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Films: With love from Korea!

If “vax” is Oxford’s choice of Word of the Year in support of the fight against the pandemic, “inclusivity” is the buzzword in the world of entertainment and lifestyle.

Marvel’s latest save-the-world story, Eternals, comes complete with a deaf superhero, Makkari (played by Lauren Ridloff) and a gay tech geek, Phastos (played by Brian Tyree Henry), giving the world its first gay superhero and banishing the notion that homosexual men aren’t tech-savvy.

But the question of the day for us is this: Is the inclusion of South Asian-origin actor Kumail Nanjiani (who plays Bollywood star Kingo) and the South Korean Don Lee a step in the same direction?

A huge movie star in his homeland, Lee made his Hollywood debut opposite Angelina Jolie (Courtesy of Marvel Studios)

“Gilgamesh is the most powerful and strong character among the Eternals, which is a group of superheroes out on a mission to save the world from “the Deviants.” My character is the strongest: he can knock out anyone in one punch,” says the 50-year-old actor, Don Lee (Train to Busan, 2016) in an exclusive virtual video chat, days before the movie was set to release. What he doesn’t tell us is that the second most powerful “Eternal” is Angelina’s character of Thena, the Goddess of War. “My character is a strong warrior, but also has a very good heart, and is very humorous too…”

Bollywood beckons

Eternals sounds larger-than-life than our Indian film industry Bollywood is. Are you aware of Indian movies? Any you may have watched…? Any actors you know? Don Lee takes a moment to think, then says, “Saif Ali Khan!”

“I also worked with Harish Patel, who plays Karun in the Eternals. He is great,” says Don Lee, before adding, “And yes, I keep myself updated with Indian films, and watch them too!”

If you were to ever consider doing a Hindi movie, hypothetically speaking, what kind of role do you imagine yourself playing? “I’m sorry to tell you that I’m a bad dancer and bad singer myself,” says Don Lee. “So if you can let me act and do other things, I will be happy to accept that role. Wouldn’t it be amazing if I can make a new type of Bollywood action film starring myself. This is just an idea off the top of my head. How about that?”

Lee’s debut Eternals also starred Harish Kumar (Sophie Mutevelian)
Lee’s debut Eternals also starred Harish Kumar (Sophie Mutevelian)

That sounds fantastic, I say. You do know that the actors in Hindi films most often do not sing their own songs, right?

Don Lee nods with relief and laughs: “Okay!”

Which is the last Indian film you watched and enjoyed? “The Saif Ali Khan film… I only know the Korean title: Dangal!” he says.

I explain that Dangal starred Aamir Khan, and not Saif Ali Khan.

“Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” Don Lee agrees. “That was Aamir Khan!” Then he thinks a bit and adds, “The movie with Saif Ali Khan was Radhe. It was a remake of the Korean film, Outlaw.”

I don’t have the heart to tell him that Radhe starred Salman Khan and not Saif. Also, by now, his understanding, if not knowledge, of Indian films has impressed us enough. So we shift tracks.

Cross culture

It doesn’t take much to realise that there is so much in common in Indian and Korean culture: the respect for people, deep family connections, love for parents… do you agree?

Lee makes the universal symbol of love (Corbis via Getty Images)
Lee makes the universal symbol of love (Corbis via Getty Images)

“Oh yes, definitely,” Don Lee replies. “Especially how we value our relationships and how we put family in front of everything else. We are also taught to be kind to others and respect others…”

No interview with Don Lee can ever be complete without a mention of Train To Busan. What is your fondest memory of that film?

“In terms of the drama, what’s most memorable for me is the fact that I sacrificed myself to protect my unborn baby,” says Don Lee. “That part was very strong and it resonated with me so much. In terms of physically performing the action sequences, it was very, very difficult to do. This is because, usually, everything is calculated in advance: I know where my opponent is going to put his head, and what I’m going to do, whether he’s going to punch me from the left or right… everything is designed. But here, I was fighting with Zombies. And Zombies move like crazy and shake all the time. So it was impossible for the Zombie and me to come up with a plan. I had to act it out in a realistic way, and at the same time, ensure the Zombie doesn’t get hurt by my strong touch. So it was five times more difficult to do!”

We end our chat with an invitation to India. Have you ever been, Don, I ask. And have you tried Indian food?

“Unfortunately, I’ve never been to India but would love to visit there sometime. I love Indian curry,” says Don Lee. “I also know it’s very good for your health because of the ingredients. So I eat Indian food not only because it’s delicious in taste, but also because it’s so healthy…” 

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From HT Brunch, November 21, 2021

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