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Showing Her Colors: Jeon Do Yeon

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What's the most important thing to an actor? Longevity? Charisma? Popularity? For Jeon Do Yeon, one of Korea's most respected and beloved actresses, the answer is versatility. She once said her goal was to become a colorless actress, someone able to convey every character in all their shades of colors.

It might sound like a cliche, but Jeon Do Yeon's path to stardom began completely by accident. Jeon was a college student who had a lucky break when she was spotted on the street and became a model for a teen magazine. That appearance paved the way for a few advertisement contracts for the young star, who finally debuted on television in 1990 with the campus drama Our Paradise. As a genre, campus dramas were the forerunners to today's youth dramas like Run Now and the Nonstop series, essentially the Korean answer to Beverly Hills 90210, sans the Rodeo Drive and Ford Mustang. More than anything, Our Paradise began the careers of many of today's biggest stars: Choi Jin Sil, Jang Dong Gun, Han Suk Kyu, Ko So Young, Yeum Jung Ah, and many other actors had their first shots on the show which lasted over four years.

For the following three to four years, Jeon paid her dues with supporting roles of varying importance, most of which did not showcase her talent. One of her early roles, perhaps the most memorable, was in the 1994 sensation General Hospital. Arguably the best medical drama to ever grace Korean shores, the show was written by Choi Wan Gyu of current super-hit Ju Mong. To research the everyday life of resident doctors and interns and how they reacted to different situations, Choi spent two years sleeping, eating, and breathing hospital air, experience which shows clearly in the drama's realism, in distinct contrast to the US soap opera General Hospital which came before. Working alongside a very large cast headlined by Lee Jae Ryong, Shin Eun Kyung, and Chun Kwang Ryul, Jeon was able to learn precious lessons in ensemble acting, something she clearly couldn't get working amongst young actors on the set of Our Paradise.

Her performance in General Hospital was indeed the proof that she had enough talent to break out, as one year later, she got the leading role in monster hit A Sunny Place of the Young, alongside a certain Bae Yong Jun. Playing Im Jong Hee in the KBS weekend drama written by the late, great Jo So Hye, Jeon finally started making a name for herself, enough to attract the attention of the film industry.

Helmed by young, promising first-time director Jang Yoon Hyun, Jeon's 1996 debut film The Contact was one of the best melodramas of the 90s. Perfectly capturing the new net-generation, the film's subtle beauty, cool atmosphere, and fantastic soundtrack made it an instant success. Starring in The Contact were many familiar faces, including Han Suk Kyu, Chu Sang Mi, and a baby-faced Kim Tae Woo, now a Hong Sang Soo regular. But the most impressive new face was undoubtedly Jeon Do Yeon, with what was essentially a pastiche of her past roles on TV, yet played with so much screen presence she made it stand out. The result? Jeon took home the Best Actress trophies at Korea's two major award ceremonies, Blue Dragon and Grand Bell, making it one of the rare cases when the two rival award ceremonies agreed on something.

The transition from TV drama talent to movie star is always a big step for an actress in Korea. Many simply replicate their famous TV roles to the point of oversaturation and slowly disappear from the scene, only to later resurface as someone's older sister or mother in obscure TV daily dramas. But Jeon Do Yeon understood she needed to earn her stay in the limelight. In her second feature film, A Promise, Jeon showed a more mature side of her personality, hinting of the real revolution to come a year later. With the film industry marred by scandals and rumors of managers blackmailing actresses with revealing photos, big time actresses were completely averse to appearing nude in a film at the time. But Jeon had something else in mind.

Jung Ji Woo's debut Happy End was Hitchcock meets Couple Clinic: Love and War, benefiting from an outstanding script, tight directing, and pure fire from the talented cast. What made the headlines was Jeon's incredibly revealing performance, but beneath the surface was the most mature and eclectic performance of her career, showing the changing face of a working woman in the post-IMF chaos of late 90s Korea.

Refusing to be typecast, Jeon continued to surprise everyone with her choice of roles. From the shocking sex and violence of Happy End, she went to the nostalgic beauty of The Harmonium in My Memory alongside Lee Byung Hun. Jeon once again won over both the Blue Dragon and Grand Bell Awards, bringing home Best Actress honors at both ceremonies. Without skipping a beat, she went from next-door-sweetheart to a (sexually and professionally) mature woman to a 60s melodrama schoolgirl.

