Within the Korean film industry, Jeon Do-yeon is both a huge star and a highly respected actor. In more than 25 years on screen, she has appeared in numerous K-dramas and more than 20 films, including numerous titles now considered modern Korean classics. Now she’s poised for more global exposure as the star of Netflix’s upcoming action drama Kill Boxinga movie that combines everything that international audiences have come to love about Korean cinema: humor, genre invention, powerful performances, slick production values, and a bit of the old ultra-violence.
Shortly after her breakthrough on the small screen in the 1990s, Jeon quickly gained a reputation as a uniquely chameleon-like film actress, inhabiting a wide variety of characters – from a doctor (A promise1998) to a schoolgirl (The Harmonium in my memory1999), an adulteress (Happy ending1999), a dreamy bank clerk (I wish I had a wife2001), a time traveler (My mother, the mermaid2004) and a prostitute who contracts AIDS (You are My Sunshine, 2005). She then rose to international fame when she became only the second Korean ever to win the Best Actress award at Cannes, in recognition of her gripping performance in Lee Chang-dong’s searing existential drama. Secret sunshine (2007). Then she made waves again in Im Sang-soo’s historical erotic thriller The housekeeper (2010). More recent performances include a heartbreaking twist as a grieving mother Birthday (2019), the first film about the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea, which killed hundreds of schoolchildren; and a more cheerful appearance as