An Seo Hyun has been acting for over a decade. Just 13 years old (14 in Korean years) she's been doing it for over three quarters of her young life. It's an intrinsic part of who she is. As a kid, An was cripplingly shy, so her father thought it might be helpful to send her to acting school, to try and tease her out of her shell. Eventually her shyness faded away and she outgrew the school, but she'd fallen in love with acting.
She began working as an extra until finally a director spotted her and started giving her small roles in his productions. "What makes acting so unique is the fact that a regular person just lives one life, but an actor can experience hundreds of different lives," An told i-D. "I can live my life as myself, but at the same time I can experience other people's lives."
She'd slowly been making a name for herself in South Korean TV and cinema, but her recent turn as the lead character in Netflix's first feature film, Okja, has opened her up to a global audience. Directed by the legendary Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, Okja is an enchanting tale about an unlikely friendship between a 13-year-old girl called Mija, and scientifically engineered super pig named Okja.
Manufactured by an evil food production mogul named Lucy Mirando, played exquisitely by Tilda Swinton, to revolutionise the livestock industry, Okja had been sent to a small village in South Korea to be reared by Mija's grandfather, who raises the child and pig side by side.
10 years later and Mirando's team, led by TV zoologist Dr. Johnny (played by a particularly lol Jake Gyllenhaal) comes to collect the pig and bring her to New York to be slaughtered. Desperate to save her best friend, Mija sets off for the city that never sleeps to save Okja, seeking the help of a mysterious animal rights activist group along the way.
"I felt so honoured to be a part of such an incredible film," An explains. "I loved the whole experience of getting to know all these amazing actors and of course Bong. Bong is a very well respected director. Being a part of his vision was such an honour."
Despite acting the entire film in South Korean, An's nuancing of her character's complex emotions, and the way she rendered her intense bond with Okja so realistically that one almost forgets the super pig is merely the work of ingenious CGI, totally stole the show.
"When I read the script I felt like Mija was Okja's mum," explains An. "Then when Okja is taken away from Mija, that powerful maternal instinct kicks in. She leaves a tiny town in the Korean countryside to go to Manhattan, in order to save Okja. It was that fierce drive and protectiveness which is what I wanted to really convey in playing Mija."
Released last week the film has become an instant cult classic. Visually arresting and full of masterful CGI and heartwarming performances, Okja has been met with great admiration. However, it hasn't been without its fair share of controversy.
The appearance of Netflix's red logo in the film's title credits, during its premiere at Cannes Film Festival, prompted boos from an audience of French critics who've been slow to accept the online streaming service's presence. However, by the time the credits rolled at the film's end, even those grumpy French critics had been won over. And it's mostly to do with Okja's feisty young heroine.
So, then, what does the future hold for young An? "I want to be a certain type of actor, one that all the crew and other actors want to work with all the time," she reflects, "There's the acting side but also the human portion. I want to be seen as a talented actress and a nice person. When people talk about me I'd like them to be like, 'I'd like to work with her'."
With stars in her eyes and the world at her feet, we expect to see a lot more from this one.
Text Tish Weinstock
Photography Finn Constantine