1:15pm PT by Richard Newby
'Lovecraft Country': Jamie Chung Breaks Down That Powerful Origin Story
In the sixth episode of Lovecraft Country, “Meet Me in Daegu,” directed by Helen Shaver and written by Misha Green and Kevin Lau, viewers are properly introduced to Ji-Ah (Jamie Chung), the mysterious Korean woman who has appeared in Tic’s dreams and nightmares through the season. So, which one is she: a dream or a nightmare? As it turns out, she’s a bit of both.
The kumiho, a nine-tailed fox spirit that takes the form of a human woman and acts as a succubus, is introduced into the steadily growing Lovecraft Country mythos. As a kumiho, Ji-Ah struggles with both her monstrous nature and her human emotions, with Tic (Jonathan Majors) giving both sides their fair share of turmoil as their romance blossoms during the early stages of the Korean War.
For more about the episode and the grand arrival of Ji-Ah, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Jamie Chung about crafting the monstrous and human sides of her character, blood balloons, learning Korean, and the importance of Asian American representation in Hollywood.
Your character is not in Matt Ruff’s book, so what was your process of developing Ji-Ah and getting into the headspace of this incredibly complex character carrying multiple souls with her?
Misha and the team gave me so much to work with. Just knowing that she is a kumiho, knowing her backstory, and the body that she inhabits, which was sexually assaulted by her stepfather when she was very young, and knowing her mission in her life currently is to take 100 souls in order for her to be reincarnated back to the daughter prior to the trauma so she wouldn’t have any of those horrific memories, gave me so much to work with. I mean that in itself is already so in depth, but then also taking into account that this spirit already has the souls of 90 men, all of their life experiences, all of their thoughts, all of their memories. So Ji-Ah really only has the perspective of these 90 men, but she doesn’t know what it’s like to be a young woman. And so she watches Judy Garland movies in order to mimic what it’s like to be a young woman falling in love and having a family that loves her. It really does feel like a movie. You see her whole backstory and it’s so full and so rich and there was so much to work with. I really give kudos to the writers because it was all there. I had to do the character work, but it was all there for me.
Despite those 90 men, and having those memories, there’s very little Ji-Ah has experienced for herself until the events of this episode.
Throughout episode six you have a lot of Ji-Ah’s firsts. You have the first time that she befriends another young woman, the first time she experiences real loss, with the loss of her friend through the man she soon learns is Atticus. And then you have their whole journey. Their relationship starts off quite volatile. It starts with the first time she experiences rage. All of the things that you’re watching onscreen is the first time that Ji-Ah experiences it in her life. And then you also have the whole physicality of it, the physicality with all the men she has already killed, the physicality of being totally enthralled with love, and lust, and passion with Atticus. And then finally you have the loss of her first love and the first time she’s embraced by her mother. The one thing she truly wanted was to be accepted for who she was and not turn into a human. And she gets that validation from her mother in the end.
Were you familiar with the kumiho legend before this, and what did you think of Misha Green’s take on it when you first read the script?
Being Korean American from a Christian family, they really shunned away Korean shamanism and mysticism and folklore, so I had not heard of the kumiho, the nine-tailed fox spirit, from the Korean’s perspective. I’ve seen it through Japanese animation, so I did have to do more research. But I mean there [are] vampire versions, and a lot of other different versions, but this one was by far the most interesting because it was quite literal. You know nine tails, you have nine holes and it enters your victims in those very same holes. I mean it’s so … it’s not vulgar, but it’s so much more personal than killing them in any other way. So [Misha’s] interpretation I’d say was very, very personal.
What was the connection Ji-Ah had with Judy Garland? Of all the movie stars of that era, what made Garland the key to exploring Ji-Ah’s emotions?
The connection was really intimate. Again, Ji-Ah’s never had experiences of what it’s like to be a woman so she used these movies as escapism. And Garland was the biggest international movie star during that time. It’s funny but it’s kind of perfect; Judy Garland is the character that always gets the man, she gets the happy ending, and ultimately that’s all that Ji-Ah really strives for. But Ji-Ah’s mannerisms of how to be a young woman are only from those movies because she only has the experiences and memories of the 90 men she’s killed.
Green has talked a lot about what legacy means in terms of the show and we see that play out on different levels through the Korean War setting. What does that theme of legacy mean to you in terms of your insight into Ji-Ah and her world?
