A girl, on film

Doona Bae talks about making A Girl At My Door.

by Jennie Kermode

Doona Bae with Sae-ron Kim in A Girl At My Door
Doona Bae with Sae-ron Kim in A Girl At My Door

She’s one of Korea’s most successful international stars, best known in the West for Cloud Atlas and for her role in the Wachowskis’ TV series, Sense8. This week, British cinemagoers can see her in Korean drama A Girl At My Door, for which she was named Best Actress at the Asia Film Awards. It’s the story of a police chief sent to work in a small village who finds herself facing a difficult situation when the daughter of the local bigwig turns to her for help – and who encounters various forms of prejudice along the way.

Bae herself couldn’t be more different from the lonely, taciturn Chief. She has the help of a translator to ensure the interview goes smoothly, but manages impressively by herself, hesitating as often to laugh as to search for a word. There’s a vibrant energy about her. Although most actors quickly get bored during the months of promotion a film can require, she gives the impression that she loves every minute of it, and she’s passionate about the film itself.

Meet the Chief
Meet the Chief

“It was really such a small indie movie,” she says, explaining why she agreed to work on it without pay. “I’ve made my career in indie movies and I just fell in love with it, so I didn’t care about anything else, I didn’t care about getting my normal fee. I really wanted to be in this film and I wanted to see it at the cinema. I actually loved the character I played but more than that I loved the story the way July (Jung) wrote the script, so basically I just wanted to be in the film so much that I was willing to do whatever she asked me to do and play whatever character she asked me to play, but I was glad to have the chance to play this character because I could feel her emotions so much, I could get into the loneliness of her situation.”

Homosexuality is still a big taboo in Korea so I ask if she was concerned that her fans might react negatively to her character being a lesbian. She assures me this wasn’t the case and that her fans loved the character. She wasn’t worried about working with a first time director either.

“I normally love working with first time directors because they work together with actors so much,” she explains. “They collaborate with you a lot more and give you more to work with. Also, July is very strong – a quiet but strong woman. She’s very calm but very sharp. Sometimes I would get confused about if she liked what I did or not but she has a very specific idea about what she wants.”

I ask if her interest in photography (she has published books of her work) shape how she engages with a director like that, and she laughs.

“I love photography. I love film cameras too, but they’re different things. When I was in my twenties I was obsessed with photography but I don’t think it helped me to understand films or helped with my acting career. It was something that helped me to project feelings and emotions, but for me there’s not a close relationship between photography and acting.” Some critics have complained that her performance in A Girl At My Door is too blank and hard to read. That wasn’t the impression I got, but I ask if she found it challenging to play such a quiet character, who speaks out only when she’s really pressed. She tells me that, on the contrary, she really liked it.

A little local trouble
A little local trouble

“Sometimes it’s easier to express something without speaking,” she says. “Sometimes there’s something that you can’t describe with words. I love playing that kind of character and showing emotion in silence.”

Research for the role included meeting a friend of July’s who serves as police officer – a female police officer, Bae stresses, because that’s significant in the context of a country where some professions are still not used to women.

“From the start I thought it was brilliant how the film script balanced out the gender dynamics,” he says, and explains, with the help of the translator, that a lot men still have difficulty dealing with having a woman as a superior. “That’s true in the story but also in many real life situations including shooting films. Having a female director can mean an uncomfortable dynamic with crews and on the set itself. The police are one of those places where alternative lifestyles are still not allowed. But one of the great things about making this movie is that there was no tension during shooting because July is female. Also, compared to some of my earlier work, like when I worked with Jae-eun Jeong on Take Care Of My Cat, my work experience between then and now, there’s been a lot of improvement. Now we can be much more open about sexuality and gender relations. This film was a pleasant working environment but in many areas there’s still sexism and a gender hierarchy.”

Although she’s enjoyed working on Sense8, Bae says she’s taking a break next, and then she’ll probably go back to working on Korean films.

Bae in The Host
Bae in The Host

“For international films I do study lines more because when I do Korean films I enjoy the spontaneous reactions in rehearsal so I don’t study lines before shooting so much, but for American or Japanese films it’s a different story. I have to deliver my lines clearly so I have to prepare more.” This doesn’t distract her from connecting with her characters emotionally, she says, but it is significantly harder work. She’s also looking for something more light-hearted to work on. “I really want to do a comedy to cheer myself up because I’ve been playing some very heavy characters recently.”

“Is comedy what you enjoy watching most at the cinema?” I ask.

“Actually I love all kinds of films, except horror.”

“But you were in The Host!” I exclaim, and she bursts out laughing.

“That wasn’t horror! It’s a comedy, really!”

Choosing a film comes down, first and foremost, to having confidence in the director, she says, and laughs when I note that she’s played some unusual characters in the past (everything from a cloned fast food server to a blow up doll). “I guess I’m fascinated by characters I can’t be in my real life.”

A Girl At My Door was certainly a good choice – it’s been a big success on the festival circuit and garnered worldwide praise. “I’m very proud of this film,” says Bae. “It was shot in a really small village in Korea but it’s reached out to so many people all around the world.”

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