With A Girl At My Door released in UK cinemas, we talk to one of Korea’s most iconic actresses, Bae Doona…
Though not Korea’s most successful actress, there’s little doubting that Bae Doona’s looks and roles have made her one the country’s most iconic and recognisable faces. From her early appearances in Barking Dogs Never Bite and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, to roles in The Host and Korean TV series like Gloria. But it’s her willingness to appear in productions outside of Korea that has cemented her fame, such as Japanese directors Nobuhiro Yamashita and Hirokazu Kore-eda in Linda, Linda, Linda and Air Doll respectively. More recently her work with The Wachowskis has helped introduce her to new audiences on Cloud Atlas and the US TV series Sense8. Her latest Korean film, A Girl At My Door, has picked up acclaim wherever it’s been played. With an amazing performance by Doona in one of the lead roles, it was real highlight of the London Film Festival and London Korean Film Festival in 2014.
Perhaps that explains just why I’m incredibly flattered (and excited) that what started out as an email interview has, at the behest of her own representatives, become a video Skype. Of course, wherever technology is involved, there’s always the worry that something might go awry; that maybe timezones have been miscalculated or maybe just that the interview hasn’t been properly communicated through the levels of PR. I shouldn’t have worried. Just a few minutes before our scheduled time a request to add my contact details appears in Skype from Doona – which in itself is something of an event! It also immediately suggests someone who is both professional and diligent. In person she’s completely open and friendly – hardly the sort of reserved character she so often plays. She’s also fairly tired, as it’s 11pm in Seoul, to which she scrunches up her face and shrugs it off. Seemingly unaffected by all this fame and notoriety, she often sounds astounded that her work is so well known outside of Korea.
If I’m completely honest, I’m more than a little blown away that I’ve been allowed this access into her personal space. But right now Doona seems more distracted by mine. “Oh my god! Look at the background.”
“I’ve, ahem, got a few records,” I say, spinning the laptop round so she can see more of them on the shelves.
“Wow! That’s so cool!” she laughs.
Thank you! I’m going to dive straight in with the questions. In A Girl At My Door you play an alcoholic, tortured by hiding her sexuality from her work colleagues, caring for an equally damaged young girl. So just what attracted you to the role of Young-nam?
I don’t know, I just fell in love with her when I read the script. She was fragile, like breakable. For some reason I could feel her emotions and feelings, and I just thought [laughs] maybe I could do this, maybe I could play her.
And to be honest, it was more that I loved the script. I loved the way [July Jung] wrote the script. She’s a great writer. She’s a great director too, but an amazing, amazing, AMAZING writer! When I read it I was so curious about the writer, so I really wanted to work with her.
I was lucky enough to meet and interview July Jung last year.
Really? You met her? Where was that?
It was as part of the London Korean Film Festival, but the film also played at the London Film Festival.
London Film Festival? Really? Wow! I’m so happy, I’m so proud of the film.
But as a first time feature for July, you must have had a lot of confidence in her to be able to do this?
[Laughs] Yes. When I met her I felt a strength in her mind, like I could sense her internal strength. Does that make sense?
Actually I really love working with first time directors. So for instance, Barking Dogs Never Bite was Bong Joon-ho’s first film. And I’ve worked with several others. I really, really love working with them, because you work together. There’s an energy on set. They talk with you; they discuss the role with you; they study the script and how the film should be with you. It’s more like we make the art together, and I really love the process. Of course they have clear ideas in their mind, but at the same time they are still learning. That’s my favourite situation [laughs].
So [A Girl At My Door] was a little bit challenging for me, but I believed in July. She’s very quiet but strong [laughs].
And there are so many contemporary issues that the film deals with: alcoholism, child abuse, migrant labour and the decay of small towns, even how homosexuality is perceived in public service/police roles. Did you have any feelings towards those themes she was picking up on?
Yes, I was thinking about those social issues in Korea, or anywhere, all the time. And that’s why I think I loved her script when I read it. It was very straightforward, but also felt poetic in the way she described it. Like, I really loved the theme about minorities. And I don’t want to blame the culture of mine (or any) country, but if you’re different from others, you can still feel isolated. So I wanted to show that as an actor, on behalf of the director. Sometimes I want to talk about it, but I would rather do that in the film as an actor.
And sometimes that can be more powerful as a piece of work than what one person might say.
So one thing that quite interested me about the film was that it was based in Yeosu, as it was one of the cities I went to last year when I visited Korea. It turned out that it was her hometown. I really enjoyed it, as it’s not very touristy.
No it’s not a tourist spot at all [laughs]. [With quite a quizzical look] What brought you there?
It was partly inspired by Hong Sang-soo, being part of the same coastal area that featured in HaHaHa. My wife and I really enjoyed the film, and we didn’t just want to stay in Seoul.
Ahhh [she smiles], I haven’t seen it yet.
But one of the things that struck me about the film, and others in the last year or so like Gyeongju, was what felt like a move away from films being set in Seoul or Busan. Do you think that’s true?
I’m not really aware of that trend, but I think maybe she used Yeosu because it’s where she grew up and it’s where she got inspired for this story. At the same time, a small village is not like a massive city where…
[Doona struggles a little to find her words] I’m so sorry; I’ve been doing interviews in Korean all day!
Do you mean it’s not like a small town, where everybody knows who you are?
Yes, that’s exactly what I wanted to say! [laughs]
So actually one of my questions was going to be about Barking Dogs Never Bite, as it was one of the first Korean films I saw…
Really? [she smiles]
…and always really loved. And I’ve been a fan of yours and Bong Joon-ho’s ever since. So I wondered when you worked with him again on The Host, how much had he changed and grown as a director? Especially working on a big production that had special effects and action?
Well Bong Joon-ho is a little bit different; he was special. Even when we were doing Barking Dogs Never Bite he was already professional and confident about what he was doing. And very specific about scenes [she smiles].
And when we came to do The Host, I remember I felt like he hardly changed. Of course, he’d learned a lot. Because by that time he’d already done Memories of Murder, and he was a huge filmmaker in Korea. But.. [she brings up her forefinger to point] I learned something: it was the first time I saw him get angry [laughs]. He’s very calm and very good dealing with emotions – because you know you have so many issues you have to deal with on film sets. You have to make hundreds of decisions in one day, it’s just chaos. But he’s always dealing with it very clearly, nicely in a gentle way. But I think he learned how to be a leader – in a good way. I really admire him.
“To be honest, I really love working with great directors. So if a director I really want to work with offers me a part, I don’t mind about the character. I love being an empty canvas so they can just paint, so what’s really important is ‘who’.”
One thing I wanted to ask you was about the roles you choose, and A Girl At My Door is a good example of this. You don’t always play the same kind of part, such as a romantic lead. And I’m thinking about roles like that in Kore-eda’s Air Doll. Do you deliberately look for quirky or different characters?
To be honest, I really love working with great directors. So if a director I really want to work with offers me a part, I don’t mind about the character. I’m just the person who expresses what the director or the writer or the filmmakers want to say to the audience. I really love being an empty canvas so they can just paint, so what’s really important is ‘who’.
So do you think some of these roles come looking for you then?
I think so [laughs]. I love challenges. I really love something that’s new to me; some character I’ve never played. So that’s the reason I normally chose ‘unusual’ characters [laughs].
I didn’t notice that, but now I look back I think, ‘oh right!’ [she nods and laughs]
Which brings me on to your role in Sense8. Now, from a Western perspective, that almost feels like a stereotypical role for an Asian, doing kickass martial arts and so on, only I really get the feeling that you have a lot of fun doing it. Because, once again, it’s not the sort of role you’ve played before. Is that true?
Yes, exactly actually. I really like the role of Sun exactly because of those reasons. I’ve never played any roles like that. I didn’t know it was actually a cliché for Asian characters, but I’ve never played a fighter before. Funnily, I’ve never played a businesswoman before either. So I thought it was a good challenge. I’ve been a ping-pong player, an archer, but a fighter? It would mean a lot of training, and I would happily do that for Lana and Andy [Wachowski]. I really loved it [she says rather earnestly], I really enjoyed filming it.
And the character is like a weapon, she’s very cool, enjoys fighting. But at the same time she’s very caring about people; she sacrifices herself for other people. And I loved it.
