Interview: Doona Bae discusses A Girl at My Door, working with the Wachowskis and more

A Girl at My Door, the debut effort by July Jung, is quite an unusual addition to the Korean cinematic canon. Daring to throw together a powerful compound into the laps of audiences, Jung’s feature surveys social issues such as isolation, child abuse, violence and even references to homosexuality.  

The result is an example of urgent, important and vibrant filmmaking: a brave work that dares to prompt discussions not often heard in its notoriously conservative domestic landscape. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a universal appeal here. Because there is, and it is there in spades. To assume otherwise is to don some rose-tinted spectacles and come to rest under a blanket of wilful ignorance.

We, along with Hangul Celluloid and FilmDoo, sat down with its star, Doona Bae, the acclaimed actress and, to a certain extent, the international crossover poster girl for her native homeland, especially after appearances in such blockbusters as Cloud Atlas, Jupiter Ascending and, most recently, her third collaboration with the Wachowski brothers, the rapturously received Netflix series Sense8.

Reputedly having taken on her role in A Girl At My Door for free, she had much to say about the issues in the film, alongside her back catalogue, the impact of her mother and Sense8 developments.

What do you think that A Girl At My Door says about Korean society today?

It definitely talks about some of Korea’s social issues in a way that many of the others don’t. I’m not wishing to blame my own culture, but there are a lot of characters in this film that are minorities. I don’t want to describe my character as a minority, but I think that this film tells those kind of subjects seriously and in a very sophisticated way, but even if the film deals with same-sex sexuality, it’s not in your face. A lot of things are left open, the audience is left to infer their own conclusions and that is one of the things that I liked about the script.

How universal would you feel the themes and insights of the film to be?

I feel that the fact that this film is affecting so many audiences internationally makes me realise that these are not only Korean problems or Korean issues. The isolation and loneliness of the character, regardless of her sexuality, will help make the audiences relate to the film, because there is a profound existential isolation and loneliness that’s portrayed in the film and that’s why maybe a lot of audiences across the world can relate to the film very well.

In relation to the social climate and the themes in this film, and allegedly you undertook the role without any pay, without having you involved, would it have struggled for distribution and funding?

It was one of the reasons as to why I chose this film. I really wanted to support this film. So many great scripts just don’t make it and I’ve seen a lot of good scripts fall away. I read the script and I thought I will play any role that they offer me to make this film work.

Was that so that these questions and issues could be discussed in Korean society?

That could be one of the reasons. At the same time, I missed this kind of Korean film. I am very proud of Korean films, but nowadays, it’s really hard to get finance for this kind of film, with a heavy theme and complex. If investors think it’s too heavy, it just doesn’t happen.

Ten and fifteen years ago, we used to have so many different types of movies, like when I did Barking Dogs Never Bite and Take Care of My Cat. Recently, we don’t have that kind of movie anymore. I miss that time and that’s why I wanted to make this film.

If you compare your career in Korea with your international career what do you notice about your choices? Your Korean films are smaller. Your US and Japanese films are bigger and often science-fiction based.

Actually, it depends on who I work with. I didn’t mean to separate the international films. The most important thing in choosing a film thing is the director or those who created the film. Internationally, I worked with Hirokazu Koreeda, who is one of the most amazing filmmakers in Japan, and Nobuhiro Yamashita; they are both geniuses. And I have worked with the Wachowskis a lot, who I really love. I love the way they talk about the social problems in a very sarcastic way.

I haven’t intended to make blockbusters or fantasy films for American audiences. For Korean cinema though, I might be more specific. I don’t know… I’m quite picky!

You’ve worked in quite a variety of films. Would you say there is a particular type of character that you specialise in or enjoy playing?

I love playing a character that I can’t be in my real life. I feel that I’m good at acting silently (laughs). I sometimes feel like I can express more without lines. There are so many things that you can’t describe with a voice. If I have something that I do specialise in, then maybe I can deliver something that the director’s want to tell to audiences. With A Girl at My Door, I felt I could play this character. I felt comfortable to do this film.

The themes and the framing are reminiscent of the sort of tropes in Scandinavian cinema. With Hollywood and Korean cinema moving away from the smaller scale narrative-driven small dramas, do you yearn to make more films like A Girl at My Door?

Yes, but I don’t even know what I’ll do in the future. I’m quite spontaneous and I follow my instinct when I choose the films. There are no boundaries.

I want the challenge of something new. You were asking if I specialise in something. I love challenging myself. Actually, at the moment, I’m obsessed with comedy films! I have been doing some serious roles and I love playing with the happier stories. I like to alternate between serious and light-hearted roles, and playing a comedic role helps me to get out of any darkness that has come from the harder-hitting material, such as A Girl at My Door.

What would you regard as your breakthrough film in Korea? And would you say that your English language films have increased your profile in your homeland?

