In the Netflix movie Okja, which first premiered (somewhat controversially) in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Ahn Seo-hyun plays a character who will stop at nothing to save the life of her beloved pet, a genetically engineered pig that’s roughly the size of a hippo and from whose name the film derives its title. Starting on the farm in the Korean countryside where Ahn Seo-hyun’s Mija and her grandfather raised Okja, her character traverses the globe, chases down a vehicle, and takes on big pork in attempt to spare the life of and reunite with her porcine friend.
The 13-year-old Ahn Seo-hyun’s own life is barely less exceptional than that of her character. She was enrolled in acting lessons at age three to help her overcome extreme shyness and foster a bond with her father. She took to acting, enjoying it at such a young age so much so that it led to consistent work—multiple TV series in Korea like the soap Single-minded Dandelion, for which Ahn won a KBS Drama Award for Best Young Actress in 2014, and a role in Hwang In-ho’s movie Monster. Okja finds Ahn teaming up with Bong Joon-ho, director of cult favorites The Host and Snowpiercer.
To give you a sense of how Ahn has spent defining portions of her life thus far, here are images that come up when you Google her name:
The biographical information I shared above, by the way, I learned secondhand. Technically, I interviewed Ahn earlier this month in Manhattan, but because she speaks little English, I talked to her through an interpreter, Soo Min Park, who translated everything Ahn said in the third person— for example, “She stopped going to the acting school, but at the end of the school year she was chosen as the best student so she acted in a short film in a really small role and then that led to, ‘Oh you listen to directions well, why don’t you try this small role?’”
That our communication took place by proxy and furthermore in the third person made me feel like I was speaking to royalty. So did Ahn’s flawless presentation—her perfectly symmetrical face that was so tastefully made up it looked like she had pinched herself for a natural color rush 30 seconds ago for the entire duration of our 25-minute conversation, her perfect manicure of softly pointed nails beaming with clear lacquer, her perfect pleated satin dress that looked so expensive I worried I’d soil it just by looking at it. This child is, in fact, a child queen.
She generously bestowed knowledge on me, too: When I said I had heard Ahn has been acting since age four, I was informed that it was age four in Korean years, which are calculated differently than American ages (basically, everyone starts at age 1 and then may get another year tacked on once the Lunar [Chinese] New Year passes around early February). So Ahn was, for American purposes, three when she got on the crazy ride that is her professional life.
When I suggested that Okja was perhaps inspired by Charlotte’s Web (albeit sans the spider and with Fern taking on the persona of an action hero), and wondered if Ahn had any experience with that book, Park told me: “She would say that if anyone can think of their own take on the relationship, she’s very grateful for that. Okja and Mija’s relationship together is on their own kind of unique as well. It is something that many people perhaps haven’t seen before because Okja is created at a factory and is a non-real actual creature. Even in the story, it is manufactured. A tiny little girl who lives in a mountainside that is separated from everywhere else in the world, this is perhaps something that is unique on its own that could possibly be a starting point of a new sort of thing that people think of when they watch other movies. ‘Oh, that is just like the film Okja that I saw.’ The big animal and the little girl’s relationship.”
As Park was translating Ahn’s answers to me, sometimes I’d laugh, and then Ahn would laugh in reflexive response to my laughter at something she said (but couldn’t quite be sure of what) moments ago, circling back and reinvesting in our delayed echo of communication. Further, I showed up about 30 minutes late because of massive delays on the ACE line, and neither seemed one bit bothered.
I asked a question about whether Ahn is more interested in fame or her craft, to which after conferring with her, Park responded: “Right now at her age, her main focus of life is being a student and starting to be a teenager. Her secondary life right now would be being an actor. As she goes on being an actor, being famous kind of follows it. She wouldn’t say she chases fame. That’s not what she’s trying to do.” When I labeled that “healthy and well-adjusted” in response and Park translated it in Korean, Ahn exhaled a robust gasp of laughter.
As for the English-speaking stars with whom Ahn shares the screen in Okja, like Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal, Ahn “only sort of knew their name, not necessarily all of their projects.” It was through other people’s recognition of Swinton and Gyllenhaal—again more echoes of comprehension—that Ahn became excited to work with them.
The multi-ton, flatulent Okja you see on screen is CGI, but Ahn worked alongside a crude rendering of the beast, controlled by a guy in a pig suit (or, a “stuffie” per Park’s translation), whom she bonded with. “When she saw the CG version of Okja the first time, it actually felt more awkward. She felt like this wasn’t the real Okja... almost.”
Ahn trained to do her own stunts, which include the aforementioned chasing down of a truck and running into a glass office door in order to shatter it, but when filming time came, most were left to the actual stunt people. “They were a combination of the stunt performer [Mei Han] and also CG sometimes. She hoped that she would get to shoot something a little more [intense] but director Bong and Netflix made sure she was safe and comfortable. They created an environment where she was always safe, even though she hoped she could do a little more, she was also thankful.”
In terms of her personal life, there’s Ahn’s career and her schooling, and they’re kept entirely separate—“She doesn’t get to go to school when she’s acting and she doesn’t act when she goes to school.” While her friends get to see each other all the time, she has come across no awkwardness in this arena as a result of her transient nature. In fact, “it’s like they’ve forgotten that she’s an actress. She’s not an actor at school, she’s just a regular student, and her friends help her remember that.”
Rare is it that you’re given the ability to excavate under the surface of your interactions with strangers, but because my friend and fellow writer Kristen Yoonsoo Kim speaks Korean, I had that ability here. And goddamn it, when I find myself in possession of a special power, I take it. I forwarded her my recording of the interview, just to see if anything was lost in translation
Well, it wasn’t. Kristen told me Park’s translation was accurate, with only minor details had been left out (Ahn knows of Charlotte’s Web, but never read it; she had to ask what homeschooling is after I wondered if that’s how she’s educated, because apparently it does not exist in Korea). “She is very endearing over audio,” Kristen told me, reaffirming a suspicion that crossed my mind as soon as Ahn beamed her ready-for-Hollywood smile at me upon greeting: Ahn Seo-hyun very well could be a perfect human being. Nothing she said or did during my brief time with her suggested otherwise.