NYAFF 2021: Carolyn Talks ‘Snowball’ with Actress Bang Min-ah

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snowball - But Why Tho

Selected as the recipient of the 2021 New York Asian Film Festival’s Rising Star Award, actress and singer Bang Min-ah gives an emotionally evocative performance in the dramatic coming-of-age film Snowball, as Kang-yi, an 18-year-old whose world is turned upside down after making an ill-fated decision. Directed by Lee Woo-jung and based on the novel of the same name by Im Sol-ah, Snowball shows that for teen girls, life isn’t just going to the malls, flirting with boys, or exciting nights spent singing karaoke at the local nureabang.

For many, teen years are a time caught between longing for our years spent as carefree children unafraid to play in the mud with friends, and the anxiety over the approaching years where the terms “teenager” and “adult” are filled with the possibilities of finally being seen as mature by our peers and adults. For Kang-yi this is a period where her perception of herself begins to change with each passing day as the relationship with her two best friends; So-young (Han Sung-min) and Ah-ram (Shim Dal-gi), begins to break down after they decide to run away together.

Unsure of where her place in the group is, Kang-yi does her best to appease these two strong willed girls, but ends up learning the harsh lesson that it’s impossible to please everyone without losing part of yourself. Like the proverbial snowball rolling down the side of an incredibly steep mountain, Kang-yi’s life quickly goes out of control. Her school work begins to suffer when she’s bullied and receives no recourse or sympathetic ear from teachers, and Ah-ram and So-young leave her confused, and questioning if they ever saw and cared for her.

In this interview for Carolyn Talks with actress Bang Min-ah, we spoke about the dynamics of the good and bad side of female friendships, finding one’s self, and making break throughs as a character and performer.

Writer’s note: This interview was conducted via email, with the Nam Koong-sun’s answers translated between Korean and English.

Carolyn Hinds: For my first question I’d like to ask, what does female friendship mean to you? I know it may seem like a weird question to start an interview with, but I think it applies to the story of how female friendships can fall apart, as Snowball, does in heartbreaking detail.

Bang Min-ah: Depending on your age, I think the meaning of ‘friend’ and ‘friendship’ must be different. For example, when a close friendship dwindles over time, its impact may vary depending on the stage of life you are in. For this reason, it is difficult to give one definition of friendship. In general, I think friendships build on trust. In Snowball, all the characters get hurt in one way or another by the ones they’ve trusted. For these kids, it must be like getting hit by a storm. These girlfriends went to the bathroom together during class breaks. They not only shared food, but also happily shared one spoon and straw without any hesitation or repulsion. I also had friends like that when I was a teenager. The kind of friendship one builds in those years is literally like being ‘in the same boat.’

CH: In every friend group, clique or team, each person has their own role to play, and some in a sense even adopt a specific persona they think will help them fit in, I saw that with the three friends in this film. In Kang-yi I saw the girl who was very observant and analyzes the people around her, but never shows that. Instead, she physically and mentally shrinks herself to fit into the person she felt she had to be to stay friends with Ah-ram (Shim Dal-gi) and So-young (Han Sung-min).

What was your approach to playing these two sides of Kang-yi, and how does she differ to the Kang-yi from the book?

BMA: Kang-yi reminded me of my teenage years. I revisited my past emotions and reactions by asking, ‘How did I react? What was my motivation?’ Rather than comparing Kang-yi from the original novel and Kang-yi from the screenplay, I placed Kang-yi alongside my past. When I’m faced with a challenge, I react to a degree where I still can be part of the ‘society’ I belong to.

As for Kang-yi, she chose to break the very society she is part of. Kang-yi’s decision was unimaginable to me, and I felt sorry for Kang-yi, who is unaware of her foolish innocence and recklessness. I reflected the emotions I felt about Kang-yi in my acting, and it manifested through facial expressions and gestures.

CH: As a teenager Kang-yi is struggling with school, friendships, her burgeoning sexuality and insecurity as a student. Which aspect of her identity was the most difficult to play as most of your performance is contained less in dialogue, and more in how you moved physically?

BMA: It was most challenging for me to identify with Kang-yi’s impulsive action towards the end of the film. What seemed like the best decision to Kang-yi was nothing more or less than the worst possible action. I literally asked myself, “What the hell is she thinking?” But it pained me to think how Kang-yi probably didn’t even have the slightest doubt in her mind about her actions. I really couldn’t imagine what Kang-yi would feel after she stabbed So-Young. Would she cry? Would she be angry? Would she be confused? I really couldn’t say. Until the moment I had to shoot the scene (even though it’s just an acting), I couldn’t get my mind around stabbing someone.

After much consideration and discussion, I decided to open my emotions to any possibilities. I decided to trust the mood of the set. When I let go of my own preconceptions and remembered all the emotions that Kang-yi had been building towards So-Young, So-young’s coldhearted insult pressed a button in my head and my body instinctively moved.

CH: From your perspective as the performer, what was the thought that went through Kang-yi’s mind in the scene where she read her name written in the Ahjusshi’s (Korean for senior male) notebook? For me, I interpreted that moment as her realizing this stranger saw and acknowledged her more than Ah-ram and So-young, her two best friends, ever did.

BMA: I never thought about how the Ahjusshi looked at Kang-yi, so thank you for this question, and I agree with your observation. I think I only focused on whether this man was a good or bad person.