There’s the monstrous legacy that a kumiho has, and the legacy of people fearing it. But I think what’s interesting is there’s a parallel with that legacy of the horrors of what people do to each other during a time of war. I mean that was a brutal war. Not only was there civil unrest, and suspicion, and violence toward Koreans by other Koreans, and anti-Communists and Communists, but there was also always a foreign factor. There was Japan colonizing Korea. There was a foreign army coming in to quote-unquote save the day, but really they’re on their own political agenda. What I love about it the most is this idea of, "OK, you’re saying that I’m the monster and I should be human, but in fact, what I’ve witnessed is that humans are the monsters." So there really is this perspective of, what’s worse? Who’s worse? And I think they’re equal.
On that same note, Ji-Ah has this connection with Tic and they’ve both done monstrous things while simultaneously looking for human connection. Could you talk a bit about their relationship?
When Tic comes in and shoots Ji-Ah’s friend it’s shocking, and he’s in soldier mode. And you also see a scene, which opens with Ji-Ah killing James Kyson Lee’s character. It’s all very violent, but then you get a chance to see what’s really inside and who they really are and it’s just people who are scared, people who are vulnerable, and people who just want love. And so their stories are actually very similar even though they’re coming from two different sides of the spectrum. They are on the same exact journey of finding themselves, living through these horrors, and doing what they need to do to survive.
For you as an actor, what were some of the challenges in terms of depicting Ji-Ah, in terms of language and special effects requirements?
I was born and raised in San Francisco. Yes, my parents immigrated to the states, but Korean is ultimately [my] second language. So I can speak conversational with my parents, which is very causal, but I’d never been pushed to do almost an entire episode in Korean, so that was challenge number one. Challenge number two was the era and doing all the research of what it was like to be a young woman during that time. And then there was the physicality of this character. I’m Korean and Catholic so there’s a lot of guilt around intimacy so I really had to overcome my own barriers and really own my sexuality. And to be so vulnerable and have multiple scenes with Jonathan Majors was something that I’ve never experienced before, so there was quite the transformation.
And then there’s the literal transformation.
And then you have the blood scene. (Laughs.) It’s a lot. And that was all practical. It was very realistic. It was like OK, how much blood is in a person’s body? This is the equivalent to that and this is the mess that it would make. There were these multiple balloons filled with fake blood that were hoisted above me, and then at the same time there was someone from special effects that would pop all the balloons by pressing a button. It was wild. Really crazy. As someone who has been in this industry for a little over 10 years, I’ve never really experienced anything like this. Nor have I ever seen an Asian American woman in a role like this. So much kudos to Misha and her team for really going there and giving a guest-star role an entire episode dedicated to her backstory so we could understand where this person is coming from. It’s insane. I mean, have you ever seen anything like this?
I haven’t, which leads me to my next question. Lovecraft Country has been major in terms of representation in genre stories. And for me, as a Black man, I learned the most from episode six because it was removed from my own experience and history. What are you hoping viewers take away from your episode?
Understanding that there was an American agenda in Asia during a time of anti-Communism. That’s how the Korean War started, that’s how the Vietnam War started. What I found really interesting was learning that two years prior to the Korean War, America desegregated the troops and how our soldiers, people of color, were sent off to the front lines to fight for a country that treated them like second-class citizens. And when war heroes come back from war they were beaten in their hometowns, right off the bus. I think this episode does a great job of not shying away from any of the horrors of war, the horrors of civil war, the horrors of what it’s like to be in a war hospital, the horrors of any of it. Because it ties in with the history of how we treat people of color in this country. People find this to be a horror genre, but in fact this shit actually happened. It’s really shining a light on topics that people chose to sweep under the rug. I think watching this show is a way to somehow grow and heal. But I want people to watch this episode and not be frustrated by the subtitles because it gives you the authenticity of what it’s like to be in that country during that time.
I think we could use more of that authenticity and be more conscious of what’s being swept under the rug.
Yeah, I don’t know if anything like this will ever happen again. It was such a bummer knowing that our episode was airing the same night as the Emmys. I was like, 'No one is going to watch our show,' and that’s such a bummer! But OK, maybe they’ll watch it after. But then it made me think, watching the Emmys myself, Asian Americans only account for 1 percent of anyone nominated for Emmys and that just goes to show that there’s not enough stories being told that represent us. And I give Misha so much credit because she shared that platform with Korean Americans, so I really do hope people watch it. I think it’s important. It’s part of our history.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.