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Bae Du Na, Korea's Quirky Queen

Written by Mike Crandol Tell a Friend

"Quirky" is a word that gets tossed around quite a bit to describe Bae Du Na. The term carries little weight when applied to most actresses. Any pretty young starlet with slightly unconventional looks and a willingness to make an occasional clown of herself on camera invariably finds herself labeled "quirky" by the media. But in South Korea, where image is queen, "quirky" seldom runs more than skin deep. Sure, Jeon Ji Hyun or Ha Ji Won might demean themselves for a laugh in a romantic comedy blockbuster, but they always look absolutely stunning doing it, and off-screen their beauty queen sheen remains utterly unsullied.


Bae Du Na's quirkiness is the real deal. In her breakthrough performance in Bong Joon Ho's Barking Dogs Never Bite, she famously appears in closeup without makeup - an unforgivable sin for a more typically image-conscious South Korean star. Since then Bae's built her career playing the awkward beauty, from the gangly sop of a foreign exchange student in Yamashita Nobuhiro's Linda Linda Linda to the grimy sweatpants clad, bow-wielding heroine of The Host. Her off-camera life has been no less uncouth. Disappearing from the screen for years at a time to dabble in photography and whatever other hobbies strike her fancy, Bae Du Na lives life by her own rules. She may be genuinely quirky, but that's what makes her arguably the most utterly charming actress in recent memory.


Performing Princess

Showbiz runs in Bae Du Na's blood. The daughter of renowned stage actress Kim Hwa Young, Bae Du Na was born October 11, 1979 in Seoul. Although she fondly recalls following her mother to work every day as a child, Bae claims to have been put off of acting by the experience. Finding the high caliber of theatrical talent she was exposed to on a daily basis intimidating, the young Bae intended to follow a quite different path from her famous mother. But, in typical fairy tale fashion, at the age of nineteen the child who'd renounced her royal performer's pedigree was scouted on the streets of Seoul by a talent agent and promptly signed to a modeling contract. In East Asia modeling always leads to acting, it seems, and before she knew it Bae Du Na was following in her mother's footsteps in spite of herself.


Bae's early TV work was typical enough for a fresh-faced young talent. She was cast as a doe-eyed student in a pair of dramas for KBS in 1999, School and Ad Madness. School proved to be a popular hit, but with a large ensemble cast that included Choi Kang Hee and Jang Hyuk, Bae had to jostle for screen time. Ad Madness, about the misadventures of a small group of friends in advertising school, gave the up-and-coming star a bit more elbow room. As the overly-tomboyish rich kid from a broken home, Bae gives an early glimpse of the off-center charm that would mark her later international film successes. She also holds her own against a young Lee Dong Gun - no small accomplishment. She earned the Best New Actress trophy at the 1999 KBS Drama Awards for her trouble, recognizing her work in both School and Ad Madness.


She made her feature film debut the same year, playing everyone's favorite ghost-in-a-well in The Ring Virus, the Korean remake of the Japanese horror phenomenon Ring. As Eun Suh, the tormented spirit behind the movie's deadly curse, Bae brings a sense of pathos to the character missing from her abstractly terrifying Japanese and American counterparts. This is largely due to the script, which adapts more of the backstory from Suzuki Koji's original novel, but credit must also go to Bae's unique screen presence. Heart-wrenchingly pathetic one moment and bone-chillingly creepy the next, Eun Suh was the first of many such atypical roles Bae would come to be known for.


Not that Bae was done playing cute young darlings on the small screen. The next eighteen months saw the rising star featured in no less than four high profile dramas. She played the titular "Miss Hip-Hop" in an installment of the 1999 anthology series Love Story. Although it only ran for two episodes, Miss Hip-Hop and Mr. Rock let Bae take center stage opposite So Ji Sub and Shin Sung Woo in a tale of two star-crossed lovers whose drastically opposed musical tastes make for a bumpy road to happiness. This led to more central roles in the 2000 series Youth in an Angry Face and RNA, the latter of which brought her a Most Popular Actress win at the KBS awards. She also made the most of a supporting role in Mothers and Sisters, another popular success that helped make Bae a promising new fixture of the Korean soap scene.


Dogs and Cats

At this juncture a more practically minded actress might've been expected to play it safe and continue cultivating a career playing romantic heroines and spunky girlfriends. For Bae Du Na, however, taking chances and challenging herself as a performer was more alluring, even at the expense of box-office bankability. With this in mind she readily accepted the female lead in Bong Joon Ho's feature directorial debut, Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000). For the role of Hyun Nam, a mousy office worker with dreams of becoming a newsmedia celebrity by performing a random act of heroism, Bong wanted a girl to appear on camera sans makeup. Bae was the only actress in town willing to undertake such a mortifying stunt.


The results didn't exactly add up to a mountain of ticket sales, but for both Bong and Bae the picture was an unmitigated critical hit. A morbid yet oddly sentimental dark comedy, Barking Dogs Never Bite is primarily the story of a down-and-out grad student played by Lee Sung Jae who's tempted to take out his frustrations on the noisy dogs in his apartment building. But it's Bae's endearing performance as the guiless, idealistic Hyun Nam that everyone remembers. Her makeup-free face framed by a dirty yellow hoodie, Bae embarks on a quest to rescue the canine victims of an apparent doggie serial killer, and in the bargain becomes an offbeat and - yes, beautiful - underdog heroine for the underachieving slacker in all of us.


