Meet the Bangladeshi actor breaking racial barriers in Korea

July 29, 2014

Sazal Kim from Bangladesh on becoming a Korean actor

Actor Sazal Kim poses at a cafe in Incheon, west of Seoul on July 17. (Baek Byung-yeul/The Korea Times)

Actor Sazal Kim poses at a cafe in Incheon, west of Seoul on July 17. (Baek Byung-yeul/The Korea Times)

By Baek Byung-yeul

INCHEON — Sharp nose, deep brown eyes and a killer smile. And there’s one more that can distinguish this foreign actor — a fluent command of Korean.

Bangladeshi actor Sazal Mahamud, better known as Sazal Kim to Korean audiences, has become popular after appearing in a cable hit tvN drama series, “Rude Miss Young-ae,” a drama equivalent of “Bridget Jones’s Diary.”

Kim’s case is unique because most of the non-Korean actors on previous Korean dramas have been white. In the 1990s, Lee Charm, a German-born Korean actor and entrepreneur, had several lead roles — most notably in the 1994 KBS drama “Full House of Daughters.”

In “Rude Miss Young-ae,” which recently wrapped up its 13th season, Kim plays Sazal Kim, a colleague of its heroine Young-ae. He surprises audiences with his behaviors that are distinctly Korean and a deep knowledge of Korean adages that even some Koreans don’t know.

The cricket player-turned-actor recently sat down with The Korea Times to talk about his passion for acting and the difficulties of living as an expat in Korea where prejudices against people from South Asian countries are prevalent.

He said his life has changed significantly after “Rude Miss Young-ae,” when he joined the cast last year.

“Because of the drama, more people began noticing me on the street. I really love it,” the actor said. Kim, 20, shyly added that he especially feels happy when female fans recognize him.

Kim said he has decided to use Sazal Kim for his stage name thanks to the popularity he earned through the drama. “It is my honor to feature in ‘Rude Miss Young-ae.’ I could never forget this work,” he said.

A former up-and-coming cricketer in Bangladesh, Kim had wished to continue his athletic career here. But after he failed to make the Korean national cricket team for the upcoming Incheon Asian Games, he had to put that dream on hold. He has applied for a Korean citizenship.

Though he turned into 20 this year, he is still in his junior year at Kyesan Technical High School in Incheon. High school is great opportunity for him to hone his Korean language skills.

“I speak in Korean with my teachers and classmates and write in Korean. My classmates are two years younger, and they all call me ‘hyeong’ (big brother in Korean),” he said.

His acting career kicked off after starring in a short film in 2012.

In the film, titled, “Ashock,” Kim played a role of foreign employee working in Korea who gets discriminated. It was one of 18 official competition films for the Busan International Short Film Festival last year.

“After starring in the short film, some agencies started to call me, and this is how I landed the role of Sazal Kim in ‘Rude Miss Young-ae,’” he said. “After graduating high school, I would like to major in drama and cinema in university.”

His idols are actors Lee Byung-hun, Kim Hae-sook and Han Ga-in. He is eager to feature in action flick someday. “I have always loved watching gunfight scenes. Some time or other, I would like to do a work like the American film, ‘The Rock,’” he said.

Kim shared some hardships he encountered as an expat living in Korea. “Because of my dark skin color, I have often been discriminated by Koreans,” Kim said. He has been waiting to be a Korean citizen for three years.

“I feel I am discriminated whenever I visit the immigration office. I feel like they look down on me because I am from a poverty-stricken country,” he said.

He said he always lashes back at them with his fluent Korean whenever he encounters discrimination. “Once they notice how good my Korean is, they are silenced.”

Nevertheless, Kim said he is enjoying his life here and is looking forward to his future as an ordinary Korean citizen.

“After I obtain Korean citizenship, I would like to join the Korean army, if it’s possible,” he said.

Kim’s next move is filming in China. “I am really excited about starring in movie and living in China for a few months.”