MBC documentary special features Kim Myung-min
Kim Myung-min is probably the top actor in Korea right now, and is certain to go down as one of the greats of all time. He’s also an interesting case because he has come into stardom late into his career, but unlike so many other actors, the fervent appreciation for him comes almost solely from respect for his tremendous talent and work, not as a sex symbol or celebrity. (He’s certainly handsome, but I almost think of him in an asexual way.) You see the man for his acting skills much more than for his looks or general fame. Which is, I’m fairly certain, just the way he wants it.
The MBC special documentary called “Kim Myung-min Was Not There” was announced last month and aired over the weekend. (It was also a ratings hit, since 10% is impressive for a documentary feature.) It also gave quite an insight into the actor and his process, and is really a must-watch for anyone harboring acting aspirations.
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White Tower OST – “B Rossette” [ Download ]
First off, you can download this episode here: >> DOWNLOAD KIM MYUNG-MIN SPECIAL <<
(Note: The documentary was filmed a few months ago, but I’m going to use the present tense because, well, it makes things easier.)
Preparing to film “My Love By My Side”
The documentary starts by following Kim Myung-min from Seoul to the set location where he is shooting his latest film, My Love By My Side [내사랑 내곁에], which features the actor as a man dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. The role co-stars Ha Ji-won and had originally cast Kwon Sang-woo, who then dropped out. The documentary then backtracks to Kim’s noteworthy previous characters, and traces how he rose to his current fame.
Kim normally weighs 72 kg, but for this role, he had determined to lose weight to correspond to the character’s deteriorating health. As he arrives in the city where they are to film, he has lost 3 kg and eats his last proper meal with his manager.
When he starts filming, we get to see that his preparation goes much deeper than one may have guessed. The first sign comes when he dresses for the shoot (in the early stages of his disease, the character is attending a funeral, where he reconnects with Ha Ji-won, whom he’d known in childhood). He voices a concern regarding the watch on his left wrist — wouldn’t this be too heavy for an arm that is beginning to be afflicted with paralysis? Kim raises his arm a few times to gauge the weight. In the end, he leaves the watch off.
The next moment comes when putting on his black shoes, left slightly dusty to appear worn. Kim takes a brush to wipe clean one shoe — but only the right shoe. Along with his left arm, his left foot is in the early stages of paralysis, and the character will be dragging the foot along, keeping the left shoe scuffed.
Kim explains that he’s not sure whether the shoes will be in the frame, but there’s always the chance it will be caught in a passing shot, and it’s a meaningful point.
The documentary producer asks Kim, does he think the director will notice? Kim’s answer:
Kim Myung-min: “Whether the director knows or not, it doesn’t matter, it’s something I do anyway. That’s something the actor has to create. That part is the actor’s job. A character isn’t born just based on what’s written down. It’s because I am Lee Soon-shin [of Immortal Lee Soon-shin], it’s because I am Maestro Kang [of Beethoven Virus], it’s because I am Jang Jun-hyuk [of White Tower].”
Even for an actor’s actor, his level of detail startles his colleagues.
Han Sang-jin from White Tower: “He’s an actor who places a lot of thought into realism. In a surgery scene, he was like a real doctor, tying and suturing for real with his own hands. We had an instructor who had been consulting for us, and he was so shocked to see that.”
Kim explains character work as part of a process of giving the overall work credibility:
Kim Myung-min: “What’s most important is that [Kim’s character] Jang Jun-hyuk is a brilliant surgeon. Given that, the reality of surgery adds or takes away from the essence of the drama. It’s the difference between whether viewers will be absorbed in the drama or not. …
“I worked hard to understand the process of surgery, using medical terminology and coming across as a real surgeon. On top of that, I have to express emotion while letting my hands move, freely but also in precise timing. It’s not something that can be done by practicing the hand movements separately, or the dialogue separately. I have to remember each part, to act a certain way at a certain part, and continually rehearse on my own. It’s something that required me to rehearse enough that I could do it without looking. And even then it’s difficult.”
