The Women

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THE ACTRESSES (2009)

Kim Min-hee, Lee Mi-sook, Yoon yo-jeong, Kim Ok-bin, Go Hyun Jeong, Choi Ji Woo

Six actresses, one photo shoot. They are the biggest names in Korean cinema. One is a veteran, with over forty years of experience. two became famous by featuring in beauty contestants and then became huge TV stars, for example, Choi JI-wo got her break in Winter Sonata, the TV program that was ultimately key in getting Korean drama known across most of Asia. The two youngest actresses are still well-known, having worked for independent filmmakers rather than commercial blockbusters.

Starting with a so-so premise – that actresses are demanding, self-obessesed, naricisstic – I was not expecting much. But this docudrama becomes slowly more and more fascinating, as it reveals ever more of the real lives of screen actors.

It’s well known that South Korea has a lot of attractive women but still, you might not be prepared for some of the actresses here. EJ Jong has made a powerfully erotic film about sex Untold Scandal (2003) and he has a way of making these women look absolutely incredible, whatever they are wearing or doing. But never do they reveal much flesh (at one stage an actress worries that her dress shows too much cleavage).

They are beautiful, but are they also interesting too? The elderly actress presents the most intriguing persona, as someone with the most acting experience but the least confidence. Consequently, the younger actresses talk less, perhaps because of the heaily honorific nature of Korean society.

Made a few years ago when such exercises were more frequently explored, the film is an account of a photoshoot which paired six of Korea’s well known actresses for Korean Vogue. A seventh actress – Jeon Do-yeon – was unable to be in the photoshoot due to a pregnancy, leaving us to imagine what the film might have been like with her presence.

Christmas Eve, Korea.

Six of South Korea’s most famous TV and Film actresses have been chosen for a photoshoot for Vogue Korea.It’s the day of the photoshoot. An anxious elderly actress (Yoon Yo-jeong) arrives wearing a heavy fur coat (a reminder of old-style glamour) and apologises for being late. She is both extremely self-possesed and lacking esteem, a contradiction that makes sense when actresses must think about their age and appearance constantly whilst also wanting to be respected for their acting ability. She keeps her fur coat on throughout.

But she needn’t have worried, as she is the first to arrive and must come up with an excuse to why she is so early. Arriving soon after is Choi Ji-woo. Some how some fans from Japan have heard that she is attending the shoot and ask her for autographs in the parking lot. It’s a reminder that no matter where celebrities go, they can never escape fame or be anonymous. Later on, a younger actress remarks that she can no longer go to markets because she is always recongnised; sets are the one place where she can be herself bewcasue she can be around professionals.

Min-hee, looking adorable in her early twenties comes fresh from shooting another film, still jey-lagged but still looking fully made-up, every inch the glamourous movie star.

The other actress who is in her fifties, Lee Mi sook, is similarly concerned with aging. In a reminder of how the industry favours youth, the younger actresses are given better treatment than the women over forty.

Kim Ok Bin, who was barely in her twenties at the time is now more established, has perhaps the most stage presence.When do actresses stop playing the role they have been given and become themselves? It’s something I thought about as I watched the film. As though aware of the need to perform for the camera, they are constantly aware of the need to look their best, with perfect hair and make up.

Yet as the film progresses this mask of fame is stripped away to reveal the women behind the fame. I was engrossed as the film carried on, wondering if the camera crew would be able to keep the increasingly agitated group of women together long enough.

As Christmas eve approaches,  the women are moved by a snowfall, which they watch longingly. Then they start to drink the champagne that has been provided for them. More truths emerge. The two older actresses talk about being divorced, whilst the younger ones look on, unaware of what to say. As they drink more the conversation becomes freer.

“You always pay for it. Nothing’s free”. I wondered about this. we think of actresses as privileged because they seem to have everything they want. I guess it means that even when an actress does well, she suffers in some way Yet when we watch a film or read interviews we are surprised that they are normal people like us. A critic took issue with the fact that the film cannot reveal anything about the actresses because they spend most of the time talking about themselves. Yet the criticism is unfounded. How often in life have we found ourselved unsure of what to say in a particular situation, or only able to speak in clichés? The film is far more realistic as a result of the seemingly humdrum conversations that these women have

The film, which takes place in the most superficial settings, a fashion magazine photoshoot, manages to say more about the human condition than most serious movies twice the length. Whilst a lot must have been left out,  the director has still included some stimulating stuff.

Filming with a hand-held camera allows him to move in close without interfering with the intimate situations. The dialogue – whether entirely scripted or improvised – is full of subtle revelations about the power between men and women. It’s all the more remarkable in Korea to hear these women talk frankly about these subjects. The final scene allows the actresses to reach a feeling of closure, shaking off the rules imposed on them by a male-dominated society and a film industry that measures their worth entirely on their image.

In a nutshell: a seemingly lightweight film is actually a sharp look at the effect of fame and the culture of film acting. When was the last time you watched a film with an all-female cast like this? A must-see for fans of Korean cinema, and cinema in general for that matter.

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