Jun 2016 VOL.62


  • JEON Do-yeon, Korean Cinema's Leading Actress
  • by KIM Hyung-seok / 01.24.2014
  • Her Past, Present and Future  

    When asked who their role model is, rookie actresses will mostly mention the name JEON Do-Yeon. Not only is she looked up by many young actresses and is among the most trustworthy names that audiences of Korean cinema rely on, she is a world star who has won a prize at Cannes International Film Festival. However, it is not to say Jeon is flawless. She is far from being charismatic or glamorous on the screen. Her nasal voice is often made fun of by comedians. She is not a defined character who only fits for a specific genre film. Being rather short and smallish, she is not remarkably impressive and strong looking, she is more like an audience than a star. Among her fellow actors and actresses, she probably received the least attention at first. However, she is currently almost the only survivor of them all, and now is the time to think over her real power.

    Looking back on her filmography from the vantage point of view, it seems her acting career is divided into before Secret Sunshine (2007) and after Secret Sunshine. From her debut The Contact (1997) to You Are My Sunshine (2005), her consistent theme was love. “The reason why I am obsessed with love is..… my lack of it,” says the actress, and creates her personas based on such lack. It was rather natural for her, because she is the type of actress who only acts with what she already has in her. “For some actors and actresses, a total creation of a persona would be possible, but that is not the case with me. I have never played a character that is completely different from myself.”

    Suhyun in The Contact believes in fatal love, just like her line suggests: “you always meet the one that you are meant to meet.” Hee-su in The Promise (1998) risks everything for love. The 17 year old girl Hong-yeon in The Harmonium in My Memory (1999) is anxious about her love for her teacher. Bora in Happy End (1999) is a married woman but secretly falls in love with another man. Wonju in I wish I had a Wife (2000) slowly grows her love for a man in her banal, quotidian life. A brutal action genre movie as it is, No Blood No Tears (2002) is still a love story for her. “I wanted to be in this movie because of the desperate love between Sujin and Dokbul (played by JUNG Jae-young). I don’t think I’ll ever get away from a love story. Whatever genre scenarios I may read, I’ll always go for a love story.” Her following steps prove this. Lady Suk in Untold Scandal (2003) discovers hidden love inside her. In My Mother, The Mermaid (2004), where she played both the daughter and the mother, Na-young goes back to the past and helps her mother complete her first love. Eunha in You Are My Sunshine (2005) falls in love as if she was destined to.
    JEON’s filmography is somewhat odd, when you think of the fact that most top class actors and actresses are known for their ability to switch from one character to another. Of course she presented a wide variety of films, she even played in extremely different films like The Harmonium in my Memory and Happy End in the same year, and acted in all kind of genres including period film and action genre. However, her characters were within one consistent theme of love, and they were pretty much the same person with different ways of expressing her love. The audiences still do not complain for the narrowness of her acting because she is so freely moving in each persona. She acts without obsession. There is no such thing as Jeon’s acting principles. She once said that her every character is like her real person in one way or another. Her acting is powerful because of this. She does not attempt to transform herself into a new character, and does not refer to any texts. She is self sufficient, and is stimulated by her own self. Maybe that is why she confesses that “I suffer from depression every time I am done with a film”

    However, her filmography meets a big turn after her 10th film, Secret Sunshine. Now love is not the absolute value for her anymore. In Secret Sunshine, she came out of fantasy and went towards the extremity of suffering. LEE Chang-dong, the director, demanded the kind of emotion that she never expected to have, and she finally broke her own shell. Even if her acting career stopped at You Are My Sunshine, Jeon would still remain a great actress in Korean cinema. Indeed, many actors and actresses bump into a plateau every now and then, and slowly go down once they hit the peak of their career, being fully satisfied. However, since her wedding and award at Cannes International Film Festival, Jeon became even stronger, challenging harder. In My Dear Enemy (2008), she is a spinster in a lowly life, and Euni the housemaid in The Housemaid (2010) is an ambitious woman with desire for success, and she even played a swindler in Countdown (2011). And finally, in Way Back Home (2013), she is a housewife who lost her home, husband and child and put in a jail for two years in a foreign country that she had never been to. A spinster, housemaid, swindler and housewife… If you compare them to her previous characters as a woman in love, her current personas have a coarse skin and many wrinkles. As KIM Haery, a film critic, once said, she now has “the kind of beauty that can be mistaken as being ordinary.” As if replying to such evaluations, JEON once said in an interview: “What is  the most beautiful is when I do my best in what I can.”

    Her next film is Hyup-nyeo: the Memory of a Sword, directed by PARK Heung-sik (My Mother, The Mermaid and I Wish I Had a Wife) where she partners with LEE Byung-hun again who she acted with in The Harmonium in My Memory. And be warned, this is a martial art action film, and this actress in her 40s is busy with her martial art training. And this is how Jeon tries to overcome her own self.

    By KIM Hyung-seok(Film Critic)
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