Michael Kerpan informs me that the 2006 article he and I had hocked unsuccessfully around the film magazine circuit before finding a home at Subway Cinema is no longer on Subway’s site. So I’m re-adopting it here for anyone’s enjoyment This article dates from before the release of The Host (which didn’t offer the big breakthrough role we were hoping it would for lovely Doo-na, but was a thrilling movie all the same). Michael can probably fill us in on our lady’s career since then (I haven’t seen or heard anything in the past year)…
We love Bae Doo-na (even if Korea doesn’t)
by Kevin B. Lee and Michael Kerpan
“Like a rat I want to be beautiful
Because there is a beauty that cannot be photographed.”
– the opening lines of The Blue Hearts’ “Linda Linda Linda”
It may sound offensive to describe Bae Doo-na – possibly the most talented young actress in the world – as being beautiful like a rat. It certainly does nothing to capture her obvious charms: expressive eyes seemingly stenciled from a manga comic, supermodel-length limbs, a moon-shaped face poised to blossom into a smile with enough electricity to light up the Inchon peninsula. But beneath her beguiling exterior lies a persona that’s as paradoxical as a beautiful rat. In her newest film, Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Linda Linda Linda (2005), she’s a Korean exchange student recruited as a novice vocalist for a Japanese high school band. On the day of the big show, she performs the title song with hair bedraggled by a rainstorm from which she just escaped, her pale, unadorned face squinting into harsh auditorium lights. Her hands clutching the microphone like a lifeline, she belts the song out awkwardly yet defiantly, straining to project each word in an alien tongue. And yes, she’s utterly beautiful.
If this triumphantly gawky spectacle defines Bae’s rat beauty, it may also explain the allure she holds for an ever-growing foreign fanbase. With its Korean protagonist fronting a Japanese girl group, Linda Linda Linda attests to the reverence for Korean pop culture that in recent years has lit upon Japan (not to mention the rest of East Asia and beyond). But how did Bae get to be chosen as ambassador? Lovers of world cinema, their eyes adrift in fascinating spaces they can’t quite claim as their own, may identify with this kindred soul who so confidently brandishes her bewilderment before a world of perplexities. Bae, an ex-model, has carved a career out of beautiful rat roles: a hapless young mother in Saving My Hubby (2002), an aimless high school graduate in Take Care of My Cat (2001); a left-wing outcast in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002). Bae’s artistry, still precocious at the age of 26, rests in her ability to bestow these workaday roles with a beguiling inner beauty. Invested with Bae’s poise, her characters transcend their inability to comprehend the world in which they find themselves disenfranchised.
Unfortunately, Bae’s embrace of the plebeian may render her as beautiful as a rat in the eyes of Korean movie audiences. Long a fixture on the Korean TV soap scene (she won the Korean Broadcasting Service Most Popular Actress Award in her debut year), she has yet to score an unqualified domestic hit. The unglamorous parts she plays, while acceptable for television, are not conducive to box office success. Especially when they call for a distinctively frumpy look; she was recruited for her breakthrough role in Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) for her willingness to go without makeup. It was a potentially career-wrecking choice that has haunted and distinguished her in a country where facial augmentation is common practice among women. It was the also the role that convinced Yamashita to give Bae her international debut.
While pretty faces flash and disappear on Korean cinema screens within a matter of months, Bae has cultivated a persona that subverts her physical endowments by testing the conventions of a young woman’s behavior. This trajectory began with one of Bae’s first major roles, in the teenage male rite-of-passage flick Plum Blossom (1999), which features her engaging in full frontal nudity and explicitly simulated sex. Scandalous as Bae’s appearance was, it was in fact her mother, the accomplished stage actress Kim Hwa-young, who encouraged her to take the role despite Bae’s own misgivings.
Another veteran actress, Yun Jeong-hee, has said that Bae on screen owns her world, and Bae proves this point best when she does the least. Her performance in Take Care of My Cat is the most unobstrusive among a turbulent quintet of high school friends whose post-graduate lives are spinning beyond each other’s reach. Bae has only a handful of scenes to herself; even in two-shots she is staged facing others as they speak towards the camera. But in the act of listening, she serves as more than merely the viewer’s onscreen proxy. Her half-concealed profile, interrupted by an occasional glance to an undefined distance, suggests a realm of private thought. Despite having less screen time than two other actresses, her performance walked away with the Korean critics’ best lead actress prize.
The dual persona of empathy and introspection that Bae demonstrates in Take Care of My Cat is present in many of her other roles, presenting an interiority whose detachment from its surroundings provides is enough to hold a viewer’s rapt attention. Fans of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance may remember a topless Bae using sign language to encourage her character’s deaf-mute boyfriend while in the throes of vigorous sex. But she is at her most compelling in an earlier scene on the same bed, rationalizing plans to kidnap a rich executive’s daughter to a mirror as her boyfriend reads her lips in the reflection. The spatial imbalance caused by these multiple layers of looking mirrors Bae’s uncommon ability to establish intimacy and distance at once.
