jun jong-seo is south korea’s next bright young movie star

The 22-year-old newcomer’s debut film Burning bowled over audiences at Cannes Film Festival.

by Douglas Greenwood
23 May 2018, 1:28pm

Jun Jong-Seo sits across from me on a pontoon in the south of France, looking over our shoulder out to sea. The 22-year-old actress, who a year ago had barely considered the idea of appearing on screen anytime soon, seems surprisingly relaxed. Strange, considering just two days have passed since some of the world’s sniffiest critics hailed her latest film -- her first film, actually -- brilliant, and the best thing they’d seen at the Cannes Film Festival.

Before Burning, the new film from Korean auteur Lee Chang-Dong that Jun has the starring role in, Jun was a regular student, studying Film at Sejong University in Seoul. On a whim, she wandered into an audition for a part she wasn’t fully aware of. “I didn’t do any sort of extensive preparation for it -- at all!” she admits. “It was actually the first audition I’d ever gone to, and so I wasn’t too desperate for the role.” She’d convinced herself she wouldn’t get a role of this calibre with no acting experience under her belt. “I wasn’t really aware of the whole process of filmmaking yet -- but I know how lucky I was to get the part.”

Based on a short story by legendary author Haruki Murakami, Burning follows the lives of two childhood friends -- a working-class, aspiring writer named Jong-soo and the charming, free-spirited Haemi -- who rekindle their friendship after a long spell apart, by chance, as awkward lovers. In Jongsoo’s mind, the pair are a couple; he’s been tasked to look after Haemi’s cat while she goes off on holiday to Kenya for a fortnight. But when Haemi returns, she meets Jong-soo at the airport with someone new on her arm. His name is Ben, and he’s more wealthy, well dressed and charismatic than the awkward, almost penniless Jong-soo could ever be.

A furiously intense platonic love triangle unfolds slowly -- dinners spent together in Ben’s plush Seoul apartment, watching the sun set in the countryside from Jong-soo’s dilapidated farm, passing round joints -- and the part each person plays in this complex relationship becomes increasingly more difficult to decipher. That is, until the story hits its mysterious peak: Ben confesses to Jong-soo that he likes to burn down greenhouses in his spare time, fleeing the scene so that nobody catches him. A few days later, Haemi vanishes.

While Burning’s two male protagonists were cast based on their burgeoning back catalogues -- Yoo Ah-In has been in the business for nearly 15 years; Steven Yeun had a recurring role in The Walking Dead -- Chang-Dong had to scour the whole of Seoul to find someone who could embody Haemi’s innocence and allure. Jun felt like the most primitive choice. After all, she’s the centrifuge of the story, always there, like a spirit, whether she’s on screen or not. “I’m actually scared to know, [so] I didn’t ask him!” Jun says when I ask her if she knew why Chang-Dong felt compelled to cast her in such a complex role as a newcomer. “All I did was be my raw and authentic self,” she smiles. “That might’ve been what he liked about me!”

It’s a cliche to assume that an actor’s brilliant performance is an extension of themselves rather than a taxing experience of slipping into a character’s skin. But these two entities feel like one and the same. Unsurprisingly, Jun has a gentle kind of confidence: pleasant, kind and completely disarming, you’d definitely miss her if she slipped out of your life like Haemi does.

A year ago, nobody in South Korea knew Jun Jong-Seo’s name. Now she’s standing alongside cinema royalty and some of the most ubiquitous faces in Korean pop culture. She’s already considered a star by association, while the public haven’t even seen her act yet. Earlier in the week, she was stalked at an airport in Seoul on her way here to Cannes by paparazzi. “It’s all a facade, and it doesn’t last forever,” Jun says, when I ask how she’s handling this early on-set hysteria back home. “I don’t want to be affected by it too much, or even be conscious of it. If I decide I don’t want to act anymore, I don’t want to be tied to fame -- ever.”

The best way to stay grounded, she thinks, is to act like nothing changed in the first place. She still has photos of her favourite films, I Am Sam and Man on Fire (both films that propelled an equally precocious Dakota Fanning to young stardom), stacked in her bedroom somewhere. “I don’t really get to talk to people about film nowadays because I’m on a really tight schedule, but my friends are trying hard to make me feel like I’m still the same person I was before all of this happened. I’m trying to keep those good people around me.”

After this experience, she must be itching to work with new directors -- ones who’ll be equally excited to work with her. Jun’s response, one many might consider coy and canned, instead feels incredibly genuine. “Right now, there aren’t really any specific directors I have in mind,” she reveals. “Lee is the biggest presence in my life. Everything about our film has been a life-changing experience for me. It feels like first love.”

Her remarkable turn in Burning means that people are waiting to see what move she’ll make next. I wonder where this 22-year-old, with just one masterful film under her belt, sees herself 10 years down the line – “I don’t know what I’ll be doing in a decade’s time!” she laughs. “I just want to enjoy this moment.” Jun stops, and takes in the sight of the Mediterranean sea again, slipping across the curve of the Earth; disappearing.

Cannes Film Festival
Lee Chang-Dong
jun jong-seo