Friday, January 31, 2014

Feature: Girls and Dolls - The Many Faces of Bae Doo-na

By Hieu Chau

Emerging from South Korea as one of the country’s brightest and talented stars, actress Bae Doo-na has built a reputable career for herself with diverse roles in both her home country and abroad. Often praised for her naturalistic and sometimes demure approach towards acting, Bae Doo-na has worked with a plethora of talented individuals in her acting career, scoring the chance to work with several esteemed directors including the likes of Bong Joon-ho and Koreeda Hirokazu.

In an interview for the press book of Take Care of My Cat (2001), Bae says that while she’s drawn to “multi-layered characters that break certain types of prejudices,” at the time, she hadn’t gone out of her way to get these roles. “Most South Korean directors know that I enjoy playing characters considered eccentric, so these are the roles I am usually asked to read.”

Indeed the characters that she has inhabited have all been eccentric to some degree though that hasn’t stopped the actress from establishing herself as one of the most sought after actresses in the country. It’s especially crazy to think that the ghost girl crawling out of the television monitor in The Ring Virus (1999), the Korean remake of the Japanese horror hit, Ringu (1998), would reach the level that she has today.

From her early years acting in small independent Korean films to the large Hollywood productions that she’s recently found herself in, Bae Doo-na has become a household name in Korean cinema and with each new project, the Korean actress continually flourishes. Even Park Chan-wook, who directed her in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), noted that she was an actress free from stereotypes, given her unique look and approach towards acting.

With another Hollywood feature soon on the way, we look at the delightful Korean actress’ best performances on film and see what she and her colleagues have had to say about her work.

Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)

Though many might consider her role in Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance as her breakout role, others contend that her role in Bong Joon-ho’s debut feature film, Barking Dogs Never Bite, is where she truly started earning recognition for her acting work.

The actress turned heads for her admirably comedic turn in the black comedy which had director Bong singing her praises as Bae’s performance was an aspect of the film that the Bong was quite proud of.

For the role, Bae was asked to perform without makeup and the actress was more than happy to comply.

“Many actresses in Korea hate to act without make up, they want to look shiny! But Doo-na was great because she had no desire to show off, rather she really threw herself into the character. I was really happy with her." – Bong Joon-ho (excerpt from an interview at via

For her part in Barking Dogs Never Bite, Bae Doo-na was awarded a Blue Dragon Award for Best New Actress, singling the arrival of a new and exciting talent, which inevitably helped catapult her into the consciousness of Korean film.

Take Care of My Cat (2001)

Another in a line of star-making roles for Bae Doo-na, this modest coming-of-age story proved to be a relative hit across many film festivals, which only earned further accolades for Bae in the process.

A critical darling, Take Care of My Cat saw Bae’s character, Tae-hee, hit a resonant note with young audiences who saw the film in Korea, according to the film’s director, Jeong Jae-eun.

“I think [the reason why people enjoyed that character was because they] were quite young themselves and they quite admired how she sort of wandered about freely, and the way she does what she wants to do, and goes into other people's lives, gets involved. I think young people in Korea admired her for that.” – Jeong Jae-eun (excerpt from an interview at

The character of Tae-hee, according to director Jeong, was a difficult one to explain so she let Bae have full creative freedom to absorb the role and make it her own, which in turn allowed for a the actress to provide a very understated performance in the film.

Linda Linda Linda (2005)

Her first Japanese production, this humble high school film saw Bae play an initially lonesome Korean exchange student at a Japanese high school who becomes the lead singer of an all-female rock band.

An altogether sweet film, the development of Bae’s character is unquestionably one of the endearing qualities about Linda Linda Linda. Utilizing the charm she found as a comedic personality in Barking Dogs Never Bite as well as the tenderness found in Take Care of My Cat, Bae delivers a heartwarming and inspiring performance in the film.

Similar to her experience with Barking Dogs Never Bite – the film which prompted Linda Linda Linda’s director Yamashita Nobuhiro to cast her – Bae decided that not applying makeup for the role would enhance her ordinary yet endearing character.

