by STEVE HAN | @steve_han
Before Ha Jung-woo became one of South Korea’s most recognizable actors after starring in such blockbuster films as The Chaser, The Yellow Sea and Nameless Gangster, he began drawing vibrantly abstract paintings to stimulate his mind.
Drawing has since been his refuge from the demands of acting. “I was young, jobless, hungry and really bored,” Ha told KoreAm during an interview in late February at PYO Gallery in Downtown Los Angeles. “There’s a huge sense of uncertainty when you’re trying to break into the film industry. When you’re young and jobless, nothing is guaranteed in life. I needed an outlet to express myself in some way.”
The 37-year-old actor and sometimes director, whose latest project was Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, released earlier this year, is used to people questioning his choice to step outside the film medium to cultivate his interest in art.
His latest exhibit, titled “Pause,” featured a collection of paintings such as portraits and motifs using acrylic, pen, marker and oil pastel. Influenced by artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ha, a Christian, embraces religious motifs like hearts, fish and crosses in his art. His drawings are also inspired by characters he’s played in various films. For example, he drew one of his recent paintings last year while co-starring in Kundo: Age of the Rampant, a historical action film about the power struggle between wealthy aristocrats and rebellious lower classmen set in 19th-century Joseon Dynasty. In the film, Ha plays Dolchi, a rugged butcher trying to avenge the death of his family by joining the rebels.
“Home Sick,” a drawing Ha made while filming Kundo: Age of the Rampant.
“I was drawing the portrait while we were still shooting the film,” Ha says, speaking in his native Korean. “Obviously, I was playing a rough character, and it was only later I realized that the portrait looked way too rough and full of hatred. So I toned it down a bit by adding some hair and colors.”
Critics of Ha’s artwork—of which there are plenty—say that he’s taking advantage of the fame he achieved as an actor to promote his paintings. Indeed, the actor, who may also be familiar to U.S. audiences for playing an undocumented Korean immigrant opposite Vera Farmiga in the 2007 independent feature Never Forever, is a three-time Baeksang Arts Awards winner for best actor. Ha’s breakthrough role was in the 2008 thriller The Chaser, where he played the role of a brutally psychopathic serial killer who murdered prostitutes. The film became a huge hit at the Korean box office, generating over five million in ticket sales. The versatility Ha showed in The Chaser catapulted him as one of Korea’s most sought-after male leads. He’s since starred in Take Off, The Yellow Sea and The Berlin File, where he’s portrayed, respectively, an alpine skier, gambling taxi driver and North Korean spy.
“I draw to heal myself from the pain I get from certain things I can’t express through acting,” Ha says. “Drawing is almost a form of praying for me. The challenge is to find a way to present an honest face of myself, a face with no makeup on.”
In 2009, Ha met a screenwriter who drew as a hobby and presented his work at exhibits. One day, the screenwriter noticed Ha’s cell phone wallpaper, which was one of the actor’s own drawings. “He asked if I wanted to make my stuff available to the public. That’s how it started,” Ha explains, of showing his artwork.
Although Ha has held exhibits in Seoul, Hong Kong and New York in the past, “Pause” was his first exhibit in L.A.
“In the U.S., [Ha] has the opportunity to showcase his skills without a preconceived notion from the audience since many people here don’t know that he’s an actor in Korea,” said Heidi Chang, exhibit director at PYO Gallery. “In return, I felt like [Ha] would also enjoy showing his work in the U.S., because he would have a chance to be an artist rather than an ‘actor who does paintings on the side.’”
“Monday Morning” by Ha Jung-woo
Ha started drawing during his senior year in college, when he was trying to make a name for himself as a rookie actor. He went to a nearby store and bought a canvas, 4B pencils and watercolors.
“I had no other work at the time other than auditioning for roles. It was really boring. I needed a place to lean my mind on and figured I might as well just start drawing stuff,” he says.
For now, Ha’s challenge is to block out the doubtful voices that question his range of pursuits. “Even if I do something outside of acting, people will still associate that work with my acting career,” he says. “Even when I was directing, I had people questioning why I was stepping out of my boundary. I’m merely doing what I want to do. I just work as hard as I can.”
During a brief visit to L.A. earlier this year that coincided with the exhibit’s Feb. 28 opening, Ha visited Universal Studios and would have liked to attend a professional baseball game (to see Hyun-Jin Ryu pitch for the Dodgers) had the season started by then.
“I like to stick my nose into things and develop an interest. I can’t stand boredom,” Ha says. “I just like getting myself out there.”
All images courtesy of Pyo Gallery L.A.
This article was published in the April/May 2015 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the April/May issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).