Actors, Features, Interviews, South Korea

Jeon Do-Yeon interview: “I rejected this project at first, but I changed my mind”

The famed Korean actress opens up about the emotional experience of Birthday

Korea’s brightest star lit up the opening of this year’s 21st Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, as Jeon Do-Yeon graced the stage on opening night, collecting her Golden Mulberry Award for Lifetime Achievement with an emotional thank-you speech that followed a tribute to her acclaimed career that had played out on the big screen behind her.

Jeon has been a leading light across the Korean film industry’s global rise over the past two decades, picking up the best actress award at Cannes for her role in the taut Lee Chang-Dong-directed drama Secret Sunshine (2007), while testing her skills across a wide range of genres.

In Udine, Jeon presented the world festival premiere of what arguably must have been her toughest role yet – on both a personal and professional level – as the bereaved mother in first-time director Lee Jong-Un’s Birthday. The film held the audience inside FEFF’s Teatro Nuovo gripped with a tale of how individuals – and maybe a nation – deals with grief that has its heart set around the Sewol ferry disaster of 2014 that claimed more than 300 lives, the majority of them schoolchildren.

The day after its opening night screening, Jeon sat down to explain why she took on the role, and why she thinks Lee’s film has an important role to play as Korea still deals with the disaster, five years on.

“Actually, I rejected this project at first, but I changed my mind,” said Jeon. “As a person, I also had trauma about Sewol ferry tragedy because I could only watch as it was broadcast on live TV at that time. So I had avoided getting involved and thinking about this tragedy. I said no to this project, but my heart was saying I should’ve done it because some people may still have to continue living their lives. So maybe this movie can bring hope to them.”

Jeon compared her role with her acclaimed turn in Secret Sunshine in terms of the similar characters she played, both having lost a family member. The actress believes the time that passed in between the two roles changed her from someone who was guessing how such a character might feel, to knowing.

“At the time of shooting Secret Sunshine, I wasn’t married, and it was painful to express such sad feelings as those of a grieving mother,” said Jeon. “But by the time of ‘Birthday’, I had got married, and I knew what this feeling of losing my child really would be, as a wife and mother. Also, I was worried that the sad feelings about the Sewol tragedy would be so big that I would exaggerate them beyond the character Soon-Nam’s emotions. I tried to keep an objective point of view and not exaggerate my character.”

Birthday is about the families the victims of the disaster left behind, who still carry the pain and wound of the Sewol ferry tragedy.

“Of course, I was aware that this story is a really painful on to tell and I realised I needed the courage to face this tragedy but the movie is also about how to support people whose emotional wounds continue to affect their lives beyond the one tragedy,” said Jeon. “ So, it can be my story, but also it can be everybody’s story as well. I just want this movie to comfort them.”

Jeon also revealed she hoped that her work might inspire the emerging generation of Korean actors.

“I’m sure I’ll be acting for the rest of my life,” she said. “Acting is different for everybody, and expressing is different or everybody. Acting doesn’t have to be the same for everybody. It is a way for free spirits to express themselves.”

Birthday screened as the opening film of the Far East Film Festival 2019, where Jeon Do-Yeon was presented with a Golden Mulberry Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Arman Fatić is a member of the #FEFF21 Campus for 2019. The campus allows young journalists from all over the world to attend the festival. You can find out more about the campus here.

About the author

Min Woo ParkMin Woo Park Min Woo Park
Min Woo Park is a film lover who is studying communications and hopes he can show the potential power of film to people all over the world.
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