passionate about their feelings and they let me know what they are feeling."
The actor is grateful for the following, saying a large part of his success is due to that fan base.
"They are so dedicated," he said. "They sometimes wait late into the night or early in the morning in front of my hotel just to see me. I feel a responsibility to them to work hard and do my best."
Byung-hun, the star of the popular Korean drama series "All In" and "Beautiful Days," made his debut in 1991 in the drama "Asphalt is My Hometown." One of Lee's most noted films is "Everybody Has Secrets" with Choi Ji Woo, Chu Sang Mi and Kim Hyo Jin, about three sisters who fall in love with his character. He leaves two heartbroken.
Byung-hun's mother suggested that he give acting a shot after he had dropped out of university expecting to be drafted for mandatory Korea army duty.
"My mom said acting can become my fulfillment," Byung-Hun says.
So in 1991, Byung-Hun participated in the annual public TV actor/actress audition held by the Korea Broadcast System, through which dozens of hopefuls get their start on Korea's three major networks. Byung-Hun, whom some have described as an "actor possessed," made the cut.
"I thought it would be just a temporary job and did it sort of like a joke," he said. "I did it for the experience."
But Byung-hun liked acting, saying it came "easy to me."
"At first, I didn't try very hard and didn't put my heart into it," he says. "Then I realized it was an important job and I began to feel a passion.
"I started to take it seriously."
Byung-hun remembers seeing his first film at age 4, the American drama "Papillon" starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, and being "a bit curious about acting."
"I still remember the scene where (McQueen) captures a cockroach in his cell to eat it," Byung-hun says. "He was very slow and deliberate and though that scene was brief, it had such drama."
Starting from his debut drama series "Asphalt is My Hometown," he was able to gain a weighty supporting role in "Wind Flower Does Not Wither Away," and audiences started to notice him. And after the KBS drama "Day of Sunrise," it became impossible to ignore his name. In the drama, he played the rebellious son of a rich family, who left his comfortable life because of conflicts with his father to work as a Chinese restaurant delivery boy.
Other drama series such as "Wild Chrysanthemum" and "Morning Without Good-Byes" raised Byung-hun's profile even more, and "Tomorrow is Love" secured himself a firm place as a teen star.
Despite appearing in dozens of TV shows and films, Byung-hun says acting has become more difficult because "I know what I don't know."
"I feel a lot more responsible to the character and the story," he said. "I understand now that portraying a person is very difficult to do honestly because human beings are so complex."
In "A Bittersweet Life" he plays gangster Sun-woo, who has served his boss, President Kang, faithfully for seven years and is now manager of Dolce Vita as well as Kang's right-hand man. Kang has a secret lover from the "normal" world, a young cellist, whom he suspects of infidelity. Kang entrusts Sun-woo to investigate and show no mercy.
"Sun-woo is the ultimate cool bad guy," Byung-hun says. "He's completely involved to a world of violence and an expert in the use of martial arts, knives and guns. But he also has a softer, vulnerable side.
"The characters are very stylish, but the movie is actually about the foolishness of men who don't know how to communicate," he says. "Just one insignificant mistake or decision leads them to (an irrevocable) situation. That's what life is like and I like that honesty."