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Introducing Ko Ah-sung, Korea's coolest film star

With her icy blockbuster Snowpiercer set to blow later this year, the country's biggest new export talks death and Barthes

PhotographyHye JeongTextJi Un Nah

To celebrate the launch of our new Korean sister site, which went live this weekend, today we're investigating the cultural influence and innovation of the country's most exciting creatives. Explore the world of K-pop with new interviews with B.A.P, Taeyang and 4minute, meet Snowpiercer actress Ko Ah-sung and take a look at North Korea's life online. Check back here for more throughout the day.

Korean cinema is some of the greatest in the world, and Ko Ah-sung is one of its brightest young stars. A fixture at multiplexes across her homeland since her early teens, the 21-year-old came to international attention in 2006 with the global release of Bong Joon-ho's political monster drama The Host. Now, the Korean auteur is bringing out his English-language debut Snowpiercer, with Ko in a crucial role. She plays the young love in the insane-sounding Marxist sci-fi epic that sees a gargantuan train full of the last of humanity drive through the arctic circle forever, yet when Dazed Korea interviewed and shot her earlier this year, it was the success of her recent, brilliant Elegant Lies that our sister magazine focussed on. It's not surprising: while Snowpiercer may well be the film to announce her to mass-market English speaking audiences, Elegant Lies – a small-budget Korean film that went on to gross ₩11.6 billion (£6.7 million) in its first month and has been hailed as the best film of the year so far by The Hollywood Reporter – places Ko as an extraordinary talent for our time. Our Korean team met her at home to speak about coming star, Barthes and solitude. 

You visited Prague after the Berlin International Film Festival. How was that?

Ko Ah-sung: I stayed in Prague for three nights alone after Berlin. You know I shot Snowpiercer for six months in Prague? I rented the same house I stayed in when I was filming there and stayed by myself. I quite like visiting the places I have been before, and on the top of that it was my first time staying three nights all by myself. I loved it. 

Where is your favourite place in Prague?

Ko Ah-sung: Tilda (Swinton) said that Prague has the atmosphere that almost makes it feels like the city is fake. If you go outside a little bit there is a place similar to Seoul, but it feels like it is a pretty set that has been made for the tourists. A pub I like there has no aspect of that – it is the honest, original appearance of Prague. It does not even come up on the internet, and I doubt it is on the guide book or blogs. It is a small pub that is around seven metres square, run by an old man. The beer tastes really good and the food too.

Why did you get a pair of glasses tattooed on your wrist? Do you have bad eyesight?

Ko Ah-sung: No. (laughs) I got Elliott Smith’s photography book as a gift before. The publisher of that book's logo were glasses, and those glasses came to my mind when I was thinking of having a tattoo.  

You actually refused the role in Elegant Lies in the first place?

Ko Ah-sung: I refused to play the role because I was not confident enough. I do not think direct experience is always necessary to act, but I believe that sometimes you have to have had the real experience to act certain roles. One of those was losing your family member. I was not being able to imagine how sad that could be. Then I saw Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary at a bookshop and I felt it was like I was destined to see the book. I read it all in one go, while I was in the shop. The book was mind-blowing. It does not mean you can understand how sad losing family could be, but it definitely did something to my mind and my desire as an actress to play the role. I read it while I was on my way to the shoot and getting make-up.

I heard you thought 'when would I ever jump into Han river?' as you leapt into the river for the filming of The Host. Do you think there is nothing you cannot do as an actress?

Ko Ah-sung: I don’t think I can be a bright and fresh-looking actress. I am not really confident in that kind of character. 

Do you still draw?

Ko Ah-sung: I used to draw, take pictures and be into music too, but I am already overwhelmed with acting. And I think someone who is a master in one field is more fascinating than someone who does a bits of everything. I met people who have worked for repairing watches for the past 40 years, and I decided that I will do my best in one field.