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Director-actor duos of Korean cinema

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Updated : April 16 2017

Kim Min-hee has been enjoying a year of unprecedented success, winning best actress at the Berlin film fest for “Alone on the Beach at Night” and with two other films she has starred in -- “Clair’s Camera” and “The Day After” -- set to screen at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

The common factor between the three films is director Hong Sang-soo, with whom she has openly admitted to have a romantic relationship.

Strong creative bonds commonly exist between directors and actors, with the latter often serving as screen embodiments of personas envisioned by the former.

The Korea Herald has compiled a list of director-actor duos that have gained both local and international fame.

Bong Joon-ho, Tilda Swinton and Song Kang-ho

The famed director and Scottish actress have on various occasions made public their mutual professional respect and fondness for each other.

Swinton’s appearance in “Snowpiercer” was the result of the actress’ initiative, she said. When the two met at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, Swinton had eagerly expressed her wish to star in a Bong production.

“We started chatting like children the moment we met,” Swinton said in a 2013 interview. “I told him, let’s make a fun movie and he said he was confident.”

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A still of the film “Snowpiercer,” depicting Tilda Swinton (CJ Entertainment)
The actress had wrapped up two lengthy projects at the time -- “Julia” (2008) and “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (2011). But her meeting with Bong had overturned her decision to take a long break, she said.

“I was exhausted like a farmer after a hard harvest. But I couldn’t give up on working with Bong. I had been a longtime fan.”

“I had always wondered how his films could be so unique when watching them. Working with him, I felt he was someone who structured a film perfectly but who also had an intense energy.”

Known to tackle eccentric parts, Swinton played the role of Mason, the maniacal rule-keeper of the train that is doomed to a never-ending journey in order to generate heat in the frozen world of “Snowpiercer.”

Swinton stars in the Bong’s upcoming film “Okja,” which was on Thursday named for this year’s Cannes’ competition category.

In a trailer released by Netflix, Swinton is seen in a platinum blonde bob narrating, “I took science and nature and I synthesized.” Viewers assume Swinton plays a scientist or executive in the company that gives birth to Okja, a gruesome, gentle monster.

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A still of the film “The Host,” depicting Song Kang-ho (Showbox)
In Korea, meanwhile, Bong’s persona has long been represented by actor Song Kang-ho, known for his unfettered portrayals of the comic and the everyman -- characters who possess no extraordinary traits, yet preserve an essence of humanity amid a world of inhumanity.

Song starred as an unassuming small town detective looking into the country’s first serial killing in Bong’s breakout mystery “Memories of Murder” (2003).

In the 2006 sci-fi thriller “The Host,” in which a strange creature overtakes Seoul’s Han River, Song plays the lethargic father Kang-du who finds himself galvanized to action to protect his daughter in the face of disaster.

Song plays Namgoong Min-su in “Snowpiercer,” an engineer-turned-drug addict dredging in the lowest-class compartment of the hierarchical train, choosing to escape from reality. He eventually rises as a guide to passengers in their rebellion, a figure who does not yield to authority but rejects the system altogether.

Hong Sang-soo, Jung Jae-young and Isabelle Huppert

Before director Hong’s much-publicized affair with the actress Kim, he had long been known for inserting his alter ego into his nonchalantly realistic films, represented by actors such as Kim Tae-woo, Yoo Joon-sang and Kim Sang-kyung.

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A still of the film “Right Now, Wrong Then,” depicting Jung Jae-young (Next Entertainment World)
But the best embodiment of Hong’s trademark character, the hypocritical artist who is often chauvinistic, vain but hopelessly self-unaware is perhaps actor Jung Jae-young, who starred in “Our Sunhi” (2013), “Right Now, Wrong Then” (2015), “On the Beach at Night Alone” (2017) and “Clair’s Camera” (2017).

“I don’t think I acted out a character. I tried my best not to act,” Jung said in a 2015 interview for “Right Now, Wrong Then,” in which he portrays a married film director clumsily making advances at a timid painter, played by Kim Min-hee.

The French actress Isabelle Huppert has also worked with director Hong multiple times, first in the 2012 comedy-drama “In Another Country,” and most recently in “Clair’s Camera,” which was invited to compete at Cannes this year.

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A still of the film “In Another Country,” depicting Isabelle Huppert (Jeonwonsa Films)
In the 2012 film, Huppert plays three different versions of the “charming French visitor” -- a famous filmmaker, the wife of a rich French executive, and a divorced housewife -- as the film traces how her hosts’ behavior and conversations shift subtly according to her different statuses.

“Through these three little stories we see a woman’s whole emotional life -- desire, expectation, loneliness, love, disappointment,” Huppert said to The Guardian in a 2012 interview at Cannes. “(Hong) writes his dialogue every night and gives you the script every morning, and you shoot it. The film looks spontaneous but it’s very precise actually.”

Kim Jee-woon & Lee Byung-hun

Director Kim Jee-woon rose to acclaim through his highly stylized, elegant depictions of bleak lives. Actor Lee Byung-hun is a central figure in his filmography, the core of the director’s calculated cinematography.

The 2005 mobster noir “A Bittersweet Life” still remains one of Kim and Lee’s representative works to this day. Lee plays Seon-woo, a loyal and perfectionist gangster whose life spirals out of control when he is ordered to carry out the dangerous task of spying on his boss’ girlfriend, and acts on an emotional impulse.

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A still of the film “A Bittersweet Life,” depicting Lee Byung-hun (CJ Entertainment)
In Kim’s Korean-style Western adventure “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” (2008), an homage to Clint Eastwood’s “The Good, the Bad, the Ugly” and set against the backdrop of 1930s Manchuria, Lee plays “the bad” gang leader Park Chang-yi. The character is ruthless in his single-minded pursuit of treasure depicted on a mysterious map, the dark counterpart of “the weird” train robber played by Song Kang-ho and “the good” bounty hunter played by Jung Woo-sung.

The role brought Lee critical and popular acclaim, imprinting him in viewers’ minds as a villain of all-consuming force. Lee called Kim an “intense director” in a 2009 interview. “You can tell from his films. How can you create such scenes … if you are not intense?

E J Yong & Youn Yuh-jung

Director E J Yong’s muse and persona seem to be the veteran actress Youn Yuh-jung, who starred in “Actresses” (2009), an experimental documentary-style film tracing behind-the-scenes gossip among female performers.

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A still of the film “Actresses,” depicting Youn Yuh-jung (Showbox)
E is known for spotlighting the often irrational emotional battles between his sensitive characters. Youn plays a version of herself, a 60-something actress who feels awkward at a fashion shoot.

She teams up with E again in “The Bacchus Lady” (2016) in which Youn portrays an aged sex worker who ends up offering much more than sexual services to her elderly clientele. Youn won best actress for her performance in the film at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

“It’s not a commercial film. But I was happy I could take on a role that fits my age,” Youn said in an interview last year. While the filming process was “unbelievably hard,” Youn said she took on the project due to her faith in E. “I know him well … and I trusted he would deal with the subject matter in a way that is not sensational or extreme.”

By Rumy Doo (doo@heraldcorp.com)

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