Ha Suk-jin: “Standby was freeing”
You may recall me saying (just once or twice or maybe a dozen times) that Ha Suk-jin is the reason I watch Standby, MBC’s flagging sitcom that started with such cute potential. So with the show heading toward its finish—it wraps this week—I saw this interview with Ha and had to see what he had to say about it.
Standby has been airing for the past six months, and never did as well with ratings or buzz as its predecessor, High Kick 3: Counterattack of the Short Legs. You can’t blame it on a lack of appealing actors or a cute world, because it has plenty of that. What it doesn’t have, though, is a sense of groundedness to give the world any depth. Characters tend to act in single-minded, single-dimensional ways, so the light fluff aspect doesn’t have anything deeper to root it in something real. (Which was something High Kick managed so well.)
The show was slated for 120 episodes, and while I wouldn’t classify this as a big cut, it is now ending with Episode 113. That includes a few pre-emptions that pushed back the schedule a bit, including this week; I guess MBC just didn’t feel the need to give the show those episodes back, choosing instead to end it on time.
His character Suk-jin seems, on the surface, your everyday (for a drama) cold hottie: He’s professionally successful as an announcer, he’s good-looking and well-dressed, he comes from a good family, he’s smart, he’s curt and uptight, he suffers no fools. Like every other chaebol-like character, right? But it turns out his Suk-jin is actually a completely different guy once you get to know him—he’s insecure, friendless, poor (thanks to dad going bankrupt), and hiding a painful past as an uber-dork carrying a grudge against (Lee) Ki-woo, who always had everything come to him so easily.
And despite being petty and snippy and difficult, it’s those flaws that make him adorable and lovable. He’s the type of guy who boasts about all the girlfriends he’s had… to cover up the fact that he’s never had any and is too embarrassed to admit it. He proudly name-drops his best friend, Alexandrio Cabernet Bourbon the Third. His rabbit, rescued after a broadcast segment. He keeps a shit list with a running tally of every single person who’s ever wronged him, for crimes both grand and petty—and in addition to including some inanimate objects, the list also bears his own name.
So I totally loved Suk-jin, and was super, super irritated when the show just dropped the ball with him. His loveline remains firmly one-sided, while Dull and Duller (Soo-hyun and Ki-woo) mope and glower all the live long day.
Asked about the romance, Ha Suk-jin answered, “I’ve never been in a project where I didn’t have a loveline. But this time, it looks like my story will end with a one-sided love for Kim Soo-hyun-sshi. To be ending without even one kiss scene, I’m a bit disappointed with the writer. [Laughs]”
Suk-jin’s character is, in my opinion, one of the funnier characters in the show, which may seem odd since the personality isn’t funny at all. In fact he’s rather humorless, a stick-in-the-mud who takes things way too seriously. But I appreciated that he let the situations speak for themselves, letting the funny arise from the situation rather than forcing in excess slapstick or gags.
The interviewer even asked whether he thought his comic touches came on too strongly, but Ha answered that he finds acting itself to be a cheery thing: “While taking on this comic acting in the sitcom, I found that it felt very freeing. There are times when I struggle in feature dramas about how to properly express my character’s emotions, but with Standby I could take risks and be adventurous. It was fun for me to freely create facial expressions or lines of dialogue as I was acting.”
Of course, he also has his disappointments, and the low ratings (4% to 5% for the daily sitcom) have to be included in that. “It’s very disappointing that the ratings were low. But I don’t blame them for being low, or anything like that. You just have to get over the disappointments. If I get another chance to do a new sitcom later down the line, then I’ll have to take that chance to make up for this disappointment.”
Ha Suk-jin’s already got his next project lined up after Standby, which is a cable show on JTBC called Childless Good Fortune. It’s the next drama by hitmaker writer Kim Soo-hyun, whose projects always attract buzz and big names (Life Is Beautiful, My Man’s Woman, Mom’s Dead Upset). She also tends to reuse many actors in her dramas, so it’s considered a fortuitous thing to be brought into the “Kim Soo-hyun family.”
The show is, like many of Kim’s dramas, a multigenerational piece with a large extended family at its core (anchored by veteran Lee Soon-jae). Ha plays one of the grandsons, and said, “I’m grateful just to be in a Kim Soo-hyun project. My sunbaes tell me that being in one of her projects will be a valuable experience.
Asked about his busy schedule, he answered that thanks to his experiences in back-to-back projects, he gets accustomed to new sets fairly easily. Since he’s not a star, he explained, he feels the need to work constantly to get his name out there. “I don’t find it tough doing drama after drama. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to keep acting. It allows me to keep being exposed to the public, and I enjoy just being able to show my acting.”
This jump will take a bit of adjustment, though; he’s working to find a more serious mien after going free and unfettered for the past half-year. He added, “After doing a sitcom, doing a traditional drama like a Teacher Kim Soo-hyun show will broaden my range. I’m approaching this project as a chance to learn another type of acting.”
Ha also explained that he hasn’t been able to make a strong impression with the general public. While I love him, I do think he’s on the mark about that, if you look at it from the larger picture, compared to other actors of his generation. “I read a comment once asking why I couldn’t hit it big in my projects. It was a comment asking why I wasn’t hitting stardom despite seeming like I would. I liked that there are those kinds of expectations of me. It’s better than people thinking, ‘Eh, he won’t make it.’ If I keep at it steadily, won’t I satisfy the public sometime? Before I get married, it should. [Laughs]”
For his sake, I hope it happens. Because that comment—it could’ve come straight from my brain, years ago.