Jeon Do-Yeon: A Portrait

Le baise-main d'Alain Delon
Jeon Do-Yeon, getting the baise-main from Alain Delon

May 27th 2007: Jeon Do-Yeon, wearing a silver lamé evening gown, walks to the stage to receive Europe’s top acting prize from the hands of legendary French actor Alain Delon; she  is walking in the footsteps of Kang Soo-Yeon, who won the Best Actress Prize at the Venice Film Festival twenty years ago (for her role in Im Kwon-Taek’s Sibaji/The Surrogate Womb) and Moon So-Ri, who won Best New Performer at the same festival last year (for her part in Oasis, directed by Chang-Dong, who also worked with Jeon on Secret Sunshine, which is hardly a coincidence). 

As Pusan International Film Festival director Kim Dong-Ho put it, after the award ceremony: “It’s a monumental achievement for an Asian actress to win the Best Actress award at Cannes.”
Jeon is indeed the first Korean and second Asian actress to win this title at the Cannes Film Festival. Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung, who was on the jury this year, won in 2004 with Clean, under the direction of Olivier Assayas.


Jeon Do-Yeon, 34 years old: the apex of her career?


Predictably, Jeon’s distinction hit the headlines of the national Korean press and drew congratulations from President Roh Moo-Hyun. One of the most prominent figures of South-Korean cinema, the actress has nevertheless known very little international exposure until this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Jeon’s achievement shows that Korean cinema still fares very well in the international film festival circuit, while it does not necessarily translate into massive sales in the global movie industry.  Since 2000, Korean directors Im Kwon-Taek (with Chihwaseon in 2002), Lee Chang-dong (with Oasis in 2002), Park Chan-Wook (with Old Boy in 2004) and Kim Ki-Duk (with Samaria and 3-Iron in 2004) have won best director and the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes, Venice and Berlin film festivals. But the Korean actress is the first one from the peninsula to be honored for her exceptional skills on screen – a well-timed ray of sunshine in the recent media industry doom and gloom. As Jeon herself commented, there were many outstanding actresses in competition this year in Cannes, including Romanian Anamaria Marinca in Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (which won the supreme distinction: la Palme d’Or) and Russia’s Galina Vishnevskaya with Alexandra.
Now seems a timely moment to evoke a few important stages of Jeon’s career.


- 1973: Born in Seoul, on February 11th.


- 1990: A computer science major from Koryo University, she begins her career on the screen as a model in

a cosmetics ad.


- 1993: She makes her acting debut in the MBC television drama, Our Heaven, which also features heartthrob Jang Dong-Gun.


- 1997: The Contact, her first feature film opposite Han Suk-Kyu, earns her two Best New Actress prizes at the Grand Bell and the Blue Dragon Awards respectively, South Korea’s most prestigious ceremonies of the genre, and instant star status. While her role in this internet romance does not venture too far off the beaten path, Jeon manages to compose a character of workaday beauty, a balanced mixture of fragility, caution and passion, a nuanced performing style that will practically become her signature. 


The Contact 
with Han Suk-Kyu 
Han Suk-Kyu's star has faded a bit since, not Jeon's.

- 1998: A Promise, melodrama in which she plays a doctor who gets romantically involved with a gangster (Park Shin-Yang) who is also her patient.

- 1999: In Harmonium in my Memory, based on a popular novel by Ha Keum-Chan, Jeon is cast as a countryside schoolgirl who has a serious crush on her teacher. She wins her first Best Actress Prize at the Blue Dragon Awards.



Harmonium in my Heart/Memory


- The same year, she appears as an ambitious career woman who has a torrid (of course) love affair in Happy End. The husband (played by Choi Min-Sik) is not too happy about it. The film gloriously opens with a sultry sex scene worthy of Betty Blue (37’2 le matin), which gets a good amount of controversy. She is awarded the Best Actress Award at both the 20th Film Critic Best Award and the 8th Spring Film Festival.



Happy End Jeon in 'Happy End'


- 2000: I Wish I Had a Wife, a very charming romantic comedy in which she plays a schoolteacher who is a also a bit of a space cadet, opposite Sol Kyung-Gu (Peppermint Candy, Oasis, a frequent flyer of Lee Chang-Dongs films and one of my favorite actors). Park Heung-Shik, who is making his debut with this engaging melodramatic work will direct the actress again in 2004.




I Wish I Had a Wife
Two of Korea's finest actors. 


- 2002: In Ryu Seung-Wan’s slick pulp noir movie, No Blood No Tears, she appears as a feisty character nicknamed “Sunglasses”, who walks it like she talks it.



No Blood.. No Tears
Lee Hye-Young and Jeon Do-Yeon: tough and tougher, or the othe way round.


- She stars in the SBS television drama Shoot For the Stars.


 2003: E J-Yong directs the actress in Untold Scandal, an adaptation of the libertine epistolary novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by French author Choderlos de Laclos, astutely reset in the Choseon Dynasty. Stephen Frears’ version . Jeon is cast in the role of the über- virtuous Madame de Tourvel, a radical change from the adulterous wife of Happy End and the manipulative small-time female gangster of No Blood No Tears.   


Untold Scandal
With Lee Mi-Sook (left), Bae Yong-Jun (right), better known as Yon-sama. An edgy historical drama. 


 - 2004: Another melodrama, but with a time-bending twist: My Mother, the Mermaid, where she plays a dual role as a young woman and the younger version of her own mother, something that Son Ye-Jin pulls off in The Classic (2003). But Jeon’s  interpretation is nothing short of magnificent.



My Mother, the Mermaid AKA Little Mermaid


- 2005: She stars as a “bar girl” infected with aids in You Are My Sunshine, a role for which she is nominated for the Best Actress Prize at the Blue Dragon Awards. She and her partner in the film, Hwang Jeong-Min (who wins the Best Actor Award) are voted  “best movie couple” at the ceremony.



with Hwang Jeong-MinYou Are My Sunshine


- She also appears in the popular TV drama, Lovers in Prague (SBS), with Kim Joo-Hyeok and Kim Min-Joon.


Lovers in PraguePrague poster




- 2007: Prix d’interprétation féminine at the 60th Cannes Film Festival for her part as Shin-Ae, a young widowed piano teacher confronted with death, the evangelical community of a small Korean town, and God, in Secret Sunshine (Milyang in Korean, from the name of the town where the character moves at the beginning of the story) her tenth film. 



What did you think of when you got on the stage to receive the prize from the hands of Alain Delon ?

Jeon Do-Yeon: I thought none of this could be real ! Receiving such an honor and what’s more, the baise-main from Alain Delon, who is an idol for my mum, I could never have dreamt of such a moment. This was the crowning of  the wonderful moments I spent on the Croisette during the presentation of the film. I was a little apprehensive before coming to Cannes. I was afraid that the public would not be receptive to a film that I find 100% Korean, and whose rhythm and tone are not self-evidently exportable. The screening at the Grand Théâtre Lumière proved me wrong. In the end, I have only one regret: not being able to speak French or English and communicate directly with the people here without the help of a go-between – the translator – which obviously limits the discussions.



Song Kang-Ho, Jeon Do-Yeon, Lee Chang-Dong 
Song Kang-Ho, Jeon Do-Yeon, Lee Chang-Dong (Photo: Yves Herman for Reuters)

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