Publisher: Heart Media Issue Date: December 2015 Author: Jason Kwong
Seasoned South Korean superstar Cha Seung-Won proves that age is just a number.
Showbiz is a young man’s game. And for Cha Seung-Won, it is haughtily accurate. “Well, there’s nothing wrong with age sneaking up on you. It happens to us all and isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” he explains. “I’m an actor and I need to be in ‘good condition’ even as I get older.” To be fair, it’s not his fault that he comes from a country that shoves out pretty young boys and girls in droves. “But who knows, if I wasn’t in this industry, I probably look kind of like an ‘uncle’ in certain ways,” he adds with a laugh.
For a man who has been in the scene for over three decades, Cha continues to surprise many with his boundless energy and enthusiasm, outlasting his peers with a jam-packed career, while his talent and versatility as an actor made him endlessly colourful. As strange as it sounds, this is fundamentally a good thing, the occasional crow’s feet notwithstanding. “It’s a double-edged sword,” he says. He’s still fit as a fiddle and even if he decides to ride into the sunset, his legion of fans will still care, but a saggy double chin and love handles will understandably lead to endorsement income receding steadily into the future. “I try to exercise every day even if it’s simply a light jog that takes a few minutes of my time.”
The 45-year-old actor, who doesn’t look his age at all, has had a rollicking career. He still looks the part of a preening metrosexual who will never protest against the odd combination of ripped jeans, dinner jacket, and kohl eyeliner. His dressing leans heavily towards that of a bohemian rock star as unbuttoned shirts, accessorised with jewellery and a devil-may-care disposition is still the order of the day. So what if each indecisive side-swept hairstyle somehow looks effortless? “It’s obviously different,” he says, when discussing his approach when fulfilling endorsement obligations during fashion shoots versus preparing for an acting role. “I’ve got to get into the mood and get into the flow of things to inhabit a role, but for a pictorial work like the one I did for Alfred Dunhill recently, I try to put all my energy and emotions into that one shoot. It’s a less rigorous process.”
Yet, he’s disciplined, intelligent, and articulate in the way he commits to a script and his expressiveness onscreen relies more on finesse than the sheer magnetism of an ageing heartthrob. “I try to keep authenticity in mind at all times,” he lets on. “I believe the audience can feel my heartfelt sincerity in each role even as public perceptions, tastes, and trends change and evolve over time.”
After a series of minor roles early on, he scored a surprising hit as an arsonist in Libera Me in 1997. The movie became a bona fide smash, and exhibited his rare ability to draw the audiences in and connect with him despite being the film’s antagonist. They yearn to understand what’s going on inside his mind, even though he’s not giving a lot of his character’s motivation away.
Blending action with absurd comedy with drama is always dicey. In the case of Kick the Moon, filmmaker Kim Sang-jin saw in Cha a versatile actor who could be a star. There was something compulsively watchable about him as a PE teacher and feared brawler who compete for the affection of a leggy lass played by Kim Hye-soo. To an extent, he outshone co-star Lee Sung-jae with a certain brutish charm. “I’d like to think that I’m a serious but humorous person,” he adds. “To be an actor, you have to able to be versatile and display a wider spectrum of emotions. I have to know and understand myself well. That way, my portrayal stays grounded in reality and isn’t prone to being extreme or outlandish. Walking that fine line is my goal as an actor.”
His roles since have a darker undertone, and simmer with violence under the surface – indeed, his role as an imperial detective investigating grisly murders in period drama Blood Rain is stoic and restrained. In one key scene, where his character learns about a gruesome family secret without blinking his eyes, it sends a chill down your spine. You don’t want this guy complaining about soggy kimchi. He engages the camera, and therefore the audience, with a certain kind of minimalist and unrelenting charisma – a quality few have.
His film career flourished as he took the lead role of a North Korean defector in Over the Border, pining for his sweetheart in a new land. Not one to just take on leading roles, he also found the time to star in commemorative war drama 71: Into the Fire. Cha also took on one of his most memorable roles by returning to the small screen as narcissistic Dokko Jin in The Greatest Love.
