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Emptying Myself: Doona Bae on Performance and A Girl At My Door

Doona Bae 01

By Paul Risker.

The art of film performance offers an actor the chance to explore identity in an intimate medium. But there are those characters that resonate powerfully with an actor as she undertakes the journey of lifting her role off the page. For Korean actress Doona Bae, A Girl At My Door represented such an encounter. As she explained: “After Jupiter Ascending (2015) I went for A Girl At My Door. I went through the whole process of filming and at that time I was kind of vulnerable for some reason. I felt a little bit homesick – I had been outside of Korea since Cloud Atlas (2012) learning English. But after I got through the whole filming I felt myself filled with love or I felt like I’d grown up.” With a collection of high profile credits to her name across Korean and English language cinema, she has collaborated with Joon-ho Bong on Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) and The Host (2006), as well as with Chan-wook Park on the first instalment of his vengeance trilogy Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance (2002).

In conversation with Film International, Bae discussed a familiarity with performance from a young age, her approach to the craft and her respect for the director, as well as the importance of enjoying and respecting all of the individuals that comprise the collaborative nature of filmmaking. While discussing Korean cinema’s forward journey, she reflected how her concern for its present and future identity is guiding the choices of her own future. 

Why a career in acting? Was there an inspirational or defining moment? 

Doona Bae 02It was actually kind of a strange process. My mom is a theatre actress and I grew up watching her stage performances. So I was quite familiar with that kind of environment and atmosphere, but actually it worked to the opposite because I didn’t dare to be an actor. Looking at all the amazing actors, including my mom, I thought it was something that I could not do. I was a really shy and quiet girl and so I never dreamed about being an actor.

I was spotted on the street by a model agency and so I started out as a model. It was like a part time job because I was a university student and I needed some money. And then they offered me Ring Virus (1999), which was my first audition for a film. At that time I didn’t think I’d become a proper actress and then a very important film was (offered to me), Barking Dogs Never Bite by Joon-ho Bong, who later made The Host. While I was working on the film I fell in love with the film set as well as the film and I realised that I love acting. I loved being and living as somebody else. So that’s how I became more ambitious or passionate about acting and that was when I decided to be an actor, although I was really lucky because I wasn’t very ambitious, and it just happened naturally and gradually.

From project to project and character to character, how has your perspective and appreciation of the craft of acting evolved?  

Barking Dogs Never Bite

Barking Dogs Never Bite

I don’t know what other actors do, but I just empty myself. I am not sure if it makes sense, but the way I play a role is I just become empty so that the director can tell what it is they want to tell through me. But I am sure I live as a character when I work on a project, but at the same time presenting myself as a blank canvas or being ready to be painted by the painter. 

So from your perspective it’s almost as if the director is a painter and you are one of the shades of colours with which he paints? 

Yes, and so it’s important to me to have some time off between films to get rid of the last character I played, and to then become a new character, if that makes sense.

It’s a beautiful way to describe your personal approach. Bringing the conversation around to A Girl At My Door, when you first read the script what was the appeal of both the character and the story?  

I was attracted to the script by the way that she was written. If you have read the script then after the first page you will have already fallen in love with the way she is written because it is not very straightforward or direct. Rather it is very poetic and sophisticated. So I became curious about the director July Jung who also wrote the script after just one page – I wanted to know her and to meet her.

At the time when I read the script for A Girl At My Door I was shooting Jupiter Ascending in London. I could feel what my character, Young-Nam, felt in the moment. She’s a very fragile and breakable character and I could totally understand what she felt, and I fell in love with Do-Hee, too. So the day before the first day of shooting I drove my car to the location. It took five hours from Seoul where I live and while I was driving I already felt like Young-Nam because she herself was driving to where the film is set in the first scene. So I thought: oh, this feeling right here is… [laughs] It is a little bit weird, but it is magical. Acting is so fascinating and for me it is more like instinct, inspiration and a director’s direction – everything just makes it work.

Film is fundamentally a collaborative process in which an array of people are working towards creating the final film. Do you enjoy the collaborative process of filmmaking?

Doona Bae 03That’s what I like most about filming. I love being on camera; being on set and being an actor, I am so proud of myself. I feel more and more responsible for the crew and that’s the motivation that makes me want to play the role well; to represent all of those amazing people. I feel more responsible towards them and I love hanging out with them. A Girl At My Door was a perfect experience because it was a really small group of people and after Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending, it was a really small production – a fifty person crew in a small village. It was an intimate process of filming that was special, and we all became friends. This was very important to me to make me want to keep on going. I love the process and I love it when the director says: “Ready… Action.” It makes me feel alive and I love it so much.

