Year: 2008
Director: E J-yong  (이재용)
Screenplay:  Choi Ji-woo (최지우)
Cinematography: Hong Kyeong-pyo (홍경표)
Cast:  Yoon Yeo-jeong (윤여정), Lee Mi-sook (이미숙), Ko Hyeon-jeong (고현정), Kim Min-hee (김민희), Choi Ji-woo (최지우),  Kim Ok-bin (김옥빈)
Runtime: 104 min
Trailer: on Youtube

Seen at the Apollo Cinema (Piccadilly Circus) as part of the E J-yong (이재용) month of the KCCUK‘s Korean Film Night programme “2012: Year of the 12 Directors”. The screening was followed by a Q&A with the director.

The premise of 여배우들 (Yeobaeudeul/Actresses) is fascinating: it brings together six real-life Korean actresses to play (versions of) themselves in a mockumentary/docu drama. In other words, there is both fact and fiction but where the exact boundary between the two falls is unclear. The plot: the actresses come together at Christmas for a joint Vogue magazine shoot, which is held up as the jewellery for the photo styling – due to be flown in from Singapore – is late to arrive. As the women wait, they gossip, and share tears and laughter.

The idea for Yeobaeudeul came from behind-the-scenes conversations with actors, inspiring E J-yong to undertake a film project that was unusual in just about every way imaginable: no script was prepared, but actors were told they would work on the basis of improvisation – having to flesh out the story with experiences from their own lives and imagination – with only limited prompts in the form of keywords and a few other details being provided by the director. The unconventional working format meant that seasoned performers turned the project down, citing the need for a script or a precise character profile, while others were concerned about exposing too much of themselves to the audience.

Six big (or not-so-big) egos on the set.

It is difficult to make a film such as Yeobaeudeul and to do it well: its premise – six actresses, all with big egos, in the same room – is promising, but to succeed requires either a tightly written script or a very fine-tuned ensemble cast. For both, acting talent is essential, but for the latter skills for re-acting and inter-acting are just as crucial and require closeness and comfort between the individuals involved, as well as a good dose of audacity. With Yeobaeudeul being scriptless, the weight was thus on the shoulders of the performers, not all bearing it equally well. Yoon Yeo-jeong, the eldest actress in the group, intrigued from the start. She portrays the diva that walks into the studio – a good hour early – expecting to be recognised by everyone and to be treated differently, but is essentially ignored by the staff rushing around the set in the middle of last minute preparations. Yoon feels both slighted and embarrassed, offering viewers a complex character. Plenty of her actions suggest that the actress/character is insecure in her own skin, but at the same time dry humour and a sense of fearlessness come through (she recoils in horror from Choi Ji-won’s personal masseur, but then does give him a try), reflecting perhaps Yoon in real life: a woman of a respectable age who has made her name and earned her fame and thus is no longer afraid of any missteps, offering more frank and honest words than anyone else.

None of the other actresses have quite the screen presence of Yoon Yeo-jeong, their personalities taking form to varying degrees, some unfortunately almost disappearing into the film. Although general outlines that can be drawn for all of them – there are the middle-aged ladies versus the young ones, the single women versus the divorcees, there is the Hallyu star with Japanese housewife fans, etc.) – what does, for example, Kim Ok-bin amount to other than the barely noticed, grovelling newbie? Not much really.

A bit of a spat in the stairways.

What is also lacking is a real clash of egos, a noisy explosion that takes us to a point of no return. The actresses engage only in rather benign squabbles, one all too brief scene excepting perhaps, and although there is some sense of jealousy among them, there is no deep-rooted hostility, no clash of true rivals. When the question of which contemporary they are each most envious of is posed, the women all name performers not present on the set that day – which would have been the real fun if you ask me. Instead, there is a sense of guardedness, something like a fear to act out too much and expose one’s true self – and thus risk one’s career. And this is where the film backfires: in its desire to show that raw underbelly of the acting and celebrity world, it remains at the surface, ironically reflecting the reality – the constant judgment and pressure, the aim for plastic perfection, the creation of a persona rather than a person that looms particularly large in South Korean entertainment sphere. But that anyone watching Korean films and dramas will already have known.

Yeobaeudeul is of course the kind of film where things easily get lost in translation. All the main performers – everyone one from Yoon Yeo-jeong to Kim Ok-bin – are exceptionally well known in South Korea, while audiences elsewhere are unlikely to be familiar even with their names, let alone their filmographies and personal as well as public lives. In order words, most likely non-Koreans have missed out on more subtle references or inside-jokes that might raise the film to a  level of more wicked enjoyment.

Overall Verdict: Actresses presents a clash of egos that entertains but lacks the final punch that the casting of sworn enemy actresses or otherwise a scripted film could have produced.

Rating: 7/10

Bonus bits – some afterthoughts:

  • The film opens with the lines “There are three kinds of people in the world – men, women and actresses”, which I found rather cliché and a tad bit sexist – male actors have no big egos and vanity? (Hello? Let’s talk flower boys! Or how about we have a reshoot with Jaejoong – bless him – and his super-huge hand mirror and 5 iPods?). Granted, it is possible that Korean lines said something more insightful.
  • Two new things I learned: 1) Koreans smoke a lot. I’m used to lots of prominent smoking shots in Japanese cinema, but hadn’t seen quite as much in Korean films before. Interestingly, there seems to be no negative judgement attached to this as is increasingly the case in other parts of the world. 2) “Small faces” are considered beautiful although I am not quite sure what they mean with this.
  • The director has to be lauded for the casting of Yoo Te-oh (유테오) as Emile. Rather than grabbing the first self-proclaimed German speaker off the street, E J-yong managed to find one that actually suited the role and spoke fluent German. I can’t find any substantial info on the actor, but I suppose he is either a halfie or otherwise a TCK who grew up in Germany.

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