When it was revealed that Jeon would pair with rising star Sol Kyung Gu in a new film, many people expected something dark and heavy. But I Wish I Had a Wife was anything but, a delightful little romantic comedy with two perfectly normal people. The able hand of Park Heung Shik turned a trite and cliched story into a quirky and very entertaining experience, made all the better by the great chemistry shown by the leading stars. Jeon once again won a Best Actress award, this time at the Baeksang Awards, making her one of the few stars to complete the troika of Best Actress awards in Korea.

Always seeking new challenges in the face of increasingly tiresome big-budget blockbusters, Jeon opted for one of the hottest young directors on the scene, Ryoo Seung Wan, who caught everyone's eyes with Die Bad in 2000. No Blood No Tears was an incredibly gritty and stylish actioner, coupling Jeon with returning veteran Lee Hye Young and theater-trained Jung Jae Young. Although far from being Ryu's best film, No Blood No Tears was an extremely watchable exercise in style with the rough, brutal action that would make action maestro Jung Doo Hong famous. Jeon's good performance was obvious, and the talent of co-stars Jung and the director's little brother Ryoo Seung Bum also started to shine. Yet, the film was one of Jeon's few flops at the box office; even the critics weren't too impressed.

After a half decade of transformation and acclaim, Jeon finally went back to what made her famous, television. With the 2002 SBS drama Shoot for the Stars, she made a triumphant return in a surprisingly good show that also starred Lee Seo Jin, Jo In Sung, and Park Sang Myun.

Historical dramas had been popular in Korea ever since cinema was brought to the Land of the Morning Calm, but after the drought of the 70s, the genre mostly became an excuse to produce erotic dramas. After Lee Byung Hoon and Choi Wan Gyu changed the genre forever in 1999 with MBC drama Hur Joon, however, the revolution eventually moved to cinema. The era of fusion historical drama began on the big screen around 2003. The first two examples of the genre were Lee Joon Ik's satirical Three Kingdoms potboiler Once Upon a Time in the Battlefield and Lee Jae Yong's exquisite Untold Scandal. Marking Bae Yong Jun's film debut and bringing Lee Mi Sook back to the genre which made her a television star in the 80s, Untold Scandal featured Jeon Do Yeon in yet another impressive transformation, this time as a woman torn between her love and her religious beliefs.

Many say Jeon's most memorable role was in 2004's My Mother, Mermaid, once again working with director Park Heung Shik. Playing two completely different yet equally well-acted roles (a mother's early days and her daughter in a time-shift structure), Jeon showed her versatility and stood up to the test of going side by side with one of Korea's most respected actresses, Ko Doo Sim, showing fire comparable with that of her older colleague. It was glory once again, with a Best Actress nod at the Korean Film Awards, the acclaim of the press, and very solid box office results.

Jeon continued to shine in 2005 with You Are My Sunshine, one of the most impressive melodramas of recent years. Director Park Jin Pyo transformed what looked like a generic tearjerker into an affecting yet subtle, sweet, and incredibly engaging experience, with some significant help from leads Jeon and Hwang Jung Min, of course. The film catapulted Hwang into the A list, and added two more Best Actress awards (Korean Film Awards, Grand Bell) to Jeon's already long list. Proving once again her incredible popularity, the film became the most successful melodrama in Korean cinema history at the time.

Jeon also starred in the second installment of the popular Lovers drama series, playing the President's daughter alongside Kim Joo Hyuk in SBS' Lovers in Prague. Despite an overall ratings drought for mini series in 2005, Lovers in Prague was one of the few shows to hit a very solid 30% rating, confirming Jeon as one of the few surefire hitmakers in the industry. Now in her prime, Jeon will star alongside Song Kang Ho in Lee Chang Dong's long awaited return to filmmaking after becoming Minister of Culture. Secret Sunshine, which will release in 2007, just may become yet another impressive, shining color in the career of one of the best actresses Korea has ever seen.

Jeon Do Yeon showed different colors throughout her entire career, always giving her all to make her characters memorable, and even improving the fortunes of films or dramas which may have otherwise been forgotten. Her dream, that of becoming a colorless actress, may still need time to be completely fulfilled, knowing how much passion she shows in all her roles. But, like a chameleon, no matter what she touches, that color shines as if it was blood flowing from her veins. That's a force you can't explain but always feel, the color of a true star.

Published March 12, 2007

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