Her naturally lanky frame is another vehicle through which she conveys her character’s unwieldy relationship with the world. An otherwise routine comedy such as Saving My Hubby is single-handedly carried by the spectacle of Bae’s physical exertion, as she spends much of the movie carrying a baby on her back while dodging through a neon-lit maze of gangster-infested alleys to rescue her derelict husband from evil extortionists. But her ungainliness is not always in the service of reinforcing conflicts. In Sympathy her physicality makes credible the disjunction between her character’s beguiling innocence and its absolutist ideological streak, by linking both to an animated set of childlike mannerisms, notably in a scene where she subversively sings an anti-Communist anthem to the girl she has kidnapped, her exuberant cheerleader kicks menacing yet playful. In a film that alternates between compassion towards loved ones and cruelty towards all others, Bae’s custody of her abductee exhibits both impulses at once. Her impulsive aura gives a much-needed spark of genuine warmth to Park’s clinical execution of his misanthropic treatise on humanity.
In Barking Dogs Never Bite, Bae’s Hyeon-nam, a Plain Jane clerk languishing at a housing complex, is given more close-ups than her appearances in other films, despite the unmade landscape of her visage. Scattered with pockmarks and lightly shimmering with grease, her face enhances her character’s guilelessness. While her complexion is explicit, her awareness is foggy — in her first scene she wakes up from a subway nap and offers her seat to a woman carrying a baby, not realizing that it’s a beggar seeking money from passengers. Bae’s character stumbles through a series of misapprehensions and faux pas, as she tries to uncover the mystery behind the disappearances and deaths of dogs around her complex. For most of the film she plays ambivalently with the level of her character’s intelligence — her eyes seem to absorb everything they come into contact with, though they repeatedly misperceive the darker motivations of others.
The critical moment comes when she drunkenly and playfully pursues a neighbor whom, unbeknownst to her, she had chased through the high-rises after spotting him from a distance tossing a dog from a rooftop. The man admits his guilt in the canine crimes, but both Bae and director Bong play ambiguously with Hyeon-nam’s tranquil, open-eyed reaction. Is she bestowing a Buddha-like forgiving gaze, or is she too drunk to catch what he’s saying? Her face exhibits ignorance and grace simultaneously and challenges the distinction between them. This moment exemplifies the drama of Bae’s openly expressive acting style: its collisions against the confining codes that society imposes to define one’s character and social standing. To borrow Gilberto Perez’ description of Buster Keaton, Bae is a bewildered equilibrist whose blank, open-eyed expression harnesses the thematic incongruence swirling both within and around her.
Again, this resilient ingenuousness in a world of estrangement may explain Bae’s international appeal. In Linda Linda Linda, sharing her character Son’s limited command of Japanese, Bae’s performance is relegated to a modicum of gestures, the physicality of which is enhanced by Yamashita’s enigmatic framing of her. In contrast to the extreme frontal close-up that introduces her in Barking Dogs Never Bite, our first look at her in Linda Linda Linda is a medium profile shot, half of her face hidden. When the band asks her to join them, she’s positioned so far in the background she has to shout her dialogue. Again she is in the background when she first listens to the title song, the back of her earphone-adorned head turned to her bandmates. In these opening shots Yamaguchi understands how much Bae’s hunched shoulders and angular posture readily identify her, whether from behind or from a distance. Yamashita’s visually oriented appraisal of Bae is doubtless one of a foreign admirer; Bae’s first international performance takes on an iconic quality reminiscent of a Keaton, Chaplin or Lloyd.
In Son’s frequently awkward verbal exchanges with other characters, there emerges a willful obstinacy, such as in her misunderstanding of a karaoke bar’s requirement to buy a drink in order to sing; or her emphatic use of Korean to coach a lovestruck bandmate, for which she’s chastised for “talking gibberish.” Bae’s performance conveys a pleasure in sticking out; as nerve-wracking as it is to be a misfit, it also seems to energize and define Son (who has very little backstory – we only see her interacting with bandmates, other people at school, and the daughter of her host family). Near the finale, she inexplicably walks out of a rehearsal to visit the auditorium stage. There she simulates introducing her bandmates, surprisingly prefacing each with a criticism while subsequently expressing her admiration for them. Son defines her persona in relation to others – an absence in the process of finding a presence, and in asserting what she is not that she defines what she is.
As Son, Bae distills her own onscreen persona into an essence, her identity a matter of pure physicality. A shot of her framed in a doorway while clutching the mike in a punk rock power stance has the makings of poster art. In the last image we see of her, she channels her bodily energy into the microphone singing “let’s sing an endless song for this asshole of a world” with utter conviction, but her eyes still glare out as if to guard their owner’s space, not fully accepting the gazes bestowed upon her. This is the beauty of Bae Doo-na: like a rat, it restlessly explores the crevices of the moment; and its disappearance into the cracks it finds only makes its presence more fully known.