Probably The Host. Everyone talks about The Host, even in the UK and America, and I was surprised to hear that. I walked to a clothing store here in London and the cashier said, ‘you were in the Host’. It’s only happened once though (laughs). But she didn’t recognise me from Cloud Atlas. And the Wachowskis told me that they’d been watching Take Care of My Cat and The Host. But, for me, personally, my breakthrough film was Barking Dogs Never Bite, because before that film I certainly wasn’t dreaming of being an actor.

I know it sounds weird, but when I was young, I grew up watching my mum’s performances onstage – my mum is a theatre actress – and, weirdly, I never thought I could be like that, because I was so shy and quiet. I didn’t realise my talent at all. I thought it was something that talented people do and something that I couldn’t do. But then I got scouted on the street as a model by a model agency, so I started to model just to make some money whilst at university. It was a part-time job. Then I got cast as a ghost in Dong-bin Kim’s Ring. At the time, I didn’t think of being a professional actor. I am embarrassed to say that. Barking Dogs Never Bite though changed my mind hugely. I decided then to be an actor: a good actor. It changed my whole life. Since that film, I started focusing on learning how to be a good actor. I was obsessed with films. So many challenges have followed since then. It was the most important film to me. And Air Doll too. Actually, Air Doll is about loneliness in modern society, and I realise that my mind might be obsessed with that theme. When I started filming Sense8, it reminded me of Air Doll, because the theme of Sense8 is of sharing emotions and feelings together, and in Air Doll there is a point made of how you can’t be on your own and how you have to address that.

A Girl at My Door was produced by the talented and distinctive Chang-dong Lee. I could see a lot of similarities between his work and A Girl at My Door. How much of an influence would you say that he had on the final film?

A lot. July Jung was a student of his. So he was her professor at university. He picked up the script and decided to make it into a film. I heard that he got involved in writing the as well, and he was working in the editing room too. He even visited the set quite often and gave July some advice. He even gave me some advice for my acting.

You’ve said about your mum being a theatre actress. You’ve worked in the theatre once. Is it something that you now want to return to? Also, you’ve said about working with certain directors and the issue of trust. Is this something that your mum advised you of? Because it is a similar philosophy to a theatre and, say, its company of actors…

My mum teaches acting to students at a university. She never taught me acting. It’s very, very weird. But she told me that you have to learn how to open your heart first. Not a technique. She never taught me acting, even when I begged her! But she gave me a lot of advice, like when I chose some films with nudity. When I was twenty or twenty-one years old, she told me that if you want to be a good actress, you can’t be afraid of nudity. She’s not a normal Korean mum! She even said, ‘you can do whatever you want for the film. You can take off your clothes for the film, as long as you don’t take off your clothes in real life!’ She also said that the most important thing for an actor is confidence. She told me a lot of good things about acting a lot. She’s like my mentor, but not discussing about acting so much. She’s a theatre actress and I’m a film actress and it’s really different.

I did the theatre once and I felt like I was naked, because I needed a camera (laughs)! I felt like I needed a camera and I feel more comfortable in front of a camera. I love camera! When I worked on an American film for the first time, Cloud Atlas, I felt jealous of my double – the stand-ins for the lighting before the shooting – I was saying, ‘Why are they on camera longer than me?! I want to be on camera!’ But it’s their profession, so I couldn’t bother them!

I love cameras and I feel alive on a film set. On a stage, I feel more nervous. They’re very different and I enjoy the spontaneous reacting on a film set. I don’t study a script that much before shooting, because I want to be inspired by my co-star. During the rehearsal, I get how I react from their lines and then I remember to do it on camera when it’s rolling. But in theatre, everything is fixed. There is no spontaneous moments or spontaneous reacting. I like being a film actor, but I want to do small theatre in the future, somewhere that I can communicate more intimately with audiences.

Sense8 has been commissioned for a second series. When is it going to happen and are you excited about it?

I’m very excited about it! During the season one shooting, it was quite intense for me, because we had to move from one city to another city every two or three weeks: from San Francisco, to Chicago, to London, to Reykjavik. It was quite intense, but we became like a family.

I realised during the shooting that we were Sense8-ing ourselves during the filming. We became like brothers and sisters. When we finished filming, we missed each other so much. I didn’t expect that I would hope for season two so much, so I’m really excited to do another season with them and the Wachowskis.

A Girl at My Door is in cinemas from 18th September 2015.

About The Author

Having upped sticks and marched down the A13 from Essex into the smog of London, Greg can be found ranting and raging as the Film Correspondent on the Jon Gaunt Show from time to time and also on his weekly 'The Film Review' podcast (plug alert - available on iTunes and Audioboom). Aside from Front Row Reviews, he also scribbles regularly for HeyUGuys. Lowlights, thus far, have been John Hurt scolding with the question 'do you really think like that?', upsetting acclaimed filmmaker Ondi Timoner with his piece for the Sunday Mirror and falling out with the blog editor of the Huffington Post. Oh, and he did bring Liv Ullmann to tears (but in a good way... more of a highlight, that one). He can also be found writing on theatre and music for the Islington Gazette, Ham & High, Hackney Gazette, Bargain Theatre, SupaJam and others. He's often moaning about how tired he is, and he's a frustrated musician.

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