Actresses Gain Presence Onscreen
By Lee Hyo-won
While the female persona Korean entertainment remains largely reminiscent of Hollywood during the 1950~60s, a few in recently released or upcoming films are beginning to reflect, with some realism, Korean women today.
Women onscreen tend to be either innocent asexual Audrey Hepburns (think Lee Young-ae, Choi Ji-woo, Song Hye-kyo) or smoldering Marylin Monroes oozing with sex appeal (Kim Hye-soo, Uhm Jung-hwa). Then there exists a third, very minor group of eccentrics like Katherine Hepburn that fit into neither category, like actresses Kang Hae-jeong, Bae Doo-na and Kong Hyo-jin.
In other words, it is rather difficult to meet truly realistic female characters in movies. A most disappointing example is director Kwak Kyoung-taek's latest offering ``A Love.'' In this terribly old-fashioned story about a modern-day Romeo and Juliet, the heroine is but a mere caricature embodying romantic fantasies: the unforgettable first love, frail damsel in distress and untainted prostitute. She is but a superficial plot element that gives the male protagonist a story to tell.
Roles for sexual or even remotely sexually active women continue to be reserved for the more ``mature'' actresses. They tend to be over 30 and/or married. Sex icon Kim Hye-soo, for example, plays a string of femme fatale roles from ``Hypnotized'' (2004) to ``Tazza: The High Rollers'' (2005) and ``A Day for an Affair'' (2006).
Upcoming sex comedy ``Lovers Behind'' features two very different but equally sexy women. The film delightfully resembles ``Sex and the City,'' with two women speaking frankly about love and sex. Lee Mi-youn, the Nicole Kidman of Korea enjoying a newfound peak in her career following her divorce from actor Kim Seung-woo, plays the role of a photographer who wants romances with no strings attached. Lee Tae-ran, who enjoys steady popularity in her acting career, depicts a woman who marries one man after another to enjoy a lavish lifestyle. While these female characters provide much humor, they are over-sexualized in a sense that their sexuality is the only thing that defines them. The film will be released mid-October.
Another recent film, however, brings to screen a fresh new female persona. In Hur Jin-ho's ``Happiness,'' now playing in theaters, Lim Soo-jung's petite, slim and dewy-eyed character Eun-hi is at first glance another Audrey Hepburn. But Eun-hi is far from passive in her romantic relationship with Yeong-su (Hwang Jung-min), and does not hesitate to initiate sex _ without being a seductive temptress _ or propose to move in together.
``I wanted to show that when a woman is in love with a man, she too can be assertive,'' said director Hur during a press conference at a Seoul theater last month. For the baby-faced actress, this is a dramatic departure from her girlish roles as a high-school girl in ``…ing'' (200) or the fairytale-like character in ``I am a Cyborg but That's OK'' (200). She has finally grown up enough to play parts closer to her actual age.
Likewise, superstar Kim Tae-hee matures onscreen opposite award-winning actor Sul Kyoung-gu in ``Ssaum (Fight)'' coming to theaters December. The movie humorously portrays a couple who, once madly in love, are now fiercely battling each other. Kim casts off her sweet, angelic allure to personify an irritable woman who does not refrain from resorting to physical violence while arguing with her husband.
The fighting spirit in women does not stop with Kim Tae-hee. Audiences can look forward to Do Ji-won in her role in ``Punch Lady.'' Do plays a submissive housewife who one day decides not to put up with her abusive husband any longer. She begins training hard to master the art of fighting after publicly announcing a duel on the ring with her pro-wrestler husband.
Although this is a rather comical theatrical situation, it reflects how women in Korean cinema are beginning to show a bit of dimension and color. ``Punch Lady'' is due for release at the end of the month.