Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Jeon Ji-hyun: The Sassiest Thief

For people like myself who became a fan of Korean cinema in the early 2000’s, the first memory we have of Jeon Ji-hyun is probably the same - that of her vomiting over an unsuspecting passengers toupée while riding on a late night train, the memorable part of course is that the toupée was on his head when she did. The scene is from the 2001 movie ‘My Sassy Girl / 엽기적인 그녀’, which not only became a hit in Korea, but became a sensation throughout the whole of Asia, particularly in China. The movie itself spawned an official Hong Kong movie sequel, as well as being re-made in Hollywood.

My Sassy Girl’ well and truly marked the arrival of Ji-hyun as an icon of the Korean new wave, a far cry from her original dream of being a flight attendant. Discovered at 16 on the street by a fashion editor, after a name change from Wang to Jeon, perhaps to disguise her Chinese heritage, in 1997 she began a successful modeling career. While she landed a role in the long forgotten 1999 movie ‘White Valentine / 화이트 발렌타인’, it was actually a Samsung commercial for a printer of all things which brought her to the public’s attention. The two minute ad pretty much consists of Ji-hyun dancing and little else, but let it be a lesson on the power of dance, what effect it had on printer sales I’m not sure.

Between ‘White Valentine’ and ‘My Sassy Girl’, she landed a role in the movie ‘Il Mare / 시월애’ opposite Lee Jeong-jae. A romantic melodrama with the added element of time travel thrown in, the plot concerns two characters living in the same house by the lake, but during different periods of time, who find they can write to each other through the mail. The time travel twist is subtle and only used as a device for the characters to communicate, giving a fresh spin on the usual story of two people who are meant to be together but can’t. ‘Il Mare’ was a critical success, going so far as also getting the Hollywood remake treatment in 2006 as ‘The Lake House’, with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock.

After the success of ‘My Sassy Girl’, Ji-hyun took a two year break from movies, during which she appeared in countless TV commercials and on billboards across Asia, before returning in 2003 to try her hand at horror with ‘The Uninvited / 4인용 식탁’. While the movie was a critical success, it didn’t resonate with audiences and was a failure at the box office. Confusingly, another Korean horror movie, Kim Ji-woon’s ‘A Tale of Two Sisters / 장화, 홍련’, was subjected to a Hollywood remake, which was also called ‘The Uninvited’, released in 2009 and bearing no relation to the Ji-hyun movie.

Perhaps wanting to return to more familiar territory, in 2004 she re-teamed with ‘My Sassy Girl’ director Kwak Jae-yong to make the romantic melodrama ‘Windstruck / 내 여자친구를 소개합니다’, in which she plays a policewoman who falls for a school teacher. However because of the all too familiar feel to that of ‘My Sassy Girl’, the movie was met with only a lukewarm reception, and it was generally acknowledged that Ji-hyun s popularity was finally on a downwards turn. On a positive note, while ‘My Sassy Girl’ wasn’t particularly big in Japan, ‘Windstruck’ proved to be quite the opposite, and at the time became the best-performing Korean movie there of all time.

Ji-hyun left the movie scene again for a couple of years, although as before her presence was still very visible through the many advertisements she appeared in, before re-emerging in 2006 for the drama ‘Daisy / 데이지’. The movie was notable for being completely shot in the Netherlands, and being directed by Andrew Lau, the Hong Kong director behind ‘Infernal Affairs’. However neither factor could save it from being a flop. She followed up ‘Daisy’ in 2008 with ‘A Man Who Was Superman / 슈퍼맨이었던 사나이’, starring alongside Hwang Jeong-min in a quirky tale in which she plays a documentary producer following a man who claims to be Superman, but has just lost his powers due to a piece of kryptonite being stuck in his brain. Despite the unique premise though, it was actually Ji-hyun chopping off her signature long hair which got the most attention.

2009 was a big year for Ji-hyun  as she took the plunge that so many Asian stars do and went to try her hand at Hollywood, landing the lead role in the live action version of the Japanese animation ‘Blood: The Last Vampire / 블러드’. Changing her name from Jeon Ji-hyun to the westernized Gianna Jun, she spent three gruelling months training in martial arts and stunt work, not to mention learning a script in English. While her efforts in the movie are clear to see, she handles the action scenes with aplomb and delivers her lines convincingly, the movie is missing that special something, and in a market currently saturated with vampire tales, it didn't have enough to hold its head above water for long.

She followed this up with another English language role in 2010’s ‘Snow Flower and the Secret Fan’, alongside Chinese actress Li Bingbing. The story follows the lifelong friendship between the two characters. While the movie flew underneath most peoples radar, it also got a mixed critical reception, with some reviewers going so far as to call it boring, while others referenced the rather jarring choice to suddenly have someone overdub Ji-hyun’s lines that were required to be spoken in Mandarin. For better or worse, neither ‘Blood: The Last Vampire’ nor ‘Snow Flower and the Secret Fan’ provided the breakthrough into the Hollywood market that Ji-hyun was looking for, and for a long time after any news of her being in any new movie fell silent.

Thankfully in 2012 all that changed, when she returned to the big screen with a bang in Choi Dong-hoon’s adventure romp ‘The Thieves / 도둑들’. A stand out in the movies all-star Pan-Asian cast (which included her ‘Il Mare’ co-star Lee Jeong-jae),  playing the cat burglar of the group Ji-hyun was back on form as a more mature but still just as sassy as ever incarnation of her previous roles. 2013 sees her still going strong with a performance in Ryu Seung-wan’s action movie ‘The Berlin File / 베를린’, alongside Ryu Seung-beom and Ha Jung-woo, and best of all? – Both of these movies can be seen at this years Korean Film Festival in Australia, so be sure to check them out!

By Paul Bramhall

1 comment:

  1. You certainly filled in all the gaps for me about this actress. Your informative post is most appreciated. Strangely, I have yet to see her most famous performance in MY SASSY GIRL. I've owned the Korean DVD release of the film for over a decade. But it hasn't won out yet over the many action oriented films that I prefer watching. However, I really enjoyed her performances in both THE THIEVES and THE BERLIN FILE.