Dispatching assassins is easy, but handling her moody teenage daughter is impossible: one of South Korea’s top actresses is back with a new action movie, blending killer fight scenes with parental angst.
Revered in South Korea, Jeon Do-yeon, 50, has won the top acting prize at Cannes and worked with a veritable who’s who of Korean directors over a three-decade career.
She’s played everything from an HIV-positive prostitute to a Korean housewife wrongly accused of drug smuggling, but it was her personal experience as a mother that proved invaluable for her latest role — and first action lead — Kill Boksoon.
The Tarantino-esque action thriller, which launches Friday on Netflix, was written by filmmaker Byun Sung-hyun — a confessed Jeon superfan — with the actress specifically in mind.
“I’m not a killer by profession, but I’m also living a very dual life — there is my life as an actress, and there’s that life as a mother,” said Jeon, who like her character Boksoon has a teenage daughter.
Set in the vicious world of corporate assassins and filled with kinetic fight scenes, Kill Boksoon is a major departure from Jeon’s previous work, mostly serious dramas in which she plays marginalised, persecuted characters.
The actress had to learn the complex choreography required for an action thriller, including for a scene in which Boksoon uses a marker pen as her only weapon.
“I was very scared and afraid… but I thought I just had to pull this one off somehow, even if it meant my body could break down,” she said at a recent press conference in Seoul.
‘Layers of an onion’ –
Born in 1973 in the South Korean capital, Jeon made her TV debut in 1992 at age 19. Her real breakthrough came five years later, when her debut film The Contact — a somewhat melancholy South Korean version of You’ve Got Mail — became a nationwide hit.
In 2007, she became the first South Korean to win the top acting prize at the Cannes International Film Festival, for her performance as a grieving mother in director Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine.
Since then, Jeon has continued to play memorable characters, including a poor housemaid impregnated by her wealthy boss’s husband, who is tricked into terminating the unborn child.
“Taking on a range of characters, often dealing with complex emotions and feelings, like peeling the layers of an onion, Jeon Do-yeon’s performances get to the core of what drives her characters,” Jason Bechervaise, a Seoul-based film scholar, told AFP.
“Often this is pain — an emotion that is frequently conveyed in Korean cinema in some form, one that is extremely challenging to channel and convey, yet she’s able to do it with such authenticity.”
– ‘Dull knives hurt more’ –
Kill Boksoon arrives after South Korea’s emergence as a cultural powerhouse, with the global success of the Oscar-winning film Parasite and the Netflix series Squid Game.
The film is Jeon’s first project with Netflix, as the streaming giant aggressively invests in Korean content it says is wildly popular with its global audiences.
It is also the first time the 50-year-old actress has taken on a lead role in an action movie, following the recent historic Oscar win for Michelle Yeoh in a female-led action film.
“It is inspiring to see Jeon carve her own path in a patriarchal society, where female celebrities in their mid-twenties are labeled ‘hags,'” Areum Jeong, a film expert and visiting scholar at Robert Morris University, told AFP.
Jeon said it was easy to empathise with her assassin character, who struggles to connect with her increasingly secretive daughter and quips in the movie that “killing is easier than raising a child”.
Spending three decades at the top of South Korea’s notoriously competitive entertainment industry is also “somewhat easier than raising a child”, Jeon said.
“With work, I can come up with solutions on my own. But when it comes to a child, there are… things I cannot control.”
For director Byun, who said he had been a fan of Jeon since 1992, his latest project was a way to pay homage to Jeon’s unparalleled career.
“In this movie, assassins are often called ‘knives’. And there is a scene where one says: ‘old knives become dull and ultimately useless,’ referring to Boksoon,” Byun said.
“And a reply to that is ‘dull knives hurt more’. Those lines were my way of paying tribute to Do-yeon.”