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A Tribute to Jeon Do-yeon

2007/05/31 | 319 views | Permalink | Source

Hearty congratulations to Korea's most ambitious and talented actress

Kyu Hyun Kim (qhyunkim)

On May 27, Jeon Do-yeon won the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival, for her searing portrait of a spiritually devastated woman in Lee Chang-dong's "Secret Sunshine". I strongly feel that, even more than "Old Boy" winning the Grand Prix in 2004, which I sort of predicted her win is the most deserved among all prizes ever garnered by a Korean film or Korean filmmaker in the high-profile film festivals.

(Okay, okay, I didn't really predict it. What I said exactly was that I would eat cheese and drink wine instead of soybean paste and soju for a year if "Old Boy" won the Grand Prix, by which I really meant the Palm d'Or, and I have at least kept the promise on the wine part, even though the latter prize was claimed by "Fahrenheit 911".)

Coming from a TV drama background, and in the early years of her career sometimes made fun of because of her slightly nasal, little-girl voice and the way she crunches her brows whenever she smiles, Jeon's public persona has been far removed from the image of exotic "Oriental" beauty or Hollywood-style glamour. In the late 1990s, like many major actresses her age, Jeon faced the prospect of being typecast as a "happy-go-lucky girl" set against handsome matinee idols. She managed to smash into smithereens whatever obstacles blocked her path to both screen stardom and maturation as a brilliant actress.

Jeon's first big hit film "The Contact" (1997), while still giving her a standard romantic role, in many ways signaled what was to come in the following decade. Jeon, working with the underrated visual stylist Jang Yoon-hyun, has finely crafted a character that served as an identification figure for young Korean working women. Compact but never fragile, nervous-looking but never mousy, pleasantly attractive but never coquettish, Jeon plays her character like a master cellist does a piece originally written for a violin, soulfully and prudently, never sliding into a firework display of acting techniques or broad strokes of emotional expression.

In 1999, her performances as a student in a countryside school falling in love with her schoolteacher (aging onscreen totally believably from a 14 year old to an adult in her 30s) in "Harmonium in My Memory" and as a despairing housewife in "Happy End" garnered numerous acting honors and silenced all doubters regarding her acting skills.

But it was her performances in "No Blood No Tears" (2002) and "Untold Scandal" (2003) that truly convinced me that we are dealing here with not just a good actress but also a great one. In each film, Jeon is burdened with a pivotal role within a complexly deployed ensemble.

In "No Blood", she is essentially the spider who spins the web of conspiracies and counter-conspiracies, all party-girl aplomb outside, hard-bitten and tough inside like a callused fist. And yet it is really her pent-up rage at being treated as a cheap gun moll that packs emotional wallop at the climax.

In "Untold Scandal", an adaptation of "Les Liaisons dangereuses", Jeon is cast in the virginal Madame de Tourvel character, and in my estimation is superior to both Michelle Pfeiffer (in the Stephen Frears version) and Meg Tilly (strangely miscast in the Milos Forman version). In this film, Jeon effortlessly makes us believe the goodness of her heart without mugging for our sympathy. The delicate trembling of her body as she disrobes for the first time for a man is almost painful to watch. When she swoons at the callousness of Jo Won (the film's Valmont character, played by Bae Yong-joon), we believe the moral impact of his action on her soul: we do not take her reaction as a mere disappointment, but as a betrayal of her love.

From this point on, Jeon's acting became one of the more significant pleasures in watching a Korean film for me. The unfairly underrated "My Mother, the Mermaid (2004)", where she played a dual role as a young woman and the younger version of her own mother, and "You are my Sunshine" (2005), where she essayed a prostitute infected with AIDS, regaining her faith in mankind by an almost obstreperous love of a farmer (Hwang Jung-min), continued her winning streak.

In these performance and others, Jeon exercises supreme control over her acting that may be likened to that of a master swordsman whose blade can slice off strands of hair from a running hare without ever harming it. Her portrayals of emotionally and morally conflicted characters are so nuanced and multi-faceted that you often cannot digest all of their aspects in one viewing. And what about her superb sense of balance, the capacity to carefully modulate her performance to hit just the right pitch and tone? She is akin to a tightrope walker juggling two dozen balls in the air, suspended above Niagara Falls, while a live monkey is screeching in her left ear, and still maintaining the absolute concentration of a kendo master.

Some film actresses are stars, but also artists. Jeon has proven herself an artist of the caliber that South Korea should be proud of. I wish, and I am optimistic about its prospect, that she will continue to act into her 70s and 80s, and while doing so take up all kinds of characters: a queen in a period setting, a Goddess, an autistic painter, a feminist pioneer, a serial killer, Korea's first woman president, any and all characters that rattle, shake and break apart a viewer's complacent notion of what screen acting by a Korean actress should and could be. Because if Meryl Streep or Angelina Jolie can do it, Jeon can, too. Trust me, she can.

Congratulations, Miss Jeon. You, more than any other Korean actor or actress, deserved it.

Check out Darcy Paquet's review of "Secret Sunshine" at Open the link

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