Wow. I stumbled upon this film while researching Lee Mi Sook for another article, and I do not regret it one bit. Half documentary, half fiction, wholly a film, “The Actresses” was an engaging and insightful movie about six women who happen to be actresses in Korea.
The premise of the film is six actresses from different generations come together to do a special Vogue photo shoot for the cover on Christmas Eve. Yoon Yeo Jung, Lee Mi Sook, Go Hyun Jung, Choi Ji Woo, Kim Min Hee, and Kim Ok Bin all portray themselves as they work together – and clash – on the photo shoot that runs for too long. It’s really entertaining to see all of them try to compete even with just arriving at the studio; each of them tries to not be the first to arrive, as the one who is first must wait the longest. Sadly it is Yoon Yeo Jung who is first as she misread the clock, and she ends up having to wait for everyone while uncomfortably sitting alone.
Funnily enough, Kim Ok Bin arrived at the same time as Yeo Jung but decided to wait it out in the garage until more people arrived.
Go Hyun Jung arrives next; though friends with Yoon and urged to hurry over, she doesn’t want to go because she’s so tired from her schedule. Then eventually Lee Mi Sook, with her gray hairs peeking out, and then Kim Min Hee, and then Ok Bin, and finally Choi Ji Woo, who acts the most diva-like of them all. She is first found getting a facial for her puffy face after having worked through three nights straight, and is so completely unwilling to go until finally convinced that she has to. And when she arrives at the studio’s parking lot she even gets spotted by some of her Japanese fans and doesn’t even know what to do at first. Imagine – a huge Hallyu star like her and she even has days when she doesn’t want to be nice to fans because it can be so exhausting.
Personalities quickly emerge: Yeo Jung, Hyun Jung, and Mi Sook are a formidable trio with their straightforward, honest talk and their ability to notice how shallow their world is. Min Hee and Ok Bin are more shy, being the younger ones. However Min Hee talks to the stylist and other fashion people at the shoot easily, finding commonality in their interest in runway fashion. Ok Bin is definitely the most awkward considering she has not met most of those at the shoot. She is seen rushing to get a cup of coffee for her senior Yeo Jung quietly the moment Yeo Jung starts asking for one, but fails to arrive in time to beat Hyun Jung’s overt display of generosity (as she had gotten coffee delivered from a cafe nearby). And so Ok Bin ends up giving the coffee to the workers at the shoot and quietly slinks her way back to her seat. It’s really cute, and endears her even more to the audience.
That same coffee incident also puts Hyun Jung’s ego in full display: though she is really down to earth and simple, she is also someone who likes having the attention on her. And who can blame her? She was Miss Korea contestant in her youth and was really popular. At this point in her life (in the movie) she just divorced and is trying to grab that bit of fame back.
When Ji Woo arrives, it becomes really clear who the “celebrity” is. Everyone is in awe of her because of her superstar status as a Hallyu queen. She even demands a separate room so that she can get a personal massage from one of her Japanese fans without the rest of the stars knowing. However, when Mi Sook hears of this masseuse, she immediately requests a short session for herself and for Yeo Jung. Mi Sook asks for a massage almost innocently, but in a way you know she just leveled the playing field between her and Ji Woo. It’s as if she just said, “You’re not that special to merit having this masseuse all to yourself.”
Makeup and hair is done, and Yeo Jung becomes even more hilarious even though many may think she’s fussy. She complains when they have to redo her makeup and hair, which she had gotten done at a salon prior to the shoot. It was very expensive, and she regrets spending so much when the stylists end up undoing it; clearly she has not done many shoots! Egos clash when Hyun Jung and Ji Woo separately insist on having the most beautiful outfits because, you know, they want to stand out.
Finally Hyun Jung begins to attack Ji Woo’s ego verbally in an attempt to make her feel a lot less special. It’s done out of jealousy since she feels that Ji Woo is more attractive and successful than she. Eventually Ji Woo attacks Hyun Jung’s status as a divorcee, and they end up having a loud argument in the bathroom – complete with Hyun Jung poking at Ji Woo’s face. This bit is actually all unrehearsed, and the spiteful poking certainly wasn’t planned. It’s something to note that while the director chose Hyun Jung and Ji Woo to have the rivalry in the movie, it did not mean that the girls actually got along in real real life. The rivalry was almost too real.
Ji Woo walks out, and everyone begins to worry that she won’t return to finish the shoot. The actresses all begin to drink to while away the time, and then it starts to snow. Ji Woo quickly returns – having run out without a jacket – with some hot sweet potatoes. The girls decide that they ought to have a party to celebrate Christmas Eve since they have nothing to do but to wait for some gems that never seem to show up, but are integral to the concept of the shoot. Mi Sook orders the Dom Perignon, Hyun Jung gets the food, the other girls prepare the leftover champagne and snacks from the caterers and arrange a party for themselves. None of the other staffers want to join, perhaps amused and relieved that the actresses are all finally getting along.
