Sex, Lies and... Sung Hyun-Ah
T&A, what could films do without a little eye candy? Whether completely pointless or coming at a crucial moment, nudity has always been a big selling point of a lot of films the world over. Sometimes it even entered the cultural sphere as some kind of movement. Take sexuality in the Korean Cinema of the 80s: after the easing of censorship at the beginning of the decade, many filmmakers - including greats like Jung Jin-Woo, Lee Jang-Ho, Yu Hyun-Mok and Im Kwon-Taek - had a larger canvas to use when painting their stories.
Even though the hostess films of the 70s increased the eroticism of Korean Cinema tenfold, at the beginning of the 80s nudity started to become almost a 'normal' thing, you could even say a 'trend'. But while people like Jung Jin-Woo used the opportunity to portray sexuality with much more striking realism to make a statement about society, an entire sub-genre of erotic melodramas surfaced out of this period. Perhaps the flagbearer of such movement was the first of the interminably long 애마 부인 (Madam Aema) series, directed by Jung In-Yeop in 1982. But why were those films so popular? With the country embroiled in one of its most tumultuous periods, experiencing incredible changes in terms of economy and social structure, the kind of almost reckless sexuality shown on those films attracted people for their explicit content. Although it was a punishable crime, adultery was a staple of 80s erotic Dramas, and extra-marital affairs were one of the favourite arguments in Chungmuro back then.
But nowadays, in 2005, sexuality in Korean Cinema has changed incredibly, even entering the sphere of homosexuality. Although the law still limits to a degree what you can show (but for how long will that law last?), even films rated '15 and over' feature increasingly high amounts of nudity. But unlike in the 80s, people aren't looking for sexuality to run away from a repressive society, it's as if they're compensating, catching up on all those years when sex and nudity were restrained and only hinted at. That of course creates an amazing amount of interest amongst the Media and the public, centered around exposure, nudity, sex scenes and the like. Type 노출 (Exposure) in any search engine of major Media sites like Yahoo and Yonhap and you'll be bombarded with articles about Korea's (old) new obsession: the amount of nudity in today's films.
Son Ye-Jin and Bae Yong-Joon shot a sex scene for 9 hours as part of their latest film 외출 (April Snow)? Here's dozens of articles reporting about 'shocking sex scenes', asking to which degree of exposure the two good looking leads went through. And what's funnier, the moment the film debuts and they find out the exposure isn't what they expected, they complain! I recall several reviews mentioning how director Hur wasted 9 hours to shoot the two actors panting and moaning in front the camera, without exposing a thing. And that repeats for every single film with the slightest hint of nudity, last in line Park Jin-Hee's 'rear all nude' scene in 러브토크 (Love Talk).
But one of the stars to become personally involved in all this craze was Sung Hyun-Ah. A former Miss Korea contestant (she won 'Miss Photogenic' in 95!), the talented young star began her career in the mid 90s following the pageant, starring in small roles on TV Dramas like LA 아리랑 (L.A. Arirang) and opposite Park Joong-Hoon in the comedy 할렐루야 (Halleluya). But even though she had the looks, the powers that be never really gave her a chance to shine, and to display her talent. She kept a low profile even during the blossoming of Chungmuro's current boom, with supporting roles or even mere Cameos in comedies like 보스상륙작전 (Boss X File) and 주글래 살래 (Dying or Live). Then, something happened which completely changed her career. It might have been a simple coincidence, or fate giving her a final chance, but she made it, she became famous. Not with a film, nor a TV Drama. Not even becoming a popular MC. She became famous... for posing nude.
Around the end of 2002, a group of celebrities from TV, Film, Music and Fashion started a trend of posing nude for Mobile Phone services. Some did it as a souvenir for the future, to show their nieces how pretty grandma was back then; some did it for money, to salvage their fading careers. Some just did it for fun. Although nude spreads started way before (culminating in Jung Yang's 15 Minutes of fame a few years before) Kwon Min-Joong, Lee Hye-Young (not Lee Man-Hee's daughter), Lee Ju-Hyeon and Sung Hyun-Ah were the first to make a really big impact. Of course, only the people involved know why they did it, but eventually that move granted Sung a role in Hong Sang-Soo's 2004 film 여자는 남자의 미래다 (Woman Is the Future Of Man).
The film was well received by critics at home, and thanks to it she even walked the red carpet at Cannes. Movie offers started to pile, and finally it wasn't because of her pretty face, or her willingness to take her clothes off if the film required it, but because of her talent, acting talent to be specific. Although 주홍글씨 (The Scarlet Letter) wasn't well received, it was a positive step in her career, which prompted her to star in her first ever leading role: 첼로 (Cello). The film was sort of lost in the maelstrom of Summer horror flicks, and although Sung still hasn't proved whether she can carry a box office draw on her shoulders, she's certainly become a good actress, who always chooses interesting roles, and never shoots nude scenes for the sake of it.
But some people thought otherwise, accusing her of pushing her fame via the amount of skin she shows on most of her films, last but not least her upcoming drama 애인 (One Night Love in Seoul). Of course it's something that could have happened, but then the production company got involved, saying that maybe Sung was focusing a little too much on the exposure, and not enough on promoting the film. To dispute those comments, Sung published a heartfelt note on her blog entitled 관객은 바보가 아니다 (Viewers aren't stupid). In it, she defended her choices, and exposed the kind of hypocrisy going on around the Korean film industry: sex sells because people want to see it, but then some of the same people have the nerve to criticize actresses (almost never actors, go figure) for basically doing what they want. And even worse, they don't focus on those starlets who shoot pointless nude scenes in silly comedies to bank in a few contracts, but acclaimed actresses with real talent who strive to do the ultimate sacrifice if the movie requires it.
Some of her comments:
"The production company told me not to get involved too much in delving information about the film. Then what am I? An object to use in the film, or something like a cake to eat? It's the first time I hear a company asking me not to get involved with promotion for a film I starred in. And again, I have no interest in adding to my filmography films that have me rolling around naked in pointless sex scenes. Yes, In this film there are sex scenes. They might be a burden for me too, but if the film really needs them, as an actor it's something I feel I have to do, a kind of responsibility, and I have no interest in things like how revealing or shocking it is. Viewers are not so simple-minded to be bedazzled by a film for being 'revealing.' I want to become an actress who speaks with her mind and soul."
Of course this could all be a publicity stunt to make the film a success (just like they did with Kim Hye-Soo and 얼굴없는 미녀 (Hypnotized)), but I seriously doubt it. And again, it's a sign that the hypocrisy which runs wild in the Korean media even influences production companies, and involves actors on a personal level. Of course, there's still people who can distinguish between exploitation and meaningful scenes, like in this article, but nowadays they seem in the minority.
'One Night Love in Seoul' stars Sung Hyun-Ah as a woman who is about to marry her fiance of 7 years, but ends up spending a wild night with a stranger, played by Jo Dong-Hyuk. The film will release in theaters next November 24.
애인 (One Night Love in Seoul)
윤창훈 (Yoon Chang-Hoon)
Cast: 성현아 (Sung Hyun-Ah), 조동혁 (Jo Dong-Hyuk)
Teaser Trailer (Streaming, 700k, Windows Media)
Produced By: 기획시대 (Kihwek Shidae)
Distributed By: 쇼박스 (Showbox)
Rating: 18 and Over
RELEASE: November 24
Sung Hyun-Ah's Naver Blog