Jeon Do-yeon is known as a “chameleon actress”. Throughout her 20-plus-year-long career, she played a great variety of roles that brought her the status of one of the most respected actresses in South Korean industry. In 2007, her performance in Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine earned her Best Actress award at Cannes Film Festival, making her the first Korean person to ever receive an award at Cannes. Her choices of roles have been known to be brave – the role of a prostitute who gets infected with HIV in Park Jin-pyo’s You Are My Sunshine (2005), the role that she took in the controversial remake of the Korean classic The Housemaid (2010), and the role of a girlfriend of a murder suspect, who seduces the detective assigned to the case, in The Shameless (2015). If there ever was an actress brave enough to take on a role of a grieving mother in the first ever film to deal with aftermath of the Sewol ferry disaster, it is her.

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Photo © Udine Far East Film Festival

Lee Jong-un has in the past worked with director Lee Chang-dong on his films Secret Sunshine (2007), A Brand New Life (2009) and Poetry (2010). After the Sewol Ferry disaster in 2014, Lee worked with the parents of the deceased children as a volunteer and decided to tell her story in her debut feature, Birthday.

The film opened the 21st Udine Far East Film festival in Italy, which both her and Jeon Do-yeon attended at honorary guests, with Jeon Do-yeon also being awarded the Golden Mulberry lifetime achievement award. After the emotional screening that hardly left a dry eye in Udine’s Teatro Nuovo, we caught up with the two to ask a handful of questions before they were rushed off to their next schedule.

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Photo © Udine Far East Film Festival

It has been five years since the Sewol tragedy, but it still feels like an open wound. Why did you feel like this was the time to tell this story, and what made you, Jeon Do-yeon, decide to join the production?

Lee Jong-un: I don’t think it was because it’s the fifth-year anniversary of the Sewol ferry disaster. When you’re sick or your body is sick, it’s better for you go to see a doctor as soon as possible. So – when your mind is hurt and in pain, it’s better to get support as soon as you can. The film was not made because the fifth anniversary was the best time for it to be made; I just thought ‘the sooner, the better’.

Jeon Do-yeon: Of course, this story is not an easy one to tell. The movie is about people who must carry all of those emotions within them, but still continue their lives. So, it can be my story, but it can also be everyone’s story as well, that’s why I decided to be a part of it.

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Photo © Next Entertainment World

Your character is going through such a tragic loss, it must have been a very emotionally-challenging role to take on. Was she a difficult character to play?

Jeon Do-yeon: Yes, it was very difficult. It was very challenging because I felt so much pain and sadness, but at the same time I didn’t want to project my own personal sadness into the character, so I didn’t want to overplay her grief. So, I spoke a lot with the director about the sadness that she’s feeling so that what I did, fit with the character.

The film is produced by Lee Chang-Dong, how was it important to have him as the producer?

Lee Jong-un: This film has three producers. If we had encountered a lot of difficulties while making this film and we needed advice from him, I would have relied on the fact that I could talk to him, but in reality, it wasn’t that difficult because the actors and I did our best. When the film was made, I showed it to him and he told me it was simple and very honest, so he was very satisfied. While I was making this film, Lee Chang-dong was busy with Burning, so of course I was going to ask him for advice if I encountered any difficulties, but I didn’t need to do that in the end. I worked with him for ten years as an assistant director; he is like a teacher and a mentor to me and the fact that he was a producer for this film and was on board provided me with a big sense of encouragement.

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Photo © Next Entertainment World

During the talk you mentioned that you two already know each other thanks to Secret Sunshine, how did you two cooperate on the script and project? Would you like to collaborate again in the future?

Jeon Do-yeon: I read the story when the script was complete.

Lee Jong-un: Before filming began, we discussed a lot about the direction we were to take and if the emotion was correct. In the mornings, I would visit Jeon Do-yeon while she was in make-up and I would check how she felt that day, and how she felt about the lines, and if they felt right. Sometimes she had a better idea, and she would suggest what could be better or more natural, so we talked a lot about the direction and the script and we worked together a lot.

Lee Jong-un: Personally, if I get to write another project, and the age of the character, the situation – everything – fits, then probably Jeon Do-yeon would be the first person to come to my mind for the role. Even if she rejected it, I would probably keep bugging her to take it. Though of course, it would be fine if she ultimately said no!

At first you rejected this role twice, why did you change your mind? And what advice would you give to aspiring actors?

Jeon Do-yeon: The reason I changed my mind is because I also experienced trauma while watching this tragedy on live TV as the ferry sank. I felt powerless at the time and I couldn’t do anything. So, in a way, I would avoid thinking about it or getting involved, but then I realised one needs courage to get involved and to face this tragedy. Originally, I said no to the project, but, in my heart, I felt like I should have said yes because people continued living their lives after this tragedy, and I felt like this movie could help them. I tried to express myself in the role more than what I felt, I wanted to go beyond that for a film like Birthday. [In terms of advice,] I think any emotion like joy and sadness is different; not everyone is the same, so actors need to express themselves, so they can be free spirits, and express how they feel on screen.

We would like to thank Jeon Do-yeon and Lee Jong-un for answering our questions and Udine FEFF press team for arranging the interview.

Interviewed alongside: Roxy Simons, Giampiero Raganelli (Quinlan.it), Park Min-woo (FEFF Campus), Jane Yao (FEFF Campus)

Feature photo © Sanja Struna

Transcribed by Roxy Simons

Edited by Sanja Struna

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About View of the Arts

We are enthusiasts of the arts, passionate about cinema, theatre, and literature. Maggie is a freelance film producer, production manager and she also works with children. Sanja is a freelance translator, occasional writer and a perpetual dreamer. Film is her first and longest-lasting love. Roxy is an Arts Journalist, who writes for several magazines and websites.

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Asian Cinema, Film, Film events and festivals, Foreign Films, In Conversation with, Korean Cinema

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