Actress Bae Doo-na began her acting career with a small role in 'The Ring Virus', following it with a notable performance in Bong Joon-ho's seminal 'Barking Dogs Never Bite'.
Throughout her career in films such as 'Sympathy for Mr Vengeance', 'Take Care of My Cat', and 'The Host', Bae Doo-na has repeatdly shown an astounding acting talent leading to her recent appearance in big budget English Language films 'Cloud Atlas', 'Jupiter Ascending' and Netflix drama 'Sense8'.
Bae Doo-na's latest Korean film role is in the critcally acclaimed 'A Girl at My Door', directed by July Jung.
The following interview took place on 17 Sept 2015 prior to a Peccadillo Pictures special screening of 'A Girl at My Door' and Q&A with actress Bae Doo-na, at Picturehouse Central cinema.
Interviewers - Hangul Celluloid, FilmDoo and TooMuchNoiseBlog:
Hangul Celluloid: ‘A Girl at My Door’ is both striking and I feel an important film. The commentary on social issues it contains is not only thought provoking but also, some would say, still somewhat controversial if we consider the nature of the sexuality portrayed, which was for a long time a rather taboo subject in Korean film. How would you describe what ‘A Girl at My Door’ says about attitudes towards alternative lifestyles in Korea?
Bae Doo-na: I loved the script of ‘A Girl at My Door’ and part of that was as a result of its statements on social issues which I feel stand out from the majority of Korean films, even many of those that detail sexual attitudes. I guess the film is drawing attention to attitudes that are frankly wrong, attitudes that should have changed long before now. Obviously, I don’t want to blame my own culture but frankly there are still a lot of attitudes held by some – hopefully minorities, by now – that do mirror the characters in this film. My character, too, is almost seen as part of a social minority in the movie but one of the strengths of ‘A Girl at My Door’ is the sophistication with which it shines a light on the place and position in society she is virtually forced into, a place she shouldn’t be forced into at all. Certainly, the sexuality in ‘A Girl at My Door’ is underlined strongly but it’s never ‘in your face’, it’s always indirect and a lot of things are left open. I guess you could say ‘A Girl at My Door’ speaks clearly but never shouts, and I loved that about the script.
FilmDoo: How universal would you say the themes and insights of the film are?
Bae Doo-na: I feel the film affected audiences both domestically and internationally. When I first saw audience reactions abroad and the way international audiences related so strongly to the story, I thought “Ok, this is not just a case of Korean problems or Korean issues”. The fact that isolation and loneliness is strongly depicted in the narrative regardless of the character’s sexuality I think helped audiences from anywhere in the world relate to the story. For me, there is a profound and existential isolation and loneliness portrayed and I think that more than anything else is universal.
TooMuchNoiseBlog: In relation to the social climate and the themes in the film, I believe your agreed to star in the film without pay, even, but do you feel that without your involvement the film might have struggled for funding and distribution?
Bae Doo-na: That was one of the reasons I chose to be involved in the film. I really wanted to support ’A Girl at My Door’ in every way I could. So many great scripts fall by the wayside and never reach an audience in Korea and when I read the script I thought “I would play any role, large or small in this film. I’ll do anything to make this film work, to make sure it is seen.” I chose this film for the film itself, not for the role of any particular character so any role that would have been offered to me I would gladly have taken. I have missed seeing this type of Korean film. I am a big fan of Korean cinema but nowadays it’s so hard for films with heavy themes to get financing. If investors think a story is too heavy to make money, it more often than not doesn’t get made. Ten to 15 years ago, when I did ‘Barking Dogs Never Bite’ or ‘Take Care of My Cat’, Korean cinema was wonderfully varied but recently that diversity is far less prevalent, and I miss that diversity deeply.
Hangul Celluloid: If we compare your Korean film career with your international roles, a lot of the Korean films you have starred in have been fairly small, independent films with very reality based narratives – more often than not with noticeably strong female characters – whereas internationally your work has involved far bigger budget productions, and ‘Cloud Atlas’ and Jupiter Ascending’, certainly, could even be said to fit within the sci-fi genre, even though they have far more too them than that alone. Is there a reason for that difference in terms of film size and reality/fantasy contrast?
