Fans of Korean drama and film will likely have seen Kim Sun-young breathe life into more than one complex character. Whether she’s playing the strident yet kindhearted mother in the drama Backstreet Rookie, the pompous gallery owner in the drama Her Private Life or the sad, self-effacing sister in the film Three Sisters, Kim makes an indelible impression. It’s a pleasure watching her embody a role, even when the character is as traumatized as Hee-sook in Three Sisters, a film written and directed by Kim’s husband Lee Seung-won.
Kim had no qualms about taking the role which ultimately won her a second Baeksang Award for Best Supporting Actress. Her award was for playing a North Korean housewife in the TV drama Crash Landing On You.
“Ever since my husband told me about writing a story about sisters with Moon So-ri and I in mind, I agreed to the idea,” said Kim. “I’ve always appeared in my husband’s films, and I think it’s very natural for us to be working together.”
Kim and her husband have run a theater company together for more than ten years.
“My husband would write and direct the plays, while I coached the actors,” said Kim. “Since our opinions and visions on films and acting already align well together and, in this case, because we have been in conversation about the film since the screenwriting stage, acting in Three Sisters was not so difficult. Once on set, we didn’t even need to discuss much at all.”
The film sisters, played by Kim, Moon and Jang Yoon-ju, differ in their approach to life, despite processing similar childhood trauma.
The timid Hee-sook has cancer, yet never dares to ask her sisters for emotional support. Hee-sook ekes out a modest living by running a florist shop that always seems to be shrouded in darkness. She lets her ex and her truculent daughter take advantage of her. Sister Mi-yeon has a seemingly ideal life as a well-to-do wife, but her nagging perfectionism is driven by anxiety. Sister Mi-ok is an obvious mess, as her drinking problem threatens her writing career and often sabotages her personal life. While Hee-sook never voices her problems, Mi-ok constantly begs Mi-yeon for sympathy, even though most of her problems result from her own erratic behavior.
Playing a character as broken as Hee-sook can be a challenge.
“After embodying the emotion and circumstance of Hee-sook, who has low self-esteem and was ruined by sadness and self-blame, my heart aches because I will have to find a part of me that resembles her,” said Kim. “For a certain period of time, I cannot help but stay with the sad feeling and it’s hard. But I may also enjoy this process more than I admit to it.”
When the film opens the sisters are planning their father’s birthday party, an event that will ultimately revive some of the closeness the sisters have lost.
“Hee-sook is a character who has never experienced much hope or happiness,” said Kim. “So from the outsider’s perspective, Hee-sook’s life may seem to go on without much change, which may not seem like a hopeful future. However, from the point of view of Hee-sook, I think she will often look back at the picture of her with her two sisters on the beach. And maybe she feels a drop of guilt falling onto her heart. She is thankful to have at least one more happy memory, even though it’s only a memory; she will cherish the emotional connection she has made with her two sisters who love her.”
Kim’s process for creating a character is the same, whether it’s the long-suffering single mother she played in Reply 1988 or the newly single ready-to-party editor she portrayed in Romance Is A Bonus Book.
“I get into a new character by first imagining the look,” said Kim. “I first picture the character’s hair, shoes, clothes, skin and makeup, jewelry, etc. Then, based on the script, I try to embody, from various angles, her likes and dislikes. I also try to catch the degree to which the character is open, confident, and conscious of her surroundings. And what’s most important for me to fall into a character is the lines, in other words, to understand why the character is saying certain words.”
Kim did not initially see herself as an actress. Originally she wanted to be an acting coach or a director.
“But to be honest, in my 20s, I enjoyed the compliments people would throw at me for my acting,” she said with a laugh. “I guess at some point I thought I must be good at acting and naturally became an actor. The most enjoyable moment for me is when I hear the director’s cue on-set and I start to act. I guess I’m most happy when I’m acting.”
Three Sisters opened in Korea in January 2021 and will have its North American premiere at the New York Asian Film Festival.