Kim Tae-ri is currently living a Korean version of American dream. She grew up in what she calls a “very poor family,” working odd jobs through school including as a cashier at KFC. She’d had some success as a model and she had a few student-films under her belt, but she wasn’t optimistic when she decided to attend a casting call for the newest film by Park Chan-wook—one of her nation’s most revered directors and winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes (for Oldboy) in 2004. But, despite her unknown status, she was selected from a group of 1500 hopefuls to star alongside actress Kim Min-hee (who, if you know your Korean cinema, needs no introduction) in what is certain to be one of the most highly anticipated foreign film releases of the year.
All of this serendipity shouldn’t overshadow the fact that Kim Tae-ri is working hard for her fame. A Park Chan-wook movie isn’t an occasion to just show up, hit your mark, and get paid. Aside from the violence, the wonderfully explicit Sapphic sex-scenes, and the emotional range required by the role, the movie itself is just huge. Huge and complex: an almost three-hour vengeance-strangled love-story taking place in 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea, wrapped up in deception as thick as Kudzu, and topped off with Rashomon-esque POV changes. It’d be a demanding role for any actress, let alone a rookie.
But Kim nails it. As Sook-hee, one of two lovers at the center of a web of perversion and strategizing, struggling to be true to her feelings in a patriarchal world where men see her only as a pawn in their plays for power, Kim Tae-ri is beguiling, mercurial, boldly confident, and deliciously unrestrained.
If she still experiences shocks of unreality, or a frisson of giddy disbelief here and there, she isn’t showing it today at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. Here she’s undergoing the more quotidian aspects of actresshood—all-day press meets, publicity tours, and interview after interview—made all the more un-fun by having to rely on a translator for every interaction.
I ask her if she has any qualms or fears about stepping out of the darkness of anonymity, but she waves away any concerns—in fact she seems more or less uninterested in even contemplating the idea. “I get that question a lot. I’d say there’s not much of a difference, before and after. I guess I have to be more careful about things,” she says. “I think it has to do with my personality—I try not to get caught up or swayed too much. I try to take it in a more mellow way.”
But during the filming process she wasn’t always so collected. Did she ever struggle during the shoot, or doubt her abilities? She laughs. “All the time! There were days when I even felt like I shouldn’t act anymore! But I think that’s actually one of the joys of acting, to have that agony.”
As for what’s next, Kim is playing it cool. As she said in an interview with Korean tabloid TV News, “I worry about things when they hit me. I didn’t even worry about The Handmaiden. If I disappoint in the next film, I think I can recover in another film. The biggest concern I have at the moment is where I stand in this heated attention I’m getting…and what I should do. I am trying hard to stand in a neutral point.”
Written by Sid Feddema
Photographer: Eddie Chacon.
Stylist: Mui-Hai Chu.
Styling Assistant: Katiria Powell.
Location: Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills.