overthinking the idiot box

April 4th, 2005

The Desperate Housewife of Lost: An Interview with Yunjin Kim
by Alison Veneto

Talking about her character Sun, Yunjin Kim remarks, "I always joke that she's the Desperate Housewife of Lost" She plays the only married regular character on the hit series, dealing not only with being stranded on a somewhat deserted island, but also trying to hold her marriage together.

When the show's creators called Yunjin Kim in to read, they had not yet created the character of Sun. The only existing character she could read for was Kate. But they told her, "We didn't bring you in to really read for Kate, but we wanted to see you read for something." Although Yunjin didn't get to see a finished pilot before signing on, she was excited by the project because of the compelling storyline; because it was one of the hottest projects in town; and because she was a big fan of Alias (by series creator JJ Abrams). The day after auditioning, she "got word that they were going to create a role for [her]" and believes that "as an actor it's the biggest compliment, I think, to have people like that to write a character [for you]...and three days later they created Jin's character."

A Korean-speaking role was not much of a stretch for Yunjin. Although she grew up in New York and trained at the High School For Performing Arts and Boston University, she kept up on the language and was cast in a Korean TV special that was filming in her native New York. This jump-started a career for her in Korea, where she worked for six years before Lost. She did several projects for television in Korea, but became an international star with the hit film Shiri. She followed that up with several more Korean films, but was always looking for the project that would bring her back to America.

And how is the show being received in Korea? "It was the first time in Korea where they bought the show after not even waiting for the first season to be over," she says. But Yunjin notes that it doesn't have a great time slot in Korea, so many fans download it from the Internet.

Defending Jin
Daniel Dae Kim plays Sun's husband Jin on the show. And there has been outrage, among bloggers particularly, concerning the character's portrayal. Yunjin describes the reaction in the beginning: "they felt it was sort of unfair to portray a Korean guy like that." After the first couple episodes, Korean-American blogs were full of discussion from those who were at first happy to see Koreans on television and then disappointed, particularly in Jin. Yunjin admits that "to say that Korean men are as domineering and as bossy and as mean to their wives [as Jin] -- I knew from day one that there was going to be some controversy on that."

But Yunjin trusted in the writers and fans kept watching the show and all were rewarded for it. The stereotypes that were introduced in the pilot were slowly but surely developed into complex, sympathetic, three-dimensional human beings. "That's exactly what the producers talked to me about when I first read the pilot -- especially JJ [Abrams]. He was very clear on it and I totally trusted him and I'm glad I kept believing that it was going to change."

It turns out that Jin is just a man who wanted to do what was best. He would have done anything to marry Sun, and his good intentions got contorted. He's become one of the most sympathetic and tragic characters on the show. And for the Korean fans that stayed with the show, Yunjin has noted that the initial anger toward him has subsided: "We're going to see these characters come alive and really see different sides to them...I knew there were going to be some negative feelings toward our characters in the beginning, but now that's gone because you've seen a lot of different sides of Sun and Jin."

Sun's character too often seems like a stereotype -- the demure, submissive Asian flower. But as Yunjin notes, the show has delved deeper into her character as well. "I think she's very passionate; I think she believes in love, which is very endearing about the character. No matter what happens, I think she still believes they can save the marriage. It's really hard to do that. You see her being really submissive and demure, yet she's got this powerful belief in human beings that I believe in as well, and that's why I like her so much."

A Question Of Race
A lot of shows, in order to have a multi-cultural cast for ultimate ratings potential, tend to ignore the actual dynamics between races, and decide to have all races co-exist peacefully. Would that it were true.

"One of the really smart things with the show, I think -- and this is totally a credit to the writers -- [is that] they touch on the reality." In an episode of Lost, Michael, an African-American character, says, "Where I come from, Koreans don't like black people." This reference is felt most strongly in Los Angeles, where the 1992 LA Riots, though initially sparked by the Rodney King verdict, were also based on this kind of tension between the African-American and Korean communities -- a tension that was only worsened by the riots. "I love the fact that they touch on the reality of what goes on now, but they don't dwell on it -- the show is not about the racial tension on the island -- but they do touch on it, they don't ever ignore it."

But in a show full of love triangles, the one between Sun, Jin, and Michael is one of the most compelling. And when asked about Michael and Sun getting together, she says, "I'm a big believer in saving [the marriage] no matter what. But if they can't patch it up -- why not?"

Asian-Americans in Hollywood
Watching Lost, one might notice a bit of an anomaly -- Asian people on television. When asked why there are so few Asian-Americans in Hollywood, Yunjin is very practical: "I think it's just basic need -- if there's more than that, there'll be more." She notes that the number of Asians in America is actually quite low. According to the CIA Factbook, Asian-Americans make up a mere 4.2% of the total U.S. population. "I don't think it's because they don't want to see Asians, I think it's less of a demand. If they were going to have an ethnic character in a feature film, why not use a Hispanic actress instead of an Asian-American actress, because more Latinos would come to see that film....it's as simple as that."

But she really appreciates what Lost is doing: "At the same time, I think something like Lost is bringing something very different to the table, and I'm really proud to be a part of the first time in American television when they took the chance of writing Korean characters in to begin with -- but to have them speak Korean for thirty minutes in a one-hour show and have it subtitled? I think that was pretty gutsy of them. And it was received well; it wasn't like we dropped out of the ratings. People loved it, and this was the first time in American television, and hopefully this will bring a lot more different ethnic backgrounds to mass media like television or film -- because that's what America is all about, isn't it? It's like a mixed pot. And I think Lost is sort of a perfect example, having it be the international flight out of Australia...."

She credits the success of other Asian actors in America for helping her believe that maybe it could happen to her. "I think it's so important for really young Asians growing up in America to have those positive images of themselves." Whoopi Goldberg has spoken about believing she could be an actress after seeing Nichelle Nichols, a black woman, on television. Yunjin hopes to be a simliar inspiration: "If for some reason, another Korean-American who wants to become an actress watches me on Lost, [she might say], 'Well Yunjin is on Lost; maybe by the time I grow up, I won't even have to speak Korean or play an Asian-American role, I can just be a character.'"Yunjin has always hoped for this, noting that "it's one of my dreams of growing up in America -- to be one of the people showing different images on television. That's more than I can ask for as an actor."

The End of the First Season
"In every show, you hear actors say, 'Oh, we're like a family,' and I always say, 'Oh, yeah right.' But it's really true; because we're in Hawaii, away from our friends and family and our own little cozy environments. From the very beginning, like our characters, we really clung onto each other." And that's what makes the end-of-season shocks so difficult. If you've been on the internet or at the water cooler at all, you know there's going to be a big death on Lost. Because "we became so close, shooting that episode was really hard," Yunjin says. "I think [the death] affects all the characters on the island."

Of course, she can't tell us much about the big season finale, which they are currently shooting in Hawaii. She does say that "there's a lot of clearing up," but also that "it's a real cliffhanger." And anyone familiar with JJ Abrams wouldn't expect anything else. But Yunjin sympathizes with the fans of the show: "It's hard for the actors, because we're all just as much in the dark. We're only a couple episodes ahead of the rest of America, so whenever I get the script, wherever I am, I sit, park myself and read. I go through it like a madwoman because I want to get to the end, I want to know what happens." And Yunjin looks forward to starting Season 2 on the show, so that she can find out what happens: "I can't believe that we actors involved in the show have to wait three months to find out what happens to our characters."

A Dream Come True
Yunjin, like any sane human being, enjoys living in Hawaii. And not unlike the characters on the show, she's taken up golf. (Next season she hopes to take up surfing). But also, she's very happy about Lost's success: "It put me on the map -- I think it put all the actors on the map -- a lot faster than I had expected." And she reflects on how she got there: "I spent eight years, and my dream was to 'make it in Hollywood,' and I kept on waiting for a project to bring me back to America, although I was thankful for the opportunities that came my way in Korea. The whole process just happened so much faster than I ever dreamed."

How can you find out more about Yunjin's Korean career? Well, check out the second part of this interview on Movie Poop Shoot on April 14th, where Yunjin talks about working in Korea and about her hit films like Shiri.

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