Monday, February 28, 2011

A gifted Korean actress makes her mark

An opportunity to discover the work of Jeon Do-yeon.

My response to a reader who suggested that I forget Oscar and turn my attention to two Korean films that opened in Denver last week, both featuring the same brilliant actress, Jeon Do-yeon: You're absolutely right. I probably should have commented about The Housemaid and Secret Sunshine last week, but -- as the old rationalization goes -- better late than never. The Housemaid opened at the Chez Artiste Friday, and Secret Sunshine is playing at the FilmCenter/Colfax. Both are scheduled to end Friday March 4, so you may have to catch them on DVD.

In The Housemaid (from director Sang-soo Im), Jeon plays a maid who has an affair with her wealthy but careless boss. Secret Sunshine (from director Lee Chang-dong*) takes a strange and absorbing look at a woman dealing with the kind of madness that can be induced by unbearable grief.

Jeon, who's 38, is one of Korea's top actress, and it's both interesting and relevant to talk about her on the day after the Oscars. She's every bit as good as any of this year's nominated actresses, which is not to slight any of those women, but to emphasize Jeon's abilities.

Jeon is one of those actresses who seems to have the uncanny capacity to alter her appearance in the same movie, sometimes in the same scene. She can look girlish or sensual (The Housemaid). In Secret Sunshine, she appears beautiful one minute and ordinary the next. It's almost impossible to get a fix on her, which is part of what's so intriguing about her. She also imbues her characters with a quality of independence bordering on defiance.

Jeon isn't exactly an unknown quantity: She won the best actress award at Cannes for Secret Sunshine, which played the festival circuit in 2007. She's highly regarded in Korea, one of the current bastions of interesting filmmaking.

In Secret Sunshine, Jeon portrays Shin-ae, a piano teacher who moves with her young son (Seon Jung-yeop) to her late husband's provincial hometown. The movie provides Jeon with an opportunity to draw us closer and hold us at arm's length. Sin-ae is a confounding woman, who resists many well-meaning attempts to help her through her despair. At one point, she turns to Christianity, but we know that something explosive and unresolved simmers beneath an apparently settled surface.

The plots of both The Housemaid (erotic and ultimately startling) and Secret Sunshine (mysterious and unsettling) are best discovered in theaters, but know that Secret Sunshine raises important questions about faith, fate, sanity and how one goes about facing the unthinkable. I should emphasize that although both movies deal with matters that shouldn't be revealed in reviews, both can be quite disturbing.

It's probably shallow of me to frame comments about Jeon against last evening's Oscars, but I'll do it anyway. Denverites will see more of Natalie Portman, Annette Bening, Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Lawrence, and Michelle Williams, actresses who are capable of real brilliance. Jeon, it should be said, is no less talented, and if you haven't discovered her yet, you should do so ASP.

Mea culpa for not getting to these movies sooner.

*Lee's latest movie -- the well-received Poetry -- opens at the Mayan March 4.

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