While stars her age were choosing roles which would enhance their beauty, or even going as far as undergoing plastic surgery, she appeared in the most natural of ways: with no make-up in Bong Joon-Ho's 플란다스의 개 (Barking Dogs Never Bite). That performance showed the birth of a new star in the Chungmuro galaxy, one who would become one of the industry's most unique and creative personalities: Bae Doo-Na. Through her films, she painted a figure of insiders who look outside, of people who open their eyes to what's around them. Take Hyun-Nam in 'Barking Dogs Never Bite', helping an ajumma find her little Chihuahua everyone else hated; or Tae-Hee in 고양이를 부탁해 (Take Care of My Cat), escaping the psychological traps of middle class life in Korea; Young-Mi in Park Chan-Wook's 복수는 나의 것 (Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance), the impressionable 'activist' youth singing Communist songs and spewing hate on the Cultural Imperialism of the US, and so on. Bae always played 'familiar strangers' amongst their circle of friends, opening them to the fact that foreigners, people with handicaps, kids and even animals have a right to share the same space with them.
Perhaps it's for that reason that she's adored by Korean film fans overseas, and more or less ignored at home. People overseas identify in an easier way with her kind of characters, sort of lost in a space they don't see as their own, more than attempts at making characters that are 'foreigner-friendly' like Lee Na-Young in Kim Sung-Soo's 영어완전정복 (Please Teach Me English). Most of her films flopped in Korea, some even badly - like the blockbuster 튜브 (Tube), but she never lost sleep over that. She didn't try to find counter measures which would increase her popularity, but just kept following her road, and starring in projects that would present a new challenge for her. It's probably for that reason that she hasn't been in a Korean film in almost 2 years. She took 'time off' to pursue other interests, namely following the family line in starring in a theater play in Daehak-Ro, featuring in a few interesting Dramas, and even a Japanese film.
But she might finally find that super-hit in Korean Cinemas that escaped from her hands every time she tried. Shooting Bong Joon-Ho's third film 괴물 (The Host) with established faces like Song Kang-Ho, Park Hae-Il and Byun Hee-Bong could be the gateway to popular acceptance, after becoming one of the darling of the critics at such an early age. Featuring in an interview after quite a long time, here's a few excerpts from her interview in a recent Cine21 magazine.
Cine21: After your 1999 screen debut with 링 (The Ring Virus), every year you've starred in one, sometimes even two films per year. But for the first time, you spent the last two years without a film released in theaters.
Bae Doo-Na: When I went back 'to work' on the set of 'The Host' I didn't really remember how I used to do things, it was both something refreshing and even confusing. I'm a workaholic, really. I never lived even once without having anything to do. The moment a film was presented to the press, I was almost always already shooting the next one. But after completing 봄날의 곰을 좋아하세요? (Spring Bears Love) I thought by myself: now my first cycle is really over. While I rest a little, I wanted to make a fresh new start. But now that I had some time for myself, I didn't know what to do! Even though I never really liked doing that, I started learning flower arrangement and baking, just to kill some time and make me feel less lonely.
Cine21: Famous theater actress Kim Hwa-Young is your mother. Do you remember anything of her acting life when you were little?
Bae: I just followed her in and out of the practice room, naturally. Since I was quite a quiet kid, I sat in the make-up room waiting for the end of the play, not saying a word from start to finish. I remember her first line in a play she acted in at a theater in Myung-Dong. She said: "Tom, go wash up." I heard that line so many times, when I was five year old I would follow my mother's dialogue in the make-up room step by step, so much even people in the guest seats would hear and laugh. People might say that since my mother is a theater actor, I became an actress. But to me, those experiences probably had the opposite effect. On the contrary, because I saw many great actors working with my mother, I thought this was a job only people with extraordinary talent could do. So, in a way, debuting on stage was a big challenge for me, trying to defeat all the primal fears I had regarding theater. While presenting the play I acted all cool and calm, but in reality it was incredibly hard.
Cine21: But despite all that you took that challenge and starred in 썬데이 서울 (Sunday Seoul). On top of the aforementioned childhood fears and the challenge it posed for you, I'm curious what kind of lessons you learned as an actor doing this play, technically speaking.