If Plain Jane Hyun Nam's lack of any overt sex appeal was a hurdle for the film's financial success, the same charge certainly can't be levied against the actress' other big-screen performance of 2000. Bae bares all and then some in Plum Blossom, a frank erotic drama about the sexual awakening of a young man in rural South Korea. The script called for Bae to perform scenes of full-frontal nudity and simulated sex with co-star Kim Rae Won. Appearing on camera without any makeup is one thing, but appearing without any clothes is something else entirely, and despite her desire to push herself as an artist, Bae seriously considered turning down the role. Oddly enough it was her mother who convinced her to take the part, telling her that an actress afraid to bare herself for an audience wasn't, after all, much of an actress.


But Bae's bare butt didn't equal butts in seats, and neither did her next film, 2001's Take Care of My Cat. The tale of five recent high school graduates whose friendship and future dreams gradually unravel was one of the most critically praised films of the year - and was pulled from theaters mere days after its release due to dismal box office returns. Bae's performance in the picture nonetheless remains her most acclaimed to date. She has less screen time than several of her co-stars, and she shares the spotlight with some heavyweight talent, including Lee Eun Joo and Lee Yo Won, but Bae deservedly won the lion's share of the accolades. She took home no less than four critics choice awards that year for her role as the detached Tae Hee, who serves as the audience's window onto the lives of the film's protagonists even as her silence suggests her own inner turmoil.


Vengeance is Sweet

The next year saw Bae Du Na continue to blaze new cinematic territory. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Park Chan Wook's opening salvo in his gut-wrenching "Revenge Trilogy," famously shocked Korean movie audiences bolt upright in their seats. After his tense but comparatively tame blockbuster JSA, filmgoers were utterly unprepared for Park's ultraviolent deconstruction of revenge, which chronicles a botched kidnapping and its grisly aftermath. They were likely just as horrified to see Bae, who by this time was known for playing odd but lovable young ladies, as an angry and radical North Korean sympathizer who cajoles her deaf-mute boyfriend (Shin Ha Kyun) into ransoming a young girl, only to be shockingly (pun intended) tortured by the child's father, played by her future Host co-star Song Kang Ho. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance scored Bae Du Na yet another critical hit, but her brilliant yet disturbing portrayal of an often repellant character did little to win the hearts of the popular masses.


Bae's other big screen offering of 2002 was a much more conventional crowdpleaser. After several years of ensemble roles and supporting parts, Saving My Hubby gave Bae a chance to carry her own picture. Compared to her previous big-screen work, the film is a safe and fairly straightforward comedy. When her milquetoast husband fails to come home after his first day at a new job, plucky Geum Soon (Bae) straps their baby on her back and plunges headlong onto the seedy streets of Seoul after dark to rescue him. The next ninety minutes play out like a demented episode of Tom and Jerry as Bae and her baby wind up pursued by various gangsters and other assorted cartoon villains. Pure unadulterated fluff, Saving My Hubby would be insufferable without the right lead actress to anchor the picture. Bae more than fits the bill, and because of her presence this delightfully goofy little movie ends up being way more entertaining than it probably ought to be.


An unqualified popular hit still eluded Bae at the box office, but on television she continued to be a reliable draw, and in 2003 she took the starring role in the MBC comedy/drama series Country Princess. As Eun Hee, Bae plays yet another brash but lovable tomboy, this time at odds with her supposed twin sister Geum Hee (Kim Yoo Mi) for her mother's affection. When Geum Hee is revealed to actually be the granddaughter of a business tycoon, Eun Hee seemingly sees her troubles whisked away to the big city, only to find herself saddled with family responsibilities and intrigue regarding the girls' mysterious past. Country Princess not only reunited Bae with her Miss Hip-Hop partner Shin Sung Woo, it reminded audiences that had been cold to Bae's outre film roles why they fell in love with her charms in the first place.


Eager to finally hit a big screen bonanza, Bae devoted the rest of 2003 to shooting a pair of prepackaged blockbusters. There was nothing particularly daring about her roles in Tube or Spring Bears Love. But when both films flopped miserably, it seemed as if the cinematic gods were reminding Bae to remain true to her vow to take interesting and challenging parts over surefire moneymakers. Made to capitalize on the romantic comedy boom inaugurated by My Sassy Girl, Spring Bears Love ended up being white noise in a sea of similarly themed productions, and Bae was certainly doing nothing new in playing a bad-mannered, unlucky-at-love dreamer, but it's a part she plays better than anyone else. Those few who actually saw Spring Bears Love agreed the film was an above-average entry in an overcrowded field. Tube, meanwhile, was a bald-faced Speed knockoff with Bae in the Sandra Bullock role, which gave her little room to show of her talent. Tube went deservedly down the tube in theaters.