He went down the rabbit hole in this satire of the local entertainment industry and emerged as a self-absorbed prima donna, spouting oft-quoted one-liners such as “What the...”, “Ding! Dong!” and displaying a general obnoxiousness and disregard for basic human civilities. Possibly playing an exaggerated version of himself, Dokko Jin’s life is a string of faux pas and petty feuds – invariably culminating in shouting and humiliation. “I memorised every line so it isn’t improvised in any way,” he says. “I’m a creature of habit and it also makes it easier for my co-stars [like Gong Hyo-jin] to play off.”
His character was a product of its times and, one who is a little too assured of his place in the hierarchy. More than anything else, it became a pop culture phenomenon and scooped up loads of awards in its deliriously humorous aftermath. And that’s down to his preposterous lines and his pinpoint accurate delivery.
Soon after, Cha avoided clean-cut good guy roles. In 2014, he went over to the dark side and played an ace homicide investigator in Man on High Heels, who toed the line between rogue tactics and yearning to undergo a sex change operation to become a woman. He certainly wasn’t interested in revisiting familiar grounds. Even when he wasn’t playing gender-bending characters, Cha took on more complex roles.
He’ll next inhabit the role of Kim Jeong-ho, the geographer and cartographer who was believed to have walked the entire length and breadth of the Korean peninsula in an adaptation of Park Bum-shin’s The Map Maker. “I always had a desire to communicate with a wider audience,” he asserts. “The medium is just an opportunity to broaden my appeal naturally, so I’m decidedly happy whatever the process may be.”
Many would consider his career choices to be haphazard, but a close look reveals that, like his on-screen personas, he often straddles duality and waddles in a pool of grey that keeps fans guessing. For every leading-man role, there’s a seemingly mind-boggling effort like 2009’s Secret on his resume. It’s one of those things that Korean artiste like him don’t get enough credit for because there are not a lot of actors who can do it.
It may seem full of unacknowledged contradictions, and the centrepiece of the puzzle – a self-deprecating, hardworking celebrity blessed with career longevity – is simply far-fetched. It’s an asphyxiating thought to think he has the time to look like a million bucks by himself. His memoir, when one is written, will furnish accounts dramatically at odds with the flamboyant actor who was once crowned Model of the Year by the Korean Fashion Association in 1995.
What has changed is the context, not his tendencies. He’ll be playing Prince Gwanghae next in period drama series Splendid Politics and he’s relishing another meaty role that will require him pacing himself. “The character eventually becomes king and he becomes a lonely person,” he says. “I feel a sense of sympathy towards the character even as I look forward to portraying him. I do not want to be emotionally drained too early during the long filming schedule.”
He also worked on reinventing himself and simplified his life. “Being simple is difficult for me,” he admits, but boy, did he find his niche. He has also been casting his sardonic brand of mischievous wit in reality series Three Meals a Day: Fishing Village. Improbable as it sounds, perfectly drawn moments of farce, slapstick, and general silliness takes place as the simple premises of surviving by cooking the catch of the day. “I don’t have a specific standard in selecting the type of projects that suits me,” he explains. “I see a synopsis or a summary of what the undertaking will entail, and from there my gut feeling will determine if it’s a good match.”
While fellow actor Yu Hae-jin bumbles his daily fishing expeditions and tries to be funny – all rapid-fire quips or self-conscious kookiness – the originator of the ‘stache ploughs his furrowed brows and became the show’s funniest draw as he cooks up a storm in more ways than one. He earned the nickname Chajumma (Auntie Cha) by proving to be a deft hand in the kitchen. “I’m truly appreciative of all the positive feedback. But rest assured, it wasn’t a strategic decision to ‘showcase’ my cooking aptitude. I’m sure there are many other talented chefs out there. I’m just thankful that the audience naturally gravitated to us.”
Looks like some men can indeed have their cake (or fish) and eat it too. Clearly, he’s living the life we all secretly want to live.