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Soo Ae: Best characters have iron fist in a velvet glove

Actress says the doctor she played in ‘The Flu’ is the most flawed character she’s ever played, and she isn’t as ‘reserved’ as people think

Actress Soo Ae says she is drawn to roles that are “oeyunaegang,” a four-character idiom that translates to an iron fist in a velvet glove.

“The quality is what I consider to be ideal,” the actress said in an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul last week. “I’ve always admired those who appear gentle but are determined and strong underneath. They are my role models. So naturally, I chose to play a lot of characters that have that quality.”

The 34-year-old’s past roles are evidence of the professed preference. In 2011 TV drama “A Thousand Days’ Promise,” she played the calm, strong professional woman who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at a young age. In director Lee Joon-ik’s 2008 film “My Dear is Far Away,” she played the quiet, dutiful wife who bravely heads off to Vietnam during the Vietnam War as a singer, to find her missing husband who had been sent there to fight as a soldier.
Actress Soo Ae poses for a photo prior to an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Actress Soo Ae poses for a photo prior to an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Her latest role, however, is a move away from her past characters, the actress says. She plays In-hae, a single mother and medical doctor, in director Kim Seong-soo’s pandemic disaster thriller “The Flu.” The movie opened in local theaters on Aug. 14.

“In-hae is, I think, the most flawed character that I’ve ever played,” the actress says. “She is often selfish. It’s hard to argue that she is an ideal mother. But I guess it is also her flaws that make this character engaging and attractive.”

The film takes place in current-day Bundang, a satellite city of Seoul. The plot of the movie develops as a deadly strain of H5N1 spreads in the city, with death occurring within 36 hours of infection. As the disease spreads at a rate of 2,000 new cases each hour in Bundang, without a cure, the government decides to close down the city and those who are infected are quarantined.

“I think the movie ultimately talks about human dignity,” the actress said. “The situation in the movie is scary because it requires a number of very difficult decisions. It would be difficult for anyone to really imagine how they would react and cope with the situation if such a pandemic happens in real life.”

Director Kim is said to have been inspired by the 2010 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak which brought the infamous mass cull of approximately 12 percent of the entire domestic pig population.

“I happened to watch the video of the mass killing of the pigs and it pretty much traumatized me,” he said during a news meeting after the press screening of the film. “I could not help but wonder what would’ve happened if humans were infected with such an incurable epidemic, not pigs.”

In-hae, a Bundang resident and a physician specializing in infectious diseases, at first tries to escape the city alone with her 6-year-old daughter Mi-ru (played by child actress Park Min-ha). She does not care about those who are infected in her own city, despite her specialization. Her escape plan fails, however, as Mi-ru is ordered to move to the quarantine area when she starts coughing. Stuck in the devastating quarantine camp with her potentially infected daughter, In-hae finally and desperately tries to find a cure for the disease.

“I guess her selfishness is her biggest flaw,” Soo Ae said. “But I think my priority would also be my family if I were in her shoes.”

One of the biggest challenges for Soo Ae was playing a mother. The actress said she was raised by her mother, who, in her own words, is very “strong, giving and sacrificing.” In other words, “oeyunaegang.”

“But In-hae is different,” she said. “In many ways, she very much relies on her 6-year-old daughter. As a full-time doctor In-hae needs her daughter’s help. What director Kim wanted was a mother who is more like a friend to her kid. That was very challenging, because what I understood from my own upbringing was that mothers are supposed to be nurturing and providing unconditional love and support.”

Having played many “oeyunaegang” characters, Soo Ae is often regarded as calm, poised and reserved by the public. But the actress says she is in fact far from “oeyunaegang” or “reserved” off-screen.

“My public image certainly has a lot to do with my character choices, many of which were conscious decisions,” the actress said. “But I don’t consider myself to be strong. I selected those ‘oeyunaegang’ characters not because they resemble me in real life, but because I want to and strive to be like them. I am still working on being strong ― I am no way near how strong my mother has been. And I am often silly and fun as well. I’m not that quiet once you get to know me.”

When asked what her best cure is for a cold ― the film’s Korean title is “A Cold” ― the actress said she sees her doctor as soon as possible, while lemons can help, too.

“I get a cold very often,” she said. “For other things, say migraine, I could just take some medicine and stay home. But a cold and indigestion should be taken care of as quickly as possible. That’s what my mother always said. ”

By Claire Lee (