The bath scene represents a noticeable turn in the mood of the film. Suddenly you feel a sense that there are darker undercurrents and what seems to be a certain kind of story takes a darker turn as it evolves. Can you talk about that moment and its importance within the film’s narrative?

For me there are some scenes where you feel like that, but every time I saw Do-Hee I felt it; as if it was dark and it was going to be…. Even from the first scene when my character drove to the village, it was nice weather with sunshine and then suddenly it was pouring with rain. At the time I already felt something like this would happen.

It is a patient film that moves along steadily at its own pace. It knows exactly what it wants to do and it is one of those films that as an audience member you feel that it immerses you. One of the intriguing aspects of the film is the use of the sound and the camera, which alongside an absence of dialogue that offers your character silent moments creates this truly immersive experience. 

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

Silence for me is a very valuable moment, and as you said silence gives the audience more time to immerse themselves in the situations, the stories and the characters. But for me it was more of a delicate process of acting because you have to tell them what you are feeling without saying it, so that they can imagine and feel what you felt. I think sometimes there are not enough words to describe exactly what you are feeling and here you had to feel with the silence. And I think that really worked well in this film. Why I loved this script was the space between the lines or how everything was not described. It was more poetic and so I followed the director in how he wanted to tell the story and so my acting is more delayed, which I think worked well for the film.

Your character has a past filled with angst. As an audience do you think we are more drawn to characters that suffer as opposed to characters who are happy and who do not have their backs against the wall?

I think the character I played was carrying a lot of things within herself, but I feel that it is similar to what everyone carries. A Girl At My Door addresses a lot of social issues, but not only focused on child abuse, homosexuality or homophobia. It is more the general issues and so I think you can just feel what the characters are feeling – the loneliness and the suffering. So this is how you enter into the story, but I do think it is important to feel or have a sense of the issues.

With A Girl At My Door tackling social issues, how do you perceive the way the film will play to an international audience? 

To be honest I didn’t expect the film would go abroad to so many countries, but I say this in a good way. It takes place in a very small village in Korea and I thought the film was talking about the social issues in Korea or what we are thinking about at the moment. So I am surprised that it has gone to Japan, France and the UK. Whenever I hear about places it has gone, I hear people have loved it. So I am surprised, but as I say this is not intended to be offensive to the film because I am very happy and proud of it. But maybe Korean culture or Korean films now have become more familiar and maybe international audiences are curious. And probably the story and the issues in the film tells us about what most people are thinking about in modern life, not only in Korea.

What has always intrigued me is how as an international audience we discovered the Korean New Wave after it had ended. So in a sense the international audience is living in Korean cinema’s past. To build on your previous point, how do you view the place of Korean cinema more broadly on the international stage?

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas

Definitely, there is a certain power or energy you get from Korean cinema. But Korean cinema is changing because the film industry is huge and people love films – Koreans go to the cinema all of the time. We have a fifty million population and a quarter of them saw The Host, which is kind of crazy. But at the same time the whole success of the industry brings a commerciality to it and so I’m a little bit worried about this. And that’s why I want to do this kind of film more and more because Korean cinema ten years ago, when you watched a film like The Host, was just so beautiful. There were so many beautiful Korean films and now it is changing more and more for money. But I am not sure what it’s like on the international stage.

I think you strike on an important point that geographically there is an inherent conflict between art and commerciality. Art is trying to retain its individuality and remain beautiful while the commercial is trying to make it into a product that can be sold. It is interesting to hear the stage this is at within Korea because it is the story of art throughout the ages, and all art suffers from a war between money and artistic integrity. 

Yeah, and I am so happy and very proud of Korean films. So many people from other countries love Korean films which makes me proud. But we should really continue with this special Korean culture that is present in the films, and so if I have more of a chance I am going to work on this kind of film that audiences can appreciate internationally, because you don’t need the same kind of films as Hollywood for Korean movies.

A filmmaker remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” How do you view the way in which this film shaped you both personally and professionally, and informed you moving forward?

As I said the Korean film industry is my home town and when I worked on some films fifteen years ago like Barking Dogs Never Bite, Take Care Of My Cat (2001) and Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, I was in my early twenties and it remains how I fell in love with films. So this is why I fell in love with Korean cinema and A Girl At My Door – even if I have been working on a couple of other Korean films as well – made me think about in particular my early days. So after Jupiter Ascending I went for A Girl At My Door and I went through the whole process of filming. At that time I was kind of vulnerable for some reason and I felt a little bit homesick – I had been outside of Korea since Cloud Atlas learning English. But after I got through the whole filming I felt myself filled with love or I felt like I’d grown up. Maybe it is kind of related to the character because I felt like a grown up at the end of the film and it was a special moment. I felt like I had gone back home, and so when I started Sense8 (the 2015 Netflix series created by The Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski) I felt like I could travel again.

Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.

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