Bae Doo-na: There was no real plan on my part to star in such different size or story productions internationally compared to my Korean film career. Ultimately, my decisions have always been based on who I want to work with, more than anything else. The most important thing for me in a film is who the director is and/or who is involved in making the film. Internationally, I have worked with Hirokazu Koreeda and Nobuhiro Yamashita, who are both incredible Japanese directors, they are geniuses, and as you mentioned I’ve worked with the Wachowskis in the US, who I really love. For Korean cinema, I might be more specific in my choices – I am quite picky [Bae Doo-na laughs] and I guess there are some directors I maybe wouldn’t want to work with… but of course I don’t want to give any names as that might end badly [Bae Doo-na laughs]. If you take the work I have done with the Wachoskis, I adore the worlds they create and I love the way the deal with social issue and problems in the films in such a wonderfully sarcastic way and the twist and turns they bring to narratives. I guess my work is indeed different internationally but it my decisions all come down to the films themselves and the film-makers.
FilmDoo: With you filmography being so diverse, would you say there is a particular type of character you specialise in playing or enjoy playing?
Bae Doo-na: I love playing characters who I can’t be in reality and I think I’m good at acting silently [Bae Doo-na laughs]. Does that make sense? I sometimes feel I can express more without dialogue and there are so many things you cannot describe with words and in terms of acting with expression I feel I can perhaps get closer to giving a performance that is more nuanced and closer to what the director wants. In terms of ‘A Girl at My Door’, I knew I could play this particular character and I knew I would be comfortable in the role. I had almost a weird confidence about it.
TooMuchNoiseBlog: Taking what you said about acting with expressions rather than dialogue, ‘A Girl at My Door’ reminds me greatly of Scandinavian film. Would you like to move into making more films like ‘A Girl at My Door’, in terms of the drama it contains rather than being big budget?
Bae Doo-na: Yes, I would, but I’m quite spontaneous so even I can’t say what I’m likely to do in the future. I follow my instincts when I choose a film, so there are no boundaries. I want to work on challenging films, something new, something stepping away from the norm. I love challenges. At the moment, I am obsessed with comedy and as I’ve been playing such serious roles of late something light-hearted is always a nice change. I do like to alternate between serious and light-hearted roles and playing a comedic role enables me to get out of any darkness that has come from the harder-hitting roles such as ‘A Girl at My Door’.
Hangul Celluloid: Films like ‘Cloud Atlas’, ‘Jupiter Ascending’ and drama ‘Sense8’ have, I feel, made you probably one of the most well known Korean actresses in terms of Western general public (those who are not Korean film fans specifically). In terms of that, what would you say was your breakthrough film in Korea and do you think your English language films have increased your profile in Korea, even though you were already well known from your Korean film work and appearance in many TV dramas?
Bae Doo-na: I think probably ‘The Host’ was my breakthrough film simply because so many people saw it in Korea, the UK, the US… everywhere. Even I was surprised at how well known it was. You know, I walked into a clothing store in the UK and the cashier said “Oh, you’re Bae Doo-na! You were in ‘The Host’!” I mean, for her to mention ‘The Host’ rather than an English language film was an utter shock to me. So, yes, probably ‘The Host’. In fact, the Wachowskis told me they had been watching ‘Take Care of My Cat’, ‘The Host’, ‘Air Doll’. However, for me the most life changing film of my career was ‘Barking Dogs Never Bite’. I know it sounds weird but when I was young I grew up watching my mum’s performances on stage – she was a theatre actress – and I never thought I could be an actress because I was so shy, so quiet, I didn’t realise my talent at all and I thought that acting was something that I could never find the talent to do. I got scouted by a model agency and I began modelling just to make some money while I was at university and that lead me to being cast as a ghost in ‘The Ring Virus’. At that time, I honestly didn’t feel like an actress, I didn’t really think I could ever act professionally, but ’Barking Dogs Never Bite’ changed my mind, in one fell swoop. That film made me decide to become an actress – a good actress – and that film thereby changed my whole life. I was always obsessed with films but ‘Barking Dogs Never Bite’ made me who I am and changed my focus to trying to become a good actress, first and foremost. ‘Air Doll’ too played a big part in my career and my life in its depiction of loneliness. Actually, thinking about it I might be obsessed with that theme and even ‘Sense8’ reminded me of ‘Air Doll’ because ‘Sense8’ deals with the sharing of emotions and there is a point in ‘Air Doll’ where it says you cannot live alone, a poem states you have to interact with others to complete yourself.
