ACTRESS BAE DOO NA

One Very Good Reason to Love Take Care of My Cat

In case you didn't know there is an inflatable sex doll movie in the works: see Bae Doo-Na: Floating Sex Doll (Todd Brown, Twitch April 20 2009). Kuuki Ningyo (Air Doll) is an all-Japanese production, crewed by Japanese filmmakers and players, and helmed by Koreeda Hirokazu whose profound and upsetting Dare mo shiranai (Nobody Knows, 2004) screened in competition at Cannes in 2004 and won the Best Actor prize for young Yuga Yagira, the 14-year old lead. But here's the thing: Doll is headlining, very deliberately, with Korean actress Bae Doo-Na. And that's an interesting selection.

Bae’s casting invites comparison with a wealth of Korean and Japanese films, not least Park Chan-wook’s extremely high-profile comic-romance I’m a Cyborg But That’s Ok, which stars Lim Su-jeong as a mental patient who believes she is a cyborg. Or recall Ueto Aya’s casting in the adaptation of the popular manga Azumi, a Japanese production which equalises relations between men and women on the battle field but whose central character Azumi it fixes as a voyeuristic object of our attention. Both films—examples from two separate cinemas—associate their female leads with the characteristics of children, with childhood innocence, with childhood fantasy. Koreeda’s Air Doll, it seems, adopts similar representational forms, turning a frail objectified woman away from a life of servitude and back towards innocence via a process of patriarchal socialisation, a process which aligns Bae's character Nozomi with an ideal of feminine nature. Bae’s casting is interesting here, for while her natural beauty effortlessly supports this feminine ideal, her choice of film roles in the past have toyed with gender positions and masculine/feminine traits in feminine socialisation.

There is a second point to be made here regarding the system of gender construction for global audiences. In his historiography “Behind the Pink Curtain” (2009), Jasper Sharp discusses the controversial issue of Japanese filmmakers poaching, in the midst of the kanryü boom (which saw Korean pop culture flood the 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.” This has implications for the film Air Doll. Not for nothing does the film invite questions concerning women and nation, and the ways in which actresses are constructed, and construed, as representative of a sort of Korean cultural cachet. Add to this the fact that a filmmaker as sharp and socially aware as Koreeda is directing, and it seems that Air Doll is indeed making a point in casting a Korean star as a voyeuristic object for the Japanese market.
Park Chan-wook’s I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Ok associates women with the characteristics of children, with childhood innocence, with childhood fantasy. Koreeda’s Air Doll adopts similar representational forms, turning a frail objectified woman away from a life of servitude via a process of patriarchal socialisation

Still, I very much admire Bae—check out her turn as Cha Yeong-mi in Sympathy for Mr Vengeance. But I want to fly the flag, briefly here, for her performance in Take Care of My Cat. It’s a film about female camaraderie, directed by Chŏng Jae-ŭn (who it’s worth noting is a female director), which follows the gradual movement into adulthood of five twenty-year olds who were once inseparable best pals in the industrial port city Inch’ŏn. Shin Chi-Yun, a film scholar I genuinely admire (who lectures over at Sheffield Hallam) has a thoughtful chapter which is well worth checking out comparing the film with Kwak Kyŏng-t’aek’s Friend in the context of the male-dominated buddy movie (see Shin & Stringer, New Korean Cinema, 2005).

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 might not think it if you’ve seen any of the film’s publicity but Bae’s character, T’ae-hŭi, is actually the most complex and intriguing of the crowd, not least for the fact that she 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.” And 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 a quote from Chŏng used by Shin, which I’ll paraphrase here: relationships change, and we must keep on walking.

You may have already seen Bae in Gwoemul (The Host) as national (bronze) medallist archer Nam-joo, or The Ring Virus (this being the Japanese-Korean co-production, made after Ringu) or even Bong Joon-ho’s Barking Dogs Never Bite (which is, unfortunately, still unavailable in this country), but if you’ve seen and liked Koreeda’s heartfelt Dare mo shiranai (which recently screened 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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