South Korean superstar GIANNA JUN, starring in this month’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, hopes to bring her special brand of sassy to American audiences
by Jaeki Cho
photographs by Peter Ash Lee
IF YOU WERE AMONG THE millions who saw My Sassy Girl (2001), the highest-grossing romantic comedy in South Korean box office history, or have been exposed to the TV commercials selling cell phones, fried chicken, jeans and cosmetics during a trip to the motherland, you’ve likely been enchanted by the addictive—and highly marketable— charm of superstar Jun Ji-hyun.
At 29, and a decade following the film that propelled her to stardom, the actress/model continues to top the Korean celebrity hierarchy. Adopting the Western name Gianna in recent years, she’s also trying to work that same magic in Hollywood with her second full-length feature film in English, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, released this month.
The film, adapted from the critically acclaimed novel of the same name by Lisa See, has no shortage of star power, with Wayne Wang of The Joy Luck Club fame directing, popular Chinese actress Li Bing Bing co-starring, and Asian American media mogul spouses Wendi Deng Murdoch and Florence Sloan producing. (Murdoch is married to Rupert Murdoch, chairman and CEO of News Corp., and Sloan to Harry Sloan, former CEO of MGM, who now heads Global Eagle Acquisition Corp.)
Jun plays Snow Flower, a character matched to Li’s Lily as laotong, that is, an arranged sisterhood from youth. They communicate secretly by writing notes between the folds of a white silk fan. In a parallel story in present-day Shanghai, the sisters’ descendants, Sophia (also played by Jun) and Nina (played by Li), struggle to maintain their close friendship while confronting the modern-day demands of careers, romantic entanglements and a dramatically changing Shanghai.
The timeless and transcendent theme of the power of sisterhood attracted Jun to the project. She said she read the novel before the script and instantly fell in love with it. “I was moved and able to associate and empathize with the story and feelings because I have had such a friendship with a female friend,” said Jun, who in her first English-language feature film, Blood: The Last Vampire, played a half-demon vampire slayer.
The Snow Flower role also carried some challenges for the actress because she had to speak Chinese and English throughout the film. “Showcasing your emotion through acting itself isn’t an easy task, but trying to do that while speaking a language that I’m unfamiliar with is even more of a challenge,” she said. “So trying to capture that feeling in Chinese and English was the most difficult part.”
But Jun said she learned a great deal from her Chinese costar Li. “Through this project, we got to become really good friends, almost like the friendship in the movie between Lily and Snow Flower,” Jun said.
Perhaps most rewarding about the experience for the star, who has been acting and modeling since age 17, was getting a chance to work with Wang. She counts herself a fan of his work, and said that one of her favorite Wang films is Smoke (1995), starring Harvey Keitel and William Hurt. “He was everything to me,” Jun said of Wang.
“Director, friend, teacher and a genuinely beautiful person that I can look up to. I’d love to work with him again.”