When I think about it, sometimes a ‘perfect stranger’ can provide greater comfort and insight than the significant people in your life (in this case, Ah-ram and So-young for Kang-yi). It’s somehow easier and more freeing to talk to strangers. Perhaps this is because of the many social roles we all take: being someone’s daughter, mother, friend, younger brother, older sister, etc…

When someone sees you for your role in his/her life, your actions and attitudes toward that person are already determined to some extent. Kang-yi must feel the same. A quiet and reserved Kang-yi must be seen as a kind but foolish friend in the eyes of Ah-ram and So-young. Everyone dismisses Kang-yi and thinks, ‘Kang-yi can never harm me’. Ahjusshi who has no relationship to Kang-yi could possibly see her in a more objective eye than anyone else. That doesn’t justify his misconduct, but since he is the only person who really sees Kang-yi for who she is, she may even feel gratitude towards him.

CH: Ah-ram always seems to be caught between hot and cold as though there are two extremes to her personality, which act as camouflage for the very deep trauma she experiences, and So-young, is quick-tempered with a mean streak. Can you speak about working with your co-stars Shim Dal-gi, Han Sung-min, and director Lee Woo-jung to create the bond between these three girls with very different personalities?

BMA: We are different in ages, personalities, and backgrounds. But reading this script, our hearts came together. Not only the director and actors, but also everyone who worked on Snowball loved Kang-yi, So-young, and Ah-ram. We made the film with the utmost care, and everybody dedicated so much time for its completion. I am really grateful to have the opportunity to work with such generosity.

CH: I went to an all-girls secondary school, so I’m familiar with and can relate to the special dynamics – positive and negative – that exists between girls when we’re the ones dominating the environment, and I know you were a member of the K-pop group Girl’s Day, did any of your own experiences help to inform your performance, and understand the characters better?

BMA: Yes, it definitely helped. In 2013, I had an opportunity to act for the first time in the film, Holly. It made me realize that my singing experience was actually helpful in my acting, in understanding and expressing the character’s life. Since then, I’ve persistently challenged myself in acting. That’s how I came across my role in Snowball. Girl’s Day was a microcosm for me that carried meaning in my life that is beyond family, friends, and a career. Working very closely with both the other members of Girl’s Day and our staff, we all became very close to one another, and it sometimes led to conflicts. I tried to reflect upon my actions and words from that time of both laughter and despair.

CH: There’s a scene between Kang-yi and So-young that reveals they’re both physically and sexually attracted to each other, which unfortunately ends up playing a part in why the friendship falls apart. Did you have any concerns about this scene and how it would be received by audiences, considering how conservative South Korea is culturally, and the stigmatization of members of the LGTBQ+ community?

BMA: I didn’t have any concerns, but hoped that their behavior would be seen without preconception. However, in acting the scene, it was difficult to pinpoint exactly what kind of emotions Kang-yi must be feeling. I think she must be as confused as I was. So I tried to stay open-minded. (Re-watching the scene, it seems that Kang-yi was mostly driven by the curiosity that stemmed out of her friendship with and admiration for So-young.)

CH: Because the nature of the film is very dark in tone, were you excited to play a role where you could be more emotionally vulnerable, than in previous projects?

BMA: Of course! I took it as an opportunity and a new challenge to play a character that is the complete opposite to what I have shown in the romantic comedy genres such as the Beautiful Gong Shim and My Absolute Boyfriend. But I was scared at the same time. Snowball deals with not only Kang-yi’s sentiments but also the universal experience of coming to terms with one’s identity. It made my acting more challenging. I actually felt sick because of the whirlwind of emotions I felt following Kang-yi’s journey. Nevertheless, it was meaningful for me to push my boundaries and see how far I could go with my acting.

CH: What did you discover about yourself as a person and performer throughout the making of Snowball, that was new to you despite all of your years as a singer, and actress in multiple dramas and films?

BMA: In the beginning, I couldn’t understand why Kang-yi would repeatedly run away from home. Unlike Kang-yi, whose life seems somewhat ordinary, So-young and Ah-ram had reasons to run away (So-young, who had good grades, was pressured by her family to get accepted into a top-tier school. Ah-ram was exposed to domestic violence). Only after playing Kang-yi, I realized the kind of dreadful weight the word “ordinary” actually carries. Kang-yi must have felt trapped in that word. To Kang-yi, living an “ordinary” life seems so easy to most people except for herself and her parents. The frustration made her run away. It made me wonder about my own prejudices and whether I also unconsciously stereotype other people.

Playing Kang-yi made me question the ambiguous social standards of being “ordinary”, “normal”, or “average”…  I’m now more careful using these words. When approaching different people, emotions, and circumstances, I try to present myself with specific intention and care. That was the biggest gain for me from Snowball.

CH: I think the film serves as a kind of cautionary tale to people to pay attention to the young girls in their lives. To really pay attention and ask questions about how they’re feeling and to listen to what’s said, and what isn’t. What do you think the film is saying, and what would you like audiences to take away from it?

BMA: I hope Snowball can guide the audience in finding a sense of direction when they ask the question, ‘What is the best decision for myself?’ As for me, thinking about why Kang-yi thought of running away as her best possible decision, I find myself feeling the weight of the word “ordinary” and trying to get rid of the blunt biases and preconceptions I may have towards others. Depending on which character (Kang-yi, So-young, or Ah-ram) the audience finds themselves connected to the most, I think there’s a range of things that the audience can take away from this film.

Translation by Yujin Lee, NYAFF