Bae Doo-na
and Chŏng Jae-ŭn’s Take Care of My Cat (2001)

Air Doll, the forthcoming film from Japanese auteur filmmaker Koreeda Hirokazu, whose profound and deeply touching Nobody Knows (2004) screened in competition at Cannes in 2004 and won the Best Actor prize for young Yuga Yagira, is headlining with the South Korean actress Bae Doo-Na. News of her casting is at once wonderful and questionable when one considers the film’s subject matter and the fact that Air Doll is apparently an all-Japanese production (crewed by Japanese players and mostly Japanese filmmakers, it is based on a manga by Yoshiie Gouda, and will be produced and distributed by Asmik Ace Entertainment). It tells the story of an inflatable sex doll who comes to life for her downtrodden owner, Hideo (Itsuji Itao), and then falls in love with a local video store clerk, Junichi (Arata Iura), after setting out one day to explore the neighbourhood.

The decision to cast a Korean actress is either highly subversive or deeply problematic. In his historiography Behind the Pink Curtain (2009), Jasper Sharp discusses the controversial issue of Japanese filmmakers poaching, in the midst of the popular kanryü boom (which saw Korean pop culture flood the Japanese market), Korean actresses and models for use as alluring new subjects for the soft-core film market. According to Sharp, the trend produced a thriving sub-genre, “as the alluring figure of the Korean woman briefly joined the ranks of housewives, nurses, air stewardesses, home tutors and office ladies as suitable camera fodder” (p. 336). This has obvious implications for Air Doll, in which Bae assumes the role of a living ‘toy’ that has obviously been made for the Japanese sex market. Not for nothing does the film invite questions concerning women and nation, and the ways in which Korean actresses are constructed, and construed, internationally as being representative of a sort of Korean cultural ideal. Add to this the fact that a filmmaker as politically and socially aware as Koreeda is directing, and it seems that Air Doll is making a point by casting a well-known Korean actress/star as, quite literally, a voyeuristic object for the Japanese market. It will be interesting to see how Koreeda tackles these deeply sensitive issues, and how such a film is actually received by theatergoers in both markets.

Still, I very much admire Bae’s film work to date, whether it is as the radical anarchist Cha Yeong-mi in Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002), as Korean exchange student Son in the Japanese production Linda Linda Linda (2005), or as Park Nam-joo in the record-breaking blockbuster smash The Host (2006). I want to fly the flag here, briefly, for her performance in the coming-of-age drama Take Care of My Cat (2001). Directed by Chŏng Jae-ŭn, Take Care of My Cat follows the gradual transition into adulthood of five twenty-year-old girls who were once inseparable best pals in the industrial port city Inch’ŏn. In her chapter Two of a kind: gender and friendship in Friend and Take Care of My Cat (New Korean Cinema, (ed.) Shin Chi-Yun and Julian Stringer, 2005, pp. 117-131), academic Shin Chi-Yun observes that the film “answers the feminist call for on-screen female camaraderie to parallel the male buddy films” (p. 125) — films such as Failan, Hi, Dharma, Kick the Moon, My Wife is a Gangster (2001) and Marrying the Mafia (2002). She continues:
Chŏng posits that it was the word ‘nomad’ that she thought of most while filming: ‘I wanted my characters to be girls who possessed nothing permanent and therefore were able to leave. Their relationships change and the girls continue to walk. I believe that if something is not moving, the energy weakens and it needs to be filled with things that are moving’ (p. 128).

Yoo Tae-hee (Bae Doo-na), On-jo (Lee Eun-sil), Bi-ryoo (Lee Eun-joo) and Seo Ji-yeong (Ok Go-woon) in Chŏng Jae-ŭn’s Take Care of My Cat (2001)

Bae’s character T’ae-hŭi follows to the letter, where others cannot, director Chŏng’s suggestion that each character should “have the tendency to leave if they are not happy with their owner.” This recalls a quote from Chŏng used by Shin, which I’ll paraphrase here: relationships change, and we must keep on walking
The film circles the themes of sincerity and distraction in friendships, and it ends, wonderfully, with a new perspective, accepting the contradictions and regret and pain of broken friendships that belong in the past and meeting the onward rush of time with hope and optimism. And Bae’s character is key to this. You may not think it from the film’s advertising but Bae’s character, T’ae-hŭi, is the most complex and intriguing of the crowd, as she follows to the letter, where others cannot, director Chŏng’s belief that each character should “have the tendency to leave if they are not happy with their owner.” T’ae-hŭi’s resourcefulness and personal motivation stems directly from that nomadic resilience. As for the friendship side of things, it’s probably of no surprise that some partnerships, wracked by issues of control and/or dependency, fizzle out before perhaps they should, and that others counterpoint these losses by giving us all a shred of hope and some dignity about the future; no one should be left alone. But ultimately, I think of the quote from Chŏng used by Shin: relationships change, and we must keep on moving.

You may already have seen Bae Doo-na in The Host, The Ring Virus (this being the Japanese-Korean co-production, made after Ringu) or even Bong Joon-ho’s Barking Dogs Never Bite (unfortunately still unavailable in this country), but if you have seen and liked Koreeda’s heartfelt Nobody Knows, which recently screened in the UK on BBC Three I believe, then give Chŏng’s Take Care of My Cat a go; it’s a Korean gem.

22 April, 2009


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