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[Herald Interview] Lee Ha-nee interprets 15th-century courtesan

  • Published : May 30, 2017 - 18:49
  • Updated : May 30, 2017 - 18:49

Role in period drama series led actress to contemplate lives of women, then and now

Actress Lee Ha-nee poses for a photo before an interview last Thursday in Palpan-dong, Seoul. (Yonhap)
Actress Lee Ha-nee can be described as many things: an icon of healthy beauty, Korean traditional music performer, and an all-around cheerful person.

In the recently concluded drama series “Rebel: Thief Who Stole the People,” however, she let go of who she was, or seemed, as a person.

Critics have heaped praise on Lee for her portrayal of Jang Nok-su, a Joseon-era gisaeng -- courtesan highly trained in arts and entertainment, who became the concubine of the tempestuous Yeonsangun (1476-1506), and was later beheaded.

Lee appreciates the irony that the role that has earned her the best reviews as an actress is one that was in deep angst, the opposite of Lee’s original image.

“But I’ve learned that I’m a person with a lot of sadness in me as well,” she said in an interview Thursday at a cafe in Palpan-dong, Seoul.

Lee, who comes from a family of gugak -- Korean traditional music -- performers, said she was careful about portraying traditional Korean arts on television.

“I had promised myself I wouldn’t cross that line onscreen,” she said. “I couldn’t do it, imagining all my great gugak teachers watching.”

Actress Lee Ha-nee poses for a photo before an interview last Thursday in Palpan-dong, Seoul. (Yonhap)
But Lee took up the janggu, the Korean drum, for a scene where Nok-su woefully sings before her imminent death. Lee tried to focus on the emotion instead of worrying about the technique. She was liberated by the thought that “Nok-su would not have wanted to or been able to give a perfect performance before her death,” Lee said.

The show has led the actress to contemplate the multifacted lives of women both in the past and now.

“It would have felt like a criminal punishment for an artist and progressive woman like Nok-su to live in the Joseon era,” said Lee, adding she felt a sense of achievement in portraying her character as more than just a “seductress.”

“I was proud that we could see Nok-su as an artist through (this show).”

Actress Lee Ha-nee poses for a photo before an interview last Thursday in Palpan-dong, Seoul. (Yonhap)
Lee said she felt a strong attraction and affinity to the complicated character, who, in the drama, was first forced to court men by her mother.

“Nok-su’s story was that her mother had taken her by the hand to go bed the district magistrate,” said Lee. “I remember imagining how cold that hand must have been, what a deep sadness that sensitive girl must have felt. ... She is a mixture of many things -- sadness, desire, anger.”

Lee says Nok-su’s feelings for Yeonsangun would also have been intensely complicated. For her, making the king of Joseon her own man would have redeemed her scars in some way, Lee said. “There was no other way for women at the time to climb the social ladder. But there was also love, and a sense of pity (for the king) as well,” she said of the historical character, adding that life always seems complicated for women, even now.

Actress Lee Ha-nee poses for a photo before an interview last Thursday in Palpan-dong, Seoul. (Yonhap)
Lee herself has led a multifarious career. After kicking off her life in the spotlight as the 2006 winner of the Miss Korea beauty pageant, she went on to nab fourth place at the international Miss Universe beauty pageant. She has since acted in several TV series, including “Pasta” (2010), and films like “Tazza: The Hidden Card” (2014), advocated for healthy beauty as a host for the cosmetics show “Get it Beauty” since 2015, and long supported vegetarianism and eco-friendly living.

“I am energized by diverse activities,” she said. “Of course, I sometimes go through periods where I’m in a slump. But I try to find balance through the different things I love -- like gayageum (Korean 12-string traditional zither) and the people I love.”

Lee, who is in a relationship with the singer-actor Yoon Kye-sang, said she has no plans for marriage just yet. “I think there is a time for everything. Right now, I think it’s the time for me to act. I’ve only just begun to feel that joy and excitement of acting.”

By Rumy Doo (doo@heraldcorp.com)