“It was my decision not to put on any makeup in the movie. I had to do it because that was the only way I could play [the character of] Song genuinely. I didn’t want to look just beautiful wearing heavy makeup.” – Bae Doo-na (excerpt from an interview at The Cholson Ilbo via

Considering herself lucky, Bae also maintains that she’s fortunate to be able to play characters that other actresses can’t due to her willingness to look plain and undesirable.

Air Doll (2009)

Arguably her greatest performance to date, Air Doll sees renowned Japanese director Koreeda Hirokazu team with Bae as she delivers a sensitively nuanced performance in this moving drama. In Koreeda’s beautiful film about a sex doll that comes to life, we see Bae curiously navigating the film with childlike awe and wonder, mystified by the people and objects around her. Her presence in the film makes sense given that the Korean actress herself is in a fish-out-of-water environment like her character (being that she’s Korean working within a Japanese-based production).

Contrasting with previous roles where she’s embraced a naturally plain look, Bae admits that she had a somewhat difficult time dealing with makeup due to her character’s desire to beautify herself. Nevertheless Bae persevered, turning in a worthy and heartfelt performance.

On his experience working with Bae, director Koreeda expressed his admiration for the actress. “She really knew how to create the flow of her character’s emotional journey in the context of the narrative. She is so sensitive yet at the same time, a genuine professional.” - Koreeda Hirokazu (excerpt from an interview for Air Doll’s promotional package).

Koreeda also praised Bae for the control she had over her body, additionally stating that “there really are no actresses like her today.”

“She can visualize how she looks or how she's standing, like a picture floating in her mind. She never checked the monitor or asked how she looked naked, but it was like she could stand back and objectively view her own body in relation to the camera during a shooting.” - Koreeda Hirokazu (excerpt from an interview at Asia Pacific Arts)

For her role in Air Doll, Bae Doo-na became the first foreign recipient to win the Best Actress award at the Japan Academy Prize, the Japanese equivalent to the Academy Awards.

Cloud Atlas (2012)

Bae’s most recent feature - and also her debut Hollywood production - sees her take on several roles in this large-scale blockbuster. Though the film might not have made a huge splash with audiences around the world, one of the film’s least polarizing qualities was the presence of a conflicted cyborg in the Korean future, Sonmi-451, played with stoic grace by Bae. Somewhat similar to her performance in Air Doll, this role also asked Bae to turn in a delicate performance.

In addition to the character of Sonmi-451, Bae had the opportunity to play several other characters in the film as well, a chance she was more than eager to jump at.

“I acted in the thought that it would be my first and last chance to do this. I tried to enjoy every second because it’s rare to act multiple characters of different race, gender and living in different time periods in one movie.” - Bae Doo-na (excerpt from an interview at Yonhap News)

Bae was expected to speak English in the film as well, though her English was limited when she was cast in the film.

“When the casting was confirmed, I went to a linguistics professor to learn how to make the right intonations and how the mouth and vocal chords look and work [when imitating British-English].” - Bae Doo-na (excerpt from an interview at The Cholsun Ilbo)

Lana Wachowski, one of Cloud Atlas’ directors, had nothing but good things to say on her experience working with Bae: “Doo-na is an angel. She creates art without artifice; often it feels like there is nothing between the lens and her pure, vulnerable emotion. She is also as lovely and kind as you might imagine her to be.” (excerpt from an interview at Dazed and Confused)

Bae Doo-na Filmography

The Ring Virus (1999)
Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)
Plum Blossom (2000)
Take Care of My Cat (2001)
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)
Saving My Hubby (2002)
Tube (2003)
Spring Bears Love (2003)
Linda Linda Linda (2005)
The Host (2006)
Air Doll (2009)
As One (2012)
Cloud Atlas (2012)
Jupiter Ascending (2014)
Dohee-ya (2014)

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema. For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office Update, Korean Cinema News and the Weekly Korean Reviews, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (Korean Standard Time).

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