How actress Jeong Ha-dam roamed the streets

Actress Jeong Ha-dam poses for a photo before an interview at Herald Square in Huam-dong, Seoul on April 25.
PHOTO: The Korea Herald/Asia News Network

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While preparing to portray a homeless girl in the 2014 indie film "Wild Flower," actress Jeong Ha-dam spent several days ambling around whichever odd Seoul neighborhoods her feet would take her.

Park Suk-young, the director of "Wild Flower" and two more films spotlighting Jeong, had asked the actress to put on a face that seemed "young, but weathered by wind."

So the budding performer wrapped herself in a jacket several sizes too large, strapped on a pair of chunky boots, slung a huge backpack over her shoulders and began walking -- and began to notice how people's attitudes toward her shifted.

"I felt like there was a bad smell coming off of me," Jeong told The Korea Herald in an interview last month.

"People wouldn't even hand me leaflets on the street. When I went inside makeup shops, no one would offer to help with a lipstick colour or anything."

In the 2015 film "Steel Flower," Jeong reprises the role of the young homeless wanderer, also named Ha-dam.

"There's no particular reason behind the name," she said.

"(Director Park) just felt that the name suited the character. And he also thought it would help bring a bit more exposure to an unknown actress."

The 23-year-old may not quite have reached stardom yet, but she has been causing a stir in Korea's indie film scene.

For "Steel Flower," she won best actress at the Wildflower Film Awards, which recognises the achievement of Korean independent and low-budget films, in April.

The film dives into the everyday of a drifter who rolls her suitcase containing all her earthly possessions from one place to another, looking for a paying job.

She eavesdrops on tap dancing lessons at a studio she stumbles upon, and begins tapping away on her own in the city's gray alleyways.

"Why is she here and what is she doing?" director Park said in an interview last year.

Still from "Steel Flower"Photo: Indie Story

The film offers no history or context for Ha-dam's predicament.

"Just as we don't want to be judged by our past or our memories, I hoped she would be a character who won't be judged by such things."

The character Ha-dam leads a solitary existence, but one that is charged with strength, Jeong said.

"She bathes everyday. ... She's someone who wants to make an honest living without resorting to illegal activities. She has no thoughts of taking her own life."

Jeong received praise for her portrayal as the film attracted international attention. Director Francis Ford Coppola lauded the film's "reliance on pure sound and image to expose the feelings of its beautiful protagonist" while awarding it the jury prize at the Marrakech International Film Festival in 2015.

Since then, Jeong has made a number of small appearances in larger-scale films, including Park Chan-wook's "The Handmaiden" last year. But she had not thought herself "actress material" at first.

"I thought acting was only for people that seem like they shine," she said. "I was not the type of person at the centre of everyone's attention."

The soft-spoken artist's initial goal was to become a novelist.

After several stabs at writing, and unsatisfied with her work, Jeong decided to try embodying, rather than creating, characters.

In high school, she tentatively joined the theatre club and felt that the process of putting up a play was something unique, "the combination of both an active and still energy -- perfect for me."

Jeong reprises the role of Ha-dam in "Ash Flower," set to hit local theatres this June.

In the film, Ha-dam has now settled in a small farming commune. A young girl, much like herself, comes to the village in search for her father.

The third and last installation in director Park's "flower trilogy," the film traces Ha-dam's connection to other people.

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