FilmDoo: ‘A Girl at My Door’ was produced by the extremely talented director Lee Chang-dong and I can see many parallels to his films. How much of an influence did Lee Chang-dong have on the final film?
Bae Doo-na: A great deal. Really a lot, to be honest. July Jung was a student of his at university – he was a professor – and he picked up her script and decided it should be made into a film. I heard he got involved in the writing as well, he also worked in the editing room and visited the set quite often to give her advice. He even gave me a little bit of advice on my acting in the film. You can almost smell Lee Chan-dong’s work through the entire film.
TooMuchNoiseBlog: Would you perhaps like to get involved in theatre acting and has your mum, as a theatre actress, ever given you advice about working with directors.
Bae Doo-na: My mum has never given me advice about that. She teaches students acting at university but she never advised me about it. It’s very, very weird I guess. She told me you have to learn to open your heart to act but she never told me how to act. Even when I begged her to teach me she turned me down. However, she did give me advice on other aspects of my career. When I chose some films featuring nudity I was only 20 or so and I was really nervous and hesitant. My mum said if you want to be a good actress you cannot be afraid of nudity. She said “You can do whatever you want or need to for the film, you can even take off your for a film, as long as you don’t take off your clothes in real life” [Bae Doo-na laughs]. She always said the most important thing for acting is confidence. She is my mentor but she is a theatre actress and I am a film actress. When I did do theatre at one stage, I felt like I was naked… because I needed a camera. I feel more comfortable in front of cameras. In fact, during ‘Clouds Atlas’ I was even jealous of my body doubles because they were getting a lot of time on camera instead of me [Bae Doo-na laughs]. When I work on a film, I don’t read the script much in advance of rehearsals. That way, my reactions are more natural and I can remember them when filming. In the theatre, things are more fixed, less spontaneous.
Hangul Celluloid: We are being asked to wrap things up but one final, quick question. There has been a lot of talk online saying that your next project is an omnibus film called ‘Romantic’. Is that correct?
Bae Doo-na: The story of me being in ‘Romantic’ is just a rumour that has gone viral. I ultimately didn’t sign on to the project. Sometimes online websites are naughty [Bar Doo-na laughs].
Hangul Celluloid: I also believe ‘Sense8’ has been given a second series. When is it likely to take place and are you excited about it?
Bae Doo-na: Oh yes, I am incredibly excited about it. During the ‘Sense8’ season one shooting, it was really intense for me because we had to move from one city to another every two or weeks, from San Francisco to Chicago, to London, to Reykjavik, and it was insane but we really became more a family that just work colleagues. ‘Sense8’ deals with characters sharing emotions and while shooting I realised all the cast were doing that too, we were ‘Sense8-ing’. WE became like brothers and sisters and when we finished filming we missed each other so, so much. I didn’t expect to be yearning for season two but I truly am. Another great thing about it that you never, never know what to expect from the Wachowskis and even I don’t have a clue about where my character will be taken. In general terms, ‘Sense8’ being available exclusively on Netflix is amazing, I think. The fact that all the episodes are there ready to watch one after another is so much better than having to wait a week for the next episode. I think that is ultimately the future of episodic drama. However, ultimately I still prefer film in the cinema because I think there is something really special, even romantic about going to the cinema to see a film on the big screen. It’s a whole beautiful, romantic event.
'A Girl at My Door' is released in UK cinemas by Peccadillo Pictures on 18 September 2015.