So did you need to do a lot of training for that role? Presumably you did a lot of the stunt work yourself?
Yes exactly. But compared to Koria [As One] where I was a ping-pong player, it was quite short. So I started basic training a month before pre-production, and it was quite quick. So during the whole shooting of Sense8, which was 7 months, I needed to train everyday on set. We moved from one city to another, every few weeks, and I had to train in these places with all different locals [laughs].
“I’ve never played a fighter before. Funnily, I’ve never played a businesswoman before either. So I thought it was a good challenge.”
So you’ve worked with The Wachowskis several times now since Cloud Atlas, can you tell me how that working relationship came about? How did they approach you to be in Cloud Atlas?
Lana and Andy told me that they’d watched Air Doll, Take Care Of My Cat, The Host – I was really surprised to hear they’d seen so many films of mine. So they just sent me the script. Now I realise that usually they are really confidential about their scripts and their work, but at the time they just gave it to me.
So I took an audition. It had been 13 years since I had last taken an audition [laughs]. After Barking Dogs Never Bite, Cloud Atlas was my first one. So I was really freaked out. I didn’t even know how to read the lines in English, so I just read it. That’s how we started.
Our relationship is magical on set: they kind of act with me. So when I play Sun, they feel with me. When I cry, they cried; when I laugh, they laugh. So we share these emotions and feelings on set.
It’s an honour to work with them again. And Jupiter Ascending, it was a quite small role but I didn’t mind. If it’s Lana and Andy they are like my… mom! [laughs] I just believe in them. I’ll do whatever they want from me.
And of course there is going to be another season of Sense8 as well. Without giving away any spoilers, do you know what’s in store for Sun?
Actually no one knows what will happen in season 2 except the creators, my only hope is my character escapes from the jail [laughs]! But I don’t know before the reading.
“Actually no one knows what will happen in season 2 except the creators, my only hope is my character escapes from the jail [laughs]!”
So thinking about your work with The Wachowskis and Japanese directors like Kore-eda, you’ve been very open to international productions. In some ways do you think it’s easier to find interesting roles outside of Korean films right now?
[Raises eyebrows high] No! I love Korean film, and if I have time off, I’d love to pop in and watch Korean films as much as I can. But I work with the Wachowskis every year so I’ve been quite busy.
I’m open to films outside of Korea, I don’t think there are any boundaries. Of course, acting in another language is difficult, but I love challenges, and I love learning something. If a great director I really want to work with I wouldn’t mind going anywhere.
BUT I’m Korean, so when I play Korean, in Korean language, in a Korean film, I think that’s the best [laughs]. Because I know the culture, I know the small details, so it’s easiest for me.
You’ve mentioned several times working with great directors, is there anyone you’d love to work with?
At the moment I’m really keen on comedy. So I’d really love to work with Chinese actor/director Stephen Chow, who made Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle. If there was any chance to work with him. I love his movies, that comedy, but also black comedy. And I also love the director Todd Solondz, Welcome To The Dollhouse.
So I’m coming to my last questions now. How much do you think the increasing global popularity of Korean culture, film and music affected your career since you began in film at the end of the 90s?
I’m sometimes surprised people know about The Host, so many people. Because I learned English in London the three years quite recently, so I sometimes got recognised from The Host [laughs]. So I realised that Korean films and culture were quite popular in London and Europe. I can’t deny that it affected my career, because people were getting more familiar with our culture. And I would happily introduce deeper parts of our culture to European people. I’m very proud of it.
So what are you working on now?
I’m taking a break right now. After the launch of Sense8, we were waiting for the announcement of season 2, because we didn’t know if there would be one. So I was just taking some time off, and I needed to figure out how it would work around my schedule. So now… I’m still taking some time off. I really want to work on Korean films before shooting starts on Sense8, but we’ll see.
Well thank you so much for sparing me your time to chat.
Was the interview okay? My English is not very good!
Oh, sounds pretty good to me! It’s way better than my Korean.
Noooo! Well you don’t need to speak Korean, but I need to work on my English!
Thank you again, it’s been a pleasure. Kamsahamnida.
Thank you very much. Kamsahamnida.