Korean film star Jun Ji-hyun is very dedicated to her craft

Jun Ji-hyun's dedication to her movie career has seen her travel far, learn new languages and even amend her wedding date, writesClarence Tsui

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 June, 2017, 12:03pm

When Korean actresses marry, the public expects them to either reduce their workload or - if their husbands are rich - retire from the limelight altogether. Not so Gianna Jun Ji-hyun: the 30-year-old star even moved her wedding to banker Choi Jun-hyuk two months forward - from June to April this year - to accommodate her professional commitments.

"I didn't see how marriage would affect my work," says Jun last week at the Broadway Cinematheque during a whirlwind visit to Hong Kong to promote her latest film, the crime caper The Thieves. "I'm a professional, and I won't let these things interfere with my work. Maybe getting married means that I've grown up - and this means the emotion I express during my performances won't be the same. That's very interesting, actually."

It remains to be seen whether marriage has affected Jun's turn as the wife of a Korean spy in Ryu Seung-wan's thriller In Berlin - the film around which she planned her nuptials. It's not evident in The Thieves, in which she plays Yenicall, a wirework specialist whose bossiness and sassiness is not unlike that of her My Sassy Girl character which made her the face of Korean cinema in Hong Kong and the region a decade ago.

"I found Yenicall interesting, and I'm sure [she] appeals to women. She's beautiful and charming, and dares to speak out. She's also self-centred, and she doesn't care about the people or the things around her … I found those traits attractive, to be able to do whatever she wants," she says.

"I think I'm like her in that I'm upfront about things. But as an actress I can't be like her and ignore what people think about me - I have to consider what others want."

And what The Thieves' director Choi Dong-hun wanted from Jun were her looks, rather than her depth. A member of a gang planning to steal a diamond from a Macau casino vault, Yenicall's expertise in scaling buildings is often cast in the shade by her other job - seducing the men who stand in her way. Still, Jun doesn't see herself as being pigeonholed as the go-to star for manipulative, loud and - inevitably - seductive female characters because of 2001's My Sassy Girl. "I don't feel especially cross if people mention the film. It was my breakthrough role, and if people still have deep impressions about what I did then, it's good. I won't feel unhappy about it. I was very young back then." The actress was 19 when she starred in the comedy about an egocentric woman and her long-suffering boyfriend.

Jun began her show-business career as a model, progressed to acting for television and finally moved to film with romance dramas White Valentine (1999) and Il Mare (2000), which was later remade as The Lake House (with Sandra Bullock playing Jun's role).

My Sassy Girl was Jun's third film - an iconic piece which consolidated the arrival of Jun and Korean commercial cinema in general at the start of the 21st century. But Jun found herself struggling to break free of the role. Her next outing, horror film The Uninvited, didn't do well at the box office, and she soon backtracked and made Windstruck, a prequel of sorts to My Sassy Girl which was met with a lukewarm response.

Jun then worked towards an international breakthrough. Under the aegis of Bill Kong Chi-keung, the head of Hong Kong's Edko Films, the actress first collaborated with Andrew Lau Wai-keung on the Amsterdam-set romantic thriller Daisy, and then transformed herself into an all-fighting action hero in the anime adaptation Blood: The Last Vampire. After briefly returning to South Korea to play a television producer in the comedy A Man Who Was Superman, Jun left home again for China to star in Wayne Wang's adaptation of Lisa See's novel The Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

She learnt to speak her English lines in The Snow Flower and can now understand and communicate briefly in the language. But the process proved tiring. "It's tough, making films overseas. You have to speak English, and adapt to a lot of things you haven't seen. But the linguistic barrier is the one that's hard to crack."

That's why she decided to take a break, go home and make two Korean productions back to back. "I did learn a lot from my previous [international] productions, but the Korean market means a lot to me," she says. "And I saw that Korean audiences still supported me, so I came back."

Jun also understands where the biggest paycheques come from. During her recent visit to Hong Kong, she flaunted her Putonghua (and, to a lesser extent, Cantonese) skills. She remains one of the best-known Korean actors among Chinese-speaking audiences.

"China is such a vast country, and I have lots of fans there," she says. "[When] I worked on Snow Flower, I saw [co-star] Li Bingbing's vast influence in the country. I really felt the might of that market. It could really help develop my career."

Now that's a pragmatic approach her Thieves character, Yenicall, would be proud of.

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The Thieves opens on Thursday