Actress Jamie Chung never experienced anything like “Lovecraft Country.” The series, adapted from Matt Ruff’s novel of the same name and created by Misha Green, blends elements of genre fiction, history, and social commentary to tell the story of Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) and his own exploration into his family history. Chung plays the character of Ji-Ah, a Korean woman whose body is inhabited by a vengeful spirit known as kumiho.
These two stories collide in a way that becomes terrifying, heartbreaking, and beautiful. It also sets the bar high for any of Chung’s future projects. “I’m scared that I won’t ever get a role like this again,” she told IndieWire. “It’s pretty rare that these types of characters come across an actor’s path.” Chung, who has been acting in film and television for nearly 15 years, says not only was playing Ji-Ah different from previous roles she’d done, it also casts an eye on the history of representation for Asian-Americans. Not only is “Lovecraft Country” rewriting the narrative of the author, H.P. Lovecraft, himself — known for being a notorious racist — Ji-Ah confronts the audience with a different look at the role of Asian women, not only during wartime but in media itself.
Asian women have often been portrayed as sirens or “dragon ladies,” coinciding with continued exclusion and discrimination against Asians and Asian Americans throughout the United States’ history. Chung, a Korean-American daughter to first-generation immigrant parents, knows the dark history of being Asian in America. “The first Asian to come into this country was a circus act who [was] showing off her bound feet,” she said. As a character Ji-Ah is a confrontation of this racist past. Ji-Ah’s kumiho character is introduced as a predator, but ends up turning that power on its head. “The young Ji-Ah, yes, was a victim of sexual assault and now that the spirit has taken over her body for revenge…she really does have control,” Chung said.
Chung also has newfound control in her own career. The actress, who according to a recent interview in The Washington Post, pitched and sold her own show because of how confident she felt after doing “Lovecraft Country.” It’s a newfound emotion she didn’t always have, especially early on. “What was troubling for me, early on in my career, is I was just so eager to work,” she said. “It’s a very thankless job but I just loved being on set. Even the smaller roles that I was able to book I was so proud…because I’m able to stay for one more month in Los Angeles and not go home with my tail between my legs.”
At the same time, Chung admitted, “It’s a hard thing to be able to work in Hollywood — especially when I started — as a minority. It was problematic, it was oversexualized, it was stereotypical roles. I’m not proud of the fact that a lot of us had to start off that way,” she said. Because there are more people of color — not just in the acting categories but as directors and showrunners — Chung believes things are changing.
The discussion of Asian and Asian-American representation is still not heavily discussed, so Ji-Ah’s connection to actress Judy Garland compels the audience to look at the movies they love and the troubling elements within. Chung explains that the character fell in love with Garland because of how simplistic the problems in her movies are, generally revolving around love and romance. “Ji-Ah was falling in love with the girl she wishes she was,” Chung said.
Chung sees the dynamic as similar to her own mother’s idolization of actress Audrey Hepburn; yet at the same time Hepburn’s 1961 feature “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is regularly derided for having American actor Mickey Rooney appear as an Asian character named Mr. Yunioshi. “When you’re young that kind of puts a pause on things,” she said.
Neither one of Chung’s parents have seen her performance on “Lovecraft Country.” “Even though they ran a business they know very limited English,” she said. “Even though we speak Korean at home — it’s our only language, really — our conversations are really quite limited. There are a lot of things I don’t know about my parents because we just don’t have that kind of relationship….my sister saw saw it and she texted me and said it was really moving.”
The actress says she sees a lot of similarities in Ji-Ah’s relationship with her own mother, as well as Ji-Ah’s struggle to feel and have emotions. “My parents are not lovey-dovey parents, it’s a lot of tough love,” she said. “Even though we’re talking about a kumiho and her praying mother it’s very similar to the cultural gap of understanding between first-generation Korean-Americans, second-generation, and your immigrant parents.”
If anything, Chung hopes the series and her participation in it will spark conversation. “Korean people are so prideful of their culture,” she said, mainly because of how often the country has been colonized by other countries. “I just hope it starts to spark the conversation that we can be proud of our culture, we’re all human. I hope it starts the conversation and bridges the gap.”