“Which one did you think is the most beautiful?”
It was one obvious conversation opener at the bar after the screening of E J-yong’s Actresses, in which six of Korea’s top actresses aged from their early 20s to their 60s, gather for a Vogue photoshoot in a film which its director calls “part reality show, part fake documentary”.
I knew which one would get my vote. I’ve had a single-minded devotion to her since I first saw her in an E J-yong film more than 10 years ago. But I kept quiet to see what everyone else would say. And five males of different ages and ethnicity all voted for her. Of course, it was the 49 year-old Lee Mi-sook, still as beautiful as ever.
As if to answer us back, something that Lee Mi-sook (이미숙) said in the film was: “I hate being someone’s ‘ideal type’,” to which all six actresses had agreed. “They have a specific idea about how you should drink wine or something like that, and if you don’t live up to it, they’re really disappointed”. It was a tactful appeal for admirers to keep their distance.
And in fact our banter was mirroring the mostly unscripted conversation had between the six stars, which ranged across matters such as plastic surgery, divorce, men, the world of acting and life in general. Vanities, jealousies and insecurities are aired, with the added spice that they are gossiping about famous people we know and love from the world of Korean film and TV drama.
“Who’s your biggest rival – the actress who makes you most annoyed?” is one potentially explosive strand of conversation, started after rather too much Dom Perignon has been drunk. (The champagne had been generously supplied by Lee Mi-sook, demonstrating that in Korea, you can get a motorcycle delivery man to deliver anything, anywhere, double-quick, even on Christmas Eve.) This was one conversation which was tactfully wound down before too much damage could be done, but not before Lee Young-ae gets a mention.
Jealousy spans the ages. Kim Min-hee (김민희) is clearly annoyed that on all the publicity gigs for Hellcats the crowds were really there to see Wondergirl Ahn So-hee, not her (or indeed Lee Mi-sook, who also starred). And the magisterial veteran Yoon Yeo-jeong (윤여정) frets that she was a last-minute stand-in for this photoshoot, when another actress dropped out. In the film, the Vogue coordinator confessed that Jeon Do-yeon had been offered the shoot but declined because she was pregnant. In real life, Director E confessed that Jeon had not wanted to participate in the film itself because it would be too scary working on a set with so many actresses, while Kim Hye-soo had declined because she preferred working with a script.
For the film itself, Yoon was one of the first to be asked. The film grew out of evenings that E had spent chatting with her and Ko Hyeon-jeong (고현정), talking about the their life as actresses. He found the evenings so interesting, hearing about the real life behind the public personas, that he thought it might be the makings of a film. He sought out actresses who would be happy working with a minimal script, and ended up with, in descending order of seniority, Yoon, Lee, Ko, Choi Ji-woo (최지우), Kim Min-hee and Kim Ok-bin (김옥빈).
UK viewers will feel very comfortable with the genre from Ricky Gervais’s TV series Extras, which follows the shooting of a film or TV show from the perspective of the non-speaking parts. There is always a guest star, a major personality, who is starring in the film-within-the-film, and who plays up to his or her public persona and is happy to be sent up mercilessly.
In Actresses, it is hallyu megastar Choi Ji-woo (Winter Sonata) who probably displayed the most courage by playing the part of the prima donna, turning up to the shoot late for added impact, bringing her personal masseur and demanding a private makeup room. Before she arrives on set we’re already primed to be hostile to her given some of the backchat, but even so we are astonished at the tirade of bitchiness launched by Ko (who for Western viewers is known most for her two recent Hong Sang-soo films). Even Lee Mi-sook has a go at Choi, but is won over by a free massage. Choi acts the part extremely well, perhaps aided by the fact that at least the fight was in the script so she had a chance to prepare. But the scenario for the film was extremely sketchy, E confessed: the structure was
- The actresses get together for a shoot;
- Choi and Ko have a fight;
- then there’s a party.
Otherwise, much of the dialogue is ad-libbed, with (particularly in the party scene) E providing suggestions for topics of conversation to spur the actresses on.
Part of the fun of this film is trying to figure out whether the actresses really mean what they’re saying, or whether they’re deliberately playing to camera or saying what they think their fans (or critics) would want or expect them to say. Such is the world of celebrity, where you’re not quite sure what is real. But it all looks so beautiful and enviable that consumers lap it up anyway. And why not?
E J-yong revealed in a recent interview1 that there were several sides to his personality. He likes making restrained films like An Affair, but also has a side which loves the extremities of campness – and this came out in the over-the-top visual style of Dasepo Naughty Girls. There’s also plenty of camp in Actresses, from the discussion of the different fashion labels to the frantic jewellery man trying to get the precious gems to the shoot through the snowstorm. In fact there’s so much fun to be had watching this film that it passes in a flash.
Viewers who aren’t familiar with some of the filmography might miss out on some of the “in” jokes. But you don’t have to pick up on all the references to have a good time with this film. Particularly during the extended party scene (when either the jerky hand-held camera has settled down, or you have grown used to it) you can settle down and enjoy the sounds of the conversation so typical of a Korean drinking bout. And as the actresses leave the Vogue building, all animosities forgotten, you want to go with them to their 이 차. The whole movie was so delicious I want to watch it again, immediately.
E J-yong (이재용): Actresses (여배우들, 2009).
Actresses, followed by a Q&A with Director E J-yong, concluded the the second month of the Korean Cultural Centre’s Year of the 12 Directors series. The screening was at the Apollo Piccadilly on 23 February. Other films screened at the KCC during the month were An Affair (1998), Untold Scandal (2003) and Dasepo Naughty Girls (2006). Sadly there was no opportunity to screen Asako in Ruby Shoes (2000).
- With LKL, Hangul Celluloid, Eastern Kicks, miniminimoves and The East. Transcript on Hangul Celluloid.