Intermezzo

It would be three years before Bae would return to Korean movie screens following the failure of Tube and Spring Bears Love. Reassessing her priorities, the 24-year-old star decided to pursue other interests. After dabbling in cooking and flower arranging, Bae found her next great love after acting: photography. The onetime model had plenty of experience in front of the lens, of course, and her star power meant that photos by Bae Du Na would probably never be as in-demand as photos of Ba Du Na, but that never seems to have bothered her very much. Choosing the modern metropolis as her muse, Bae has traveled the world documenting urban cityscapes. Her three published photo albums of London, Tokyo, and Seoul have proven popular not only with her fans but professional photographers as well, who praise Bae as being much more than a celebrity merely indulging her hobby.


Bae hadn't turned her back on acting, however, and remained active during her break from the big screen. In 2004 she made her theatrical stage debut in Sunday Seoul, an original play co-written by her Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance director Park Chan Wook. The following year saw her return briefly to television in the drama mini-series Beating Heart, her third TV paring with Shin Sung Woo. She also appeared in Park Mi Na's English-language short film Tea Date.


The big news, however, was her Japanese debut in Yamashita Nobuhiro's paean to adolescence, Linda Linda Linda. Yamashita had no one else in mind to play Son, a high-school age Korean exchange student who becomes the lead singer of an all-girl Blue Hearts tribute band. It was exactly the kind of unconventional role Bae had first made her mark playing, and her contribution proved a key element in the film's enthusiastic acceptance on the international art house circuit. Her halting, broken attempts at Japanese, culminating in the climatic scene in which the rain-drenched Son belts out the film's title song to a roaring crowd of Japanese teenagers, perfectly captures the same awkward charm that made Barking Dogs Never Bite and Take Care of My Cat critical darlings. As Son, Bae wins the heart of anyone who's ever struggled to fit in to a foreign culture. The role also presented the eclectic star yet another new opportunity, recording her first music album as the lead singer for Paran Maum (the movie's fictional band, whose name is Korean for "Blue Hearts").


Her Japanese experience also colored her full-time return to Korean television. In Someday, Bae plays Yamaguchi Hana, a Korean-Japanese manga artist in Tokyo who prefers living in her hand-drawn fantasies over the real world. After her comic is abruptly cancelled, Hana moves to Seoul and begins to form friendships with a ragtag bunch of characters, including a private eye (Lee Jin Wook) and a doctor/comic book fan played by television mainstay Kim Min Joon. Although Someday treads well-worn ground for Korean dramas, the series' innovative mix of live-action and animation, coupled with Bae's by now well-proven talents, made the series another small screen success for the actress.


Vindication

By 2006 Bae Du Na was finally ready to return to Korean movie screens, and the girl who was the country's most critically acclaimed box office poison was about to strike back with a vengeance. Re-teaming with Barking Dogs Never Bite director Bong Joon Ho and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance co-star Song Kang Ho, Bae took a prominent role in the ensemble cast of a little monster movie called The Host. Korean Cinema had never had much luck with the monster movie genre, and the buzz on Bong's tale of a mutant creature terrorizing the Han River was dubious at best. Bong and Bae were poised to laugh all the way to the bank, however, when upon its release The Host bowled over critics and audiences alike, fast becoming an international phenomenon and the highest-grossing film in Korean history.


The Host combines first-rate monster movie thrills with a level of warmth and humanity seldom seen in genre pictures. As Nam Joo, a third-rate competitive archer in a family of social wash-ups, Bae bands together with her equally pathetic brothers (played by Kang and Park Hae Il) and father to rescue her niece from a giant monster's clutches after the government wrongly declares the girl dead. A more unlikely band of monster hunters there never was, and that's exactly why The Host is such tremendous fun - these are real, everyday heroes facing a very unreal, larger than life threat. Nobody would've pegged Bae Du Na as an action heroine, but she succeeds brilliantly precisely because of the very unlikely but utter believability of Nam Joo's character.


After a seemingly endless stream of box office disappointments, Bae Du Na finally had the last laugh with a starring role in the most popular Korean movie of all time. But for Bae it's still business as usual, and even in her now uncontested place at the forefront of Korea's acting elite she continues to seek personally interesting projects that challenge her to further develop as a performer. Sure, she's still appearing on TV in the brash tomboy roles that made her famous, most recently in 2007's How to Meet a Perfect Neighbor. But for her next big screen outing Bae has returned to the Land of the Rising Sun to work with one of Japan's most acclaimed filmmakers. Kore-eda Hirokazu's Air Doll, which stars Bae as an inflatable sex doll magically come to life, recently brought the actress to the Cannes Film Festival for the film's premiere, where Bae turned heads and garnered the attention of the international press.


Despite its raunchy-sounding premise, Air Doll won approval from Cannes critics as a thoughtful meditation on loneliness and emotional disconnect in the modern era. Both the film and its star's warm reception suggest Bae Du Na has at last come into her own as world-class actress. It's been a long road to the red carpet at Cannes for the quirky girl willing to appear on camera without any makeup, but for both Bae Du Na and her many fans across the globe, the journey was always more important than the destination.


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Published March 29, 2010


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