Co-star Lee Seon-kyun (above) says, laughingly:
Lee Seon-kyun: “He hardly makes NG scenes. It adds a lot of pressure on his fellow actors, because he doesn’t make mistakes. He ought to make a few mistakes and lighten the mood, so we can all believe, ‘Ah, it’s difficult even for him.’ But he acts so perfectly without NGs, it makes you think, ‘Wow, he really is Jang Jun-hyuk. What a tough guy.'”
Co-star Han Sang-jin points out a detail in the last episode of White Tower (SPOILERS for White Tower will be mentioned, just FYI), as pictured in the screenshot above.
In the scene, the ailing Dr. Jang reads a newspaper, but only holds onto it with one hand — the left hand misses grasping the page.
Han Sang-jin: “It’s because he’s lost sense of his body. Seeing him prepare such a small detail honestly made me think, ‘Can you believe this guy? How could he have thought of such a small detail to his acting?'”
A week before heading down to film My Love By My Side, Kim visits patients suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease in the hospital, and talks to them about their illness to see for himself the difficulties they face. He also pores through copious amounts of reading material, including a medical specialty book, the Textbook of Neurology.
With filming approaching, Kim worries that there’s something he hasn’t quite figured out yet. He explains that for every project he’s done, he suffers from a chronic ailment that kicks up from the stress. Sometimes it comes a little bit after filming, but for this movie, it’s begun early, even before filming has started.
For his last project, Beethoven Virus, it began about five episodes into filming. With White Tower, it was around Episode 2 or 3, and Immortal Lee Soon-shin — the drama that shot him to recognition — was when he first developed it.
Kim spawned the “Kang-mae sensation” last year when he starred as the prickly conductor in MBC’s Beethoven Virus, and describes Kang as difficult and unrealistic: Who else would turn the line “You are a piece of shit” [똥. 덩. 어. 리.] into a veritable catchphrase? (The bit of dialogue experienced something of its own sensation, as people delighted in the horrible-yet-entertaining way Kang-mae said the words with his particularly hard, staccato delivery.)
Beethoven Virus director Lee Jae-kyu explains with a laugh that even he couldn’t have imagined the way Kim would deliver that line. He hadn’t requested it of Kim:
Dir. Lee Jae-kyu: “The actor rehearsed that line dozens of times on his own, and figured out the way to best say it to fit the situation… His ability as an actor to leave Kim Myung-min behind and pour himself into a scene is truly amazing.”
Kim explains that when he’s not shooting, he goes through everything in his head, remembering the music, figuring out the tempo, rhythm:
Kim Myung-min: “At that moment, I think of myself as a conductor. As the conductor, I think, how ashamed would I feel if I fail in front of all these people? …
“If I don’t prepare enough, I have bad dreams, nightmares where I keep making NGs and everyone scolds me.”
Third week of filming: “My Love By My Side”
As Kim shops in the supermarket with his manager, he’s not recognized. He recalls an incident when someone came by to the shooting location and said she was here to see him because she was a fan, but didn’t recognize him even though he passed by several times in front of her. He doesn’t get recognized much because people expect someone like Kang-mae, and he figures this means he must look more like his new character now.
This film marks Kim’s first time actively trying to lose weight, which is a source of worry. Never having attempted it before, he isn’t sure if his goal is attainable, or how to go about getting there. But it’s all a part of his quest to create a reality for his character to live in: “This is a film about a patient dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease and the love that arises, but [if he doesn’t manage his body] it can’t capture that essence.”
The documentary producer asks why he chose this role, and he muses that it’s probably because he wanted to test himself, to see if he could do it.
Kim Myung-min: “I think I’m always measuring myself. Could I go this far? How about this far?”
Meanwhile, while on the set, he keeps to himself, and doesn’t talk much. It’s explained that the crew plays upbeat music on the film set as one way of keeping Kim from falling too deeply into his character.
Kim Myung-min: “If I’m about to film a dark or depressing scene, a scene I have to really think about, I start to think about it two days before. It’s a very difficult and rather dumb style of acting. I have no time to laugh and chat, because I’m busy. I don’t show it, but there’s something moving around busily inside my head.”
Jang Geun-seok, Kim’s co-star from Beethoven Virus, explains:
“He doesn’t talk much when we’re on set to film, and always holds the script in his hand. He buries himself in the script. I didn’t know he would be so focused, to that extent. It was enough to give me chills down my spine.”
On set, Kim films a scene that looks painful — the character crashes to the ground because he’s not able to move the left side of his body. But in playback, Kim spots his left arm moving in the shot, so he redoes the scene.
In the second take, Kim lands hard on top of the water bucket, but this time he sees his left foot moving in the frame.
The narrator notes that the falling scene was not even part of the script originally — Kim suggested it to the director, explaining that it is a way of showing how much his disease has progressed.
The third time, Kim again takes a hard fall, but this time he’s pleased, because both paralyzed limbs have stayed unmoving in the shot.
The director, Park Jin-pyo, calls Kim “crazy” with his acting: “It’s not that he’s acting as that person, but that he really IS that person.”
Han Sang-jin recalls that it was this way with White Tower — Kim has always loved eating, but starting around the 14th or 15th episode, he had started eating less, because it wouldn’t be true to character if a dying patient had full cheeks.
Han Sang-jin: “When he’s filming Scene 17 of Episode 3, he’s not just shooting Scene 17 of Episode 3. He’s living the whole time, from the first scene in Episode 1 through the last scene in Episode 20, as Jang Jun-hyuk.”
Lee Seon-kyun: “If I can say anything with confidence, it’s that there’s no actor in this country who could act Jang Jun-hyuk better than Kim Myung-min. He’s truly the best.”
Jang Geun-seok recalls that throughout Beethoven Virus, Kim never asked for a break, even when they’d shot three days straight, and calls him an “iron man.”
Director Lee Jae-kyu: “Kang-mae became real. You could feel him, how much this Kang-mae character was… what do you call it… possessing his spirit? No, like he pulled his soul into him.”
Kim explains how famed conductor Karajan would finish a 70-minute performance and be exhausted from the exertion of throwing himself into his work. Kim aimed for a similar level of immersion in shooting the grand concert scene when the orchestra performs Beethoven’s Ninth. In the drama, following the concert, Kang-mae collapses into a chair — all the stress ebbing out of his body, leaving him weakened — and is taken to the hospital. In real life, Kim went home early after the shoot, unable to complete his schedule for the day. The exertion was so hard on his body that his legs shook, and he speculates this was probably the most difficult scene he’ll ever shoot.
The fan signing event earlier this year signaled how much he’d risen to superstardom, as the event far exceeded expectations when thousands showed up.
Arts critic Bae Kook-nam: “Kim Myung-min’s strength as an actor is that you don’t see the man Kim Myung-min, you only see his character.”
Kim Myung-min’s Early Career
Kim actually debuted 14 years ago, in a 1996 open casting that earned him the opportunity to be cast in bit parts over the following three to four years. He worked fairly steadily, but never got a break to move out of the background players.
Kim admits that it would be a lie to say he never felt discouraged, and whenever one of his colleagues got cast in a leading role, he’d feel disappointment at still being stuck as an extra.
In a particularly moving moment, present-day Kim interviews about an early experience when he’d got word that he’d landed his first non-background role. He’d gone to wardrobe, and the staff had been exceedingly nice in helping him pick out clothing, which he took with him to the set only to find out that he’d been un-cast.
Kim recalls, “If they had told me before…” There’s a long, uncomfortable pause and his eyes fill with tears involuntarily. He finishes, “But that was the first time I encountered that.”
Fellow actor Ryu Jin recalls that even the president of their agency at the time had said, “There’s this guy named Myung-min, and he acts even better than the actors out there now. But there’s a problem with ‘image casting.'”
Apparently, Kim was not deemed good-looking enough to be a leading actor, and when he was cast for his first significant role in 2001’s I Like It Hot, the writers opposed it, saying he was ugly. (He was fine for a “normal person,” but not for an actor.)
So then Kim switched to films, but met with bad luck there, too — several projects were cancelled mid-production, one after another. That shook his confidence: “I even thought, ‘I must not be meant to be an actor.'”
He was in a motorcycle stunt accident while filming, which required surgery in his leg and significant time to recover, after which he’d been forgotten. Kim decided to leave acting and Korea, although he never used the phrase “give up.” He would tell people, “I just think business might be better for me, I’m just leaving for a short while, if I don’t study now it might be too late…” But, he explains, “That was my pride,” because he didn’t want to say that he was giving up.
The Big Break: “Immortal Lee Soon-shin”
Just as he’d been ready to leave, he was cast for Immortal Lee Soon-shin, a long-running historical drama that centered around the famous Joseon-era admiral. Kim had thought he couldn’t turn down the role, but wasn’t convinced this would be the turning point — he thought to do this one project, and then leave.
Kim’s casting at the time did not meet with favorable response, as the production boasted larger stars and he was a mere rookie. But that wasn’t all bad — he explains that as a new actor, “I was at the very bottom, so there was nowhere to go but up. And there were no expectations, so it was comfortable.”
On the other hand, the one thing that sometimes pricked his temper was when some people would comment that he didn’t look like Lee Soon-shin, and he’d want to retort, “Have you seen Lee Soon-shin? He could have looked like me!”
The drama aired for a year and a half, and Kim was universally praised. He won a Daesang (Grand Prize) that year for the role… which was soon followed by a Daesang for White Tower, and then another Daesang for Beethoven Virus. (Btw, can you kinda understand now what the uproar was when he had to split his Daesang with Song Seung-heon? Even if you give Song his due props for East of Eden, he’s nowhere near the same acting class, and people saw it nothing short of an insult to share a Daesang for what seemed like disingenuous reasons. For what it’s worth, Song himself has seemed a bit embarrassed to have been awarded the co-Daesang.)
The Lee Soon-shin director recalls:
Dir. Lee Sung-joo: “He was always on set first. He was always prepared. He’s a person too and could have been as cold and hot and uncomfortable as anyone, or said, ‘There’s so much dialogue, please reduce it.’ But he never said a thing.”
Regarding his Lee Soon-shin Daesang:
Kim Myung-min: “It’s the project that brought me back to the starting point, that allowed me to make a new start. After briefly changing directions, it let me find my way again.”
Given how much Kim relishes getting into character, it seems understandable that he feels most ill at ease at awards ceremonies, when he’s there in the public eye but without a character to portray:
Kim Myung-min: “It’s so awkward, I don’t know how to wave my hand or manage my facial expression. Even now, I don’t know what to do. I think it’s remarkable that I’ve made it this far.”
As if there were any doubt, Kim doesn’t see himself as a star, nor does he want to:
Kim Myung-min: “Being a star, doesn’t it give you an uneasy feeling? A star always has to stay above, up high. It also feels lacking in reality. Actors should be called actors.”
A Month Into Filming: “My Love By My Side”
Now a month into filming, Kim has dropped a total of 10 kg. The first thing he does in the morning is weigh himself, and today he comes up 62 kg. His cheeks are considerably sunken and he is noticeably thinner, ill-looking.
My Love By My Side producer Oh Ga-won: “I makes you feel so bad to look at him, because he has lost so much weight that it’s really apparent. But he never makes those around him uncomfortable, no matter the situation. He has a sense of care in looking after those around him.”
His weight loss seems to be taking its toll, and his memory has dulled and slowed. But to Kim, it’s all part of the process of becoming this Lou Gehrig’s sufferer:
Kim Myung-min: “The words I hate hearing most are ‘That’s very Kim Myung-min-like.’ I don’t want to be an actor who is known for my own name, but for my characters. If you don’t know my character’s name and just say, ‘Oh, there’s Kim Myung-min,’ that’s not the actor I want to be.”