Bae: Telling people I did theater to combat my fears makes me feel a little embarrassed. It sounded like such a personal thing to do, but it's not really the case, even though it helped me a lot. Technically speaking, I just wanted some expansion, and show a kinder side of me to the public. My acting is really unkind [her personal blog is entitled 불친절한 두나씨 (Unkind Doo-Na), a word play on Park Chan-Wook's 'Sympathy For Lady Vengeance' - whose Korean title means Kind Geum-Ja - and her acting style]. [...] I didn't really know how to cleanly get through rhymes either, so that's what I learned from this experience.
Cine21: You didn't just work in films, but also Daily and Weekend TV Dramas, and now even theater. It feels like you're personally trying to add many things to your curriculum.
Bae: By chance, I got into the business as an unknown when I starred in 학교 (School) and the film 'The Ring Virus', and compared to most people I had many more leading than supporting roles. As undeserved as those opportunities might have been, I tried my best to work with my seniors, just make experience through acting with them.
Cine21: You've fundamentally matured quite a bit.
Bae: There's people who know three out ten, then you can say they know a little. Then there's those who know nine out of then, but even if you only don't know one, isn't that saying you don't fully know? I'm the latter. I only have been acting for 6-7 years, and am still learning. On top of that, if I start thinking that actresses really come of age in their thirties... man, at this rate I'll really become 30, then what? I have to do well, it's quite a burden! (laughs)
Cine21: Let's talk a little about your new film リンダ リンダ リンダ (Linda Linda Linda). A while ago I read in an interview that you used to categorize films between those that 'wouldn't work if it wasn't you', that you'd be 'thankful they came to you', or that if you did them, 'it would be another film.' What was your reason for starring in Yamashita Nobuhiro's 'Linda Linda Linda', then?
Bae: A while ago Director Bong Joon-Ho, after returning from the Morioka Film Festival, said a young Japanese director wanted to cast me, and Bong told me to do well later. That was Director Yamashita. So I decided to return the favor, and watched his previous work 'Ramblers'. It had a very extravagant sense of humour I fell right into. I shot 'Linda Linda Linda' thinking it was my 'foreign version', but wasn't it so close to one of the stories in 'Take Care of My Cat'?
Cine21: I really liked episode 1 and 2 of 떨리는 가슴 (Six Love Stories), where you play a young divorced woman. Actually it was the first time I saw you in a very mature, adult-like type of role. Up to that point you always had a 'fairy'-like kind of image, like some characters in 新世紀エヴァンゲリオン (Neon Genesis Evangelion) or other Anime. But in 'Six Love Stories', for the first time I saw a woman who showed more maturity than her age. Before shooting the Drama, did you have any thought of starring in a stage play?
Bae: Oh.. really? That's great. That's exactly what I'm trying to concentrate on at the moment. Which became reality a while ago (laughs). I always used to play characters who were dreamers, rarely realist ones. Even in 'The Host', I consulted director Bong for the last two years about how to portray my character Nam-Joo. He wants the same thing I do, a character as far from 'Barking Dogs Never Bite' as possible.
Cine21: You've worked with a lot of directors, but you worked twice with Park Chan-Wook, and it's your second with Bong as well. Which films do you prefer from those made by the two?
Bae: I haven't seen Park's 올드보이 (Oldboy) and 친절한 금자씨 (Sympathy For Lady Vengeance) yet. He said to me, 'aren't you even sorry about it?' (laughs). I loved 공동경비구역 JSA (Joint Security Area) so I watched it five times, but if you ask me personally, I'll say 'Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance'! As for Director Bong, 살인의 추억 (Memories of Murder) is fantastic, but I personally prefer 'Barking Dogs Never Bite'. I always liked the beauty of blank spaces, and films without accidents or incidents, films that focus on small details are hard to find. I like films that make me laugh, and I think Bong's comic tone fits with me well.
Cine21: The family organization of Park Hee-Bong (Byun Hee-Bong), Park Gang-Doo (Song Kang-Ho), Park Nam-Il (Park Hae-Il) and Park Nam-Joo (Bae Doo-Na), along with the young detective (Go Ah-Sung) who tries to catch the monster in 'The Host' remind a little of the Fellowship in 'Lord of The Rings'.
Bae: Even if it weren't so, at the beginning of the film Bong said this to us: 'Now I feel like Frodo going to Mordor to destroy the ring. So you people, please become my Sam'. Since I usually have a lot of enthusiasm, I jumped up and said: "Ahh.. director, that was so cool. We'll become Sam!". But then again, nowadays I don't even go see the shoot, since most of my scenes are over, very unlike Sam. (laughs). But I'll still be on the set.