Alcohol really helps, and talk becomes very frank about their image as actresses. It becomes emotional when Hyun Jung, Mi Sook, and Yeo Jung are all faced with the fact that they are divorcees, while Min Hee, Ok Bin, and Ji Woo are still single. For Hyun Jung and Mi Sook it’s especially painful since their divorces are more recent; Yeo Jung, as she puts it, has forgotten that she’s been divorced!
The ladies all reach a better understanding of each other and finally decide to finish the photo shoot together. Instead of looking glamorous, the ladies just wear whatever they’re already wearing and jump in front of the camera, smiling and hugging like best friends.
What’s incredible about this film is that it’s partly true, and partly fiction. It’s still a scripted film as the director, E J Yong gave them scenarios for each scene and told them how he wanted the film to go. There is an arc in the film: as these self-centered actresses all come together and understand each other, they share a friendship in the true spirit of Christmas. But at the same time the film is partly true because E J Yong didn’t write the lines for them. He had the six actresses improvise everything. Sure there was some discussion in what was going to play out, but certain things probably flowed right out of their mouths without their anticipation. For one thing, in numerous interviews it’s been said that Mi Sook was drunk enough that she didn’t remember anything she said in the shoot until she saw the film’s premiere. There was no memorization involved as they spoke from their own experiences. The actresses were given a free rein and could show as much or little of themselves as they want to. That’s why in some scenes you don’t see Min Hee or Ok Bin very much.
One particularly funny and memorable bit was when Hyun Jung asked which actress each one finds is a competition. She herself wants to beat Lee Young Ae and Jeon Do Yeon, while Ji Woo wants to also beat Lee Young Ae. It’s one of those honest moments because Hyun Jung forced all of them to admit that there’s no such thing as a selfless actress. They may give an image of being totally magnanimous and willing to share the limelight, but they’re also people who get jealous too. In Yeo Jung’s words, she feels that if the attention is not on her and yet she was specially invited to an event, then she feels like a fool because no one cares about her.
Ji Woo loosens up in the film a bit after the fight, though not enough to totally shed her diva-like personality in my opinion. She seems to be someone who’s unable to really show her full self because she’s spent so long repressing it. It’s not the same as Min Hee or Ok Bin, who are just clearly shy (or tipsy) in the presence of their seniors. But when Ok Bin inadvertently scares Ji Woo in a dark bathroom, we get to see Ji Woo so scared she practically cries on the floor. I actually loved that moment because I identified with her at that moment, as I had gone through a very similar moment in my life. What’s interesting about the Ji Woo-Hyun Jung dichotomy is that you really wonder who’s the true diva: Hyun Jung with her constant barbs, or Ji Woo with her insistence on some special treatment? Just when one seems to be more frustrating to deal with, she suddenly sounds sensible.
These actresses are amazing because it took a while for E J Yong to bring the cast together, and they were all so brave to do this film. Yeo Jung and Hyun Jung were his friends, so they joined the project very quickly. Ji Woo was the last to join in, and that was because she was scared of showing a different side to her. Jeon Do Yeon, who is mentioned as someone supposed to take part in the photo shoot, was also supposed to join the film but decided to drop out. In a way it’s almost like the photo shoot is a metaphor to the film. As E J Yong said in an interview, “[those] who were willing to speak up on behalf of all actresses took part in this movie rather than to say that I chose Korea’s top six actresses. In any case, they talk about the things that all actresses have always wanted to say at least once.”
Whether the film is true or not, I still found “The Actresses” eye opening because a lot of what happened were things that I expected to see happen on set when celebrities are involved. Dramas like The King of Dramas and You’re the Best Lee Soon Shin have showed me what probably happens when the cameras stop rolling. But then at the same time, I felt like I was sitting there in the cafe with them, listening to them talk on and on about life, love, and careers. It’s the exact same thing that would happen to me if I were with my girlfriends. And I could identify and understand where they were coming from: they may be actresses but they’re not perfect goddesses. People should not expect them to be so, and neither should they always have to act that way. I’m reminded that they’re people who just happen to be onscreen playing different characters.
Granted, they could still be playing characters in this film. However, I’d like to think that some of them were willing to let go of their inhibitions, be less conscious of the camera, and say what they wanted to say in a safe space where their words would not backfire on them. If Katherine Heigl, Lee Da Hae, or any other actress with foot-in-mouth-syndrome had a project like this, I’m pretty sure she would have been seen in a more understanding way in the media.
Verdict: 9/10. I highly recommend this. If anything, it’s like a long variety show. And for the record, I think I am most like Hyun Jung but aspire to be Mi Sook.