Actresses (Yeobaewoodeul). 2009. Produced and directed by E J-yong. Written by Yoon Yeo-jeong, Lee Mi-sook, Choi Ji-woo, Ko Hyun-jung, Kim Min-hee and Kim Ok-vin. Cinematography by Hung Kyung-pyo. Edited by Hahm Sung-won and Ko Amo. Music by Jang Young-gyu and Lee Byung-hoon. Production design by Hong Joo-hee. Costume design by Cho Yoon-mi.
Cast: Yoon Yeo-jeong, Lee Mi-sook, Choi Ji-woo, Ko Hyun-jung, Kim Min-hee, Kim Ok-vin, Kim Ji-soo, Lee Ji-ah, Kim Yong-ho, Oh Je-hyeong, Ahn Ji-hye, Yoo Te-oh.
(Note: this review has been cross-posted on Twitch.)
“Curb Your Enthusiasm meets Korean TV drama” could be the tagline for E J-yong’s delightful Actresses, a semi-improvised comedy/drama featuring a sextet of actresses – Yoon Yeo-jeong (A Good Lawyer’s Wife, The President’s Last Bang, The Housemaid), Lee Mi-sook (An Affair, Untold Scandal, Hellcats), Choi Ji-woo (Winter Sonata, The Romantic President, Everybody Has Secrets), Ko Hyun-jung (Woman on the Beach, Like You Know It All), Kim Min-hee (Hellcats), and Kim Ok-vin (Dasepo Naughty Girls, Thirst) – all “playing themselves.” (I’ll explain the quotes later.) The entire film takes place during a Vogue fashion shoot on Christmas Eve, teasing out the camaraderie and conflicts that arise among these strong women with equally strong egos. The action plays out in near-real time, faux-documentary style. The actresses are a cross-section of different generations: Kim Ok-vin and Kim Min-hee are the youngest, in their 20’s; Ko Hyun-jung and Choi Ji-woo are in their 30’s; Lee Mi-sook is in her 40’s; and the eldest is Yoon Yeo-jeong, in her 60’s.
The most pronounced conflict in the film occurs between Ko and Choi, who very nearly come to blows. Because they are of the same generation, they are the most direct rivals. Choi, prior to the shoot, is the most anxious at meeting the other actresses: “Just imagining a bunch of actresses with strong egos in one place … It’s so scary!” These women have had similar experiences and would seem to have natural camaraderie, but the dog-eat-dog nature of the entertainment industry encourages rivalries that can often become very bitter. Actresses makes much of Choi’s huge stardom in Japan, mostly due to the massive popularity there of Winter Sonata, the 2002 Korean TV drama that was a smash hit across Asia, and was a major work of the hallyu (Korean pop-culture wave) phenomenon. This forms a major part of the rivalry between Choi and Ko, who wishes for similar pan-Asian popularity; Ko identifies as her personal rival Lee Young-ae, who achieved great popularity in China due to her work in the 2003 Korean TV drama Dae Jang Geum (Jewel in the Palace). There is a funny bit in which Choi is accosted by a trio of middle-aged Japanese women fans when she arrives at the shoot; this was the main fan base of Winter Sonata in Japan.
The opening epigram of Actresses states that “There are male, female, and actress in this world.” This illuminates a major theme of the film: actresses are put in a separate category from “normal” people, their every move subject to media scrutiny. Especially as women, they are judged much more harshly for getting divorced or other supposed peccadilloes, things that ordinary people experience every day without being put under a public microscope. Such things happen in many other places, of course, but this situation is much more pronounced in Korea, which still remains a very patriarchal society. Actresses is quite astute in its depiction of the elaborate apparatus of image-making which is a crucial part of both the film and fashion industries. The Vogue staff (who also portray themselves) are well aware they’re taking a big risk by having all of these actresses, along with their attendant egos and insecurities, in the same room together. Kim Ji-soo, the Vogue department head organizing the shoot, advises her staff, “Just keep telling them they’re pretty.” E pokes fun (perhaps; it could be sheer reportage) at some of the outlandish and rather silly concepts for fashion photo shoots. Two of the more amusing are Kim Ok-vin wearing a low-cut red dress while carrying a fishing pole, and Kim Min-hee donning a big pair of velvet bunny ears and eating a cream-topped cupcake.
The final half-hour of the film, where all the actresses gather around an improvised Christmas dinner with copious amounts of wine, is the most revealing. They discuss their rivalries, the difficulties of personal relationships and being actresses in Korea, the pressures of fame and being under constant public scrutiny, and the divorces of three of them – Ko, Yoon, and Lee. The only moment that comes across as somewhat false is when all the actresses break down in tears toward the end of their talk. Although they are mining very painful personal material for this scene, the suddenness with which this is introduced feels a bit forced and shoehorned in to unnecessarily underline the film’s themes.
Even though Actresses is billed as featuring actresses “playing themselves,” its most clever gambit is in forcing the viewer to question what that really means. Much of the actresses’ personality traits – Ko’s wicked temper, Choi’s diva attitude, Yoon’s world-weariness and irritability – play upon Korean audiences’ popular notions of these actresses, and their media image. But is all this truly “real,” or instead film performances that actually have no basis in reality? It’s impossible to say, so who these actresses really are remains a mystery, despite a film form that encourages us to read what we see as actresses revealing their “real” selves. And if that’s not meta enough for you, as promotion for the film in Korea, all six actresses were featured in a photo shoot for … you guessed it, Vogue.
Actresses hums along at a breezy clip, and at first it seems like a mere trifle, if an enjoyable one. However, as things get serious in the final reels, it becomes clear that the actresses’ real lives (they all credited as screenwriters) have been mined to create a work that has much more depth than it initially appears to have. Viewers’ comprehension of this film is directly proportional to their familiarity with these actresses’ film and television work and their personal lives, as well as the Korean entertainment industry in general. Therefore, much of the proceedings will be a bit inside baseball for most non-Koreans. However, issues of the travails of actresses, and the double standards they are often held to, will resonate with viewers from anywhere in the world. Actresses may initially seem to be a superficial, if pretty, object, but in the end becomes a moving tribute to these beautiful women and their enduring allure. Actresses has a radically different style from E J-yong’s last film, the pop-art confection Dasepo Naughty Girls, and adds another facet to this director’s very eclectic career. Actresses is a lovely tribute both to the six women featured and to actresses everywhere. The film sparkles with effervescent charm, and there are doubtless many gems to be found in the outtakes. One could easily, and enjoyably, spend many more hours in the company of these wonderful women.
Actresses screens on July 3 at 7pm and July 5 at 3:40 at the Walter Reade Theater. Both screenings will be introduced by E J-yong. Click here to purchase tickets.
Arirang TV piece on Actresses: