I’m going to end this little run of articles before going back to review mode on a small piece on one of my favourite actresses. It will come as no surprise as to her identity for anyone that has followed the blog since the beginning, and to be honest this has always been something I wanted to do, I was just waiting until I got to “My Sassy Girl”. I am going to approach this on a film-by-film basis, focussing on her performances, and no doubt there will be a little repetition from what has gone before, so for that I
apologise in advance. What I find fascinating, is just how few films she has done, especially when you compare her to the almost production-line output most of her Hong Kong contemporaries have to produce. Physically, she is an interesting creature, thin and willowy, and rather un-Korean in looks (probably because she is actually quite significantly part-Chinese). She also has a air of cool about her, and even though she is actually stunning, she never reduces herself in films to showing off acres of flesh.
Jun Ji-hyun started out as a model, venturing into a number of TV Dramas (of which I have watched a single episode of one of them, so I am not going to comment more on this). Her first film was “White Valentine” (화이트 발렌타인), a frankly anodyne little melodrama, remarkable only for Jun’s debut. If it was an episode of some longer drama it might have some merit, but frankly it is boring and fails to provide any insight. Jun herself does little more than provide some wistful and willowy eye candy, which does happen a few times in her career. If it wasn’t for the next couple of films, I doubt much more would have been heard from her.
The next film she made (although I do believe it wasn’t actually released until after her third film shot her into Asian mega-stardom) is the wonderful “Il Mare” (시월애). This romantic drama with a sci-fi bent is a wonderful piece of Korean cinema, embodying much of what I spoke about in my On…. piece on Korean Cinema. What actually makes it more remarkable is that for most of the film, she is actually quite an unlikeable character, totally obsessed with a lost love, unable to see the thing that is right in front of her time-displaced eyes. In true Korean style, the two would-be lovers don’t meet until the final scene (apart from a single abortive one-way Railway Platform moment), so you never quite get to feel any chemistry between the two leads, but her performance is strong. She plays the role with a woeful sense of longing over her lost love, frankly wafting through her life like a ghost, avoiding social situations (like the Year 2000 celebrations), finding solace in her solitude and those mysterious notes from a stranger from another time.
Her big moment is next, with the frankly amazing “My Sassy Girl” (엽기적인 그녀). In it she plays an unnamed girl, with huge character flaws, but an obvious broken heart. By turns hilarious and heart-breaking, this film shot her into Asian and to some extent World-wide stardom. This is not your normal doe-eyed Asian girl – this is one who will drink until she falls over, act loud and brash in public, put her boyfriend through terrible trials and tribulations. But it is also someone carrying a huge amount of pain in her heart, unable to properly grieve and let go. It is a performance that undoubtedly inspired a host of imitators, yet interestingly it is not a role she really plays ever again, even in “Windstruck”.
“The Uninvited” (4인용 식탁), or “Table For Four” is Jun’s only foray into K-Horror, and a mightily unsatisfying brew it is too. It certainly has a spooky and deep vibe to it, but it is far too long, and the lead character is really too distant from the creepy events that he is being haunted by. Jun is actually pretty good – a quiet soul haunted by the events of her past, whilst also being a rather strange and spooky individual herself. The film however never quite lives up to my expectations, the shocks it is able to deliver are a bit one note, and frankly over-repeated. Jun though does show that she is far more than that Sassy Girl.
“Windstruck” (내 여자 친구를 소개합니다) do I need to say even more about this film? Returning to the fold of “My Sassy Girl” Director Kwak Jae-yong, this quasi-sequel is a wonderful mix up of various genres, totally centred around Jun. She is front and centre in pretty much every scene, playing a remarkably strong role. She is able to pull of being a driven Policewoman (although driven by sadness and regret) as well as a love-lorn (and lost) girlfriend. When she cries, you totally believe it. Even when the film turns into a rather bloody, serial-killer Police film for 25 minutes, she is excellent as a totally driven and frankly Death-Wish embracing Cop. Even the rather unsubtle product placement (such as her eating a Yoghurt she endorses while her boyfriend has a rather spicy meal she has prepared) doesn’t hurt the film in my eyes. Whilst “My Sassy Girl” will probably be most people’s favourite Jun Ji-hyun film, this for me is the best CV for her work.
“Daisy” (데이지) should have been a lot better. Written by Kwak, directed by Andy Lau and surrounded by two really strong Korean actors, I can’t describe by disappointment with the film. It seems to exist in a strange alternate universe version of Holland that is populated only by Koreans. Whilst this does give an excuse to show off some lovely scenery and give one of the protagonists an excuse to live in a Houseboat, there really is no reason for this. The worst crime is to literally strike Jun’s character dumb for the latter half of the film, so she is reduced to teary glances at the men who are battling each other.
“A Man Who Was Superman” (슈퍼맨이었던 사나이) most mature role, even though she has to take second place to the lead. Putting on a few pounds, her chain-smoking and discarded documentary film maker is a brilliant character, playing off brilliantly against the larger than life Hwang Jung-Min. Now I have read some reviews that don’t like her performance in this, or rather the way the script never really dwells on her role in events. But the point is that this is actually the tale of two “everymen” and how one choses to make a difference, whilst the other has to learn to open up and stop being so selfish.
And so Jun leaves her homeland and tries to make it in America. Now becoming Gianna (a corruption of how she would be called Ji-hyun-ah by her assistants), her first port of call is the Manga/Anime live action adaptation of “Blood: The Last Vampire”. I will leave aside the fact Hollywood cast a Korean to play a Japanese girl (which is even slyly referenced in a line in the movie), but by any reckoning this is dross. Jun actually is head and shoulders the best thing about the film, but a brooding martial artist half human Vampire Schoolgirl is probably not the best role for someone of her talents. She actually does do pretty well (even if her English is a bit too grim ‘n’ gritty for my tastes), but the film is a mess, uninspiring with really poor support from the American contingent. Maybe if it was done a little more tongue in cheek it may have succeeded. And maybe some of my disappointment was that I was really rather excited about seeing this movie.
One of the reasons I have delayed this post for about a year is actually because I did not want to end this little fanboy retrospective on something as dire as “Blood”. Luckily there is hope, as next up is “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”. Jun will star opposite another favourite of mine, Li Bing Bing. My hopes are high, so maybe a review will be forthcoming in the Autumn.
So, there we have it, a little retrospective of one of my favourite actresses. The girl is class personified, and I look forward to catching more of her work. But for now I must say Annyonghi kaysayo to Jun Ji-hyun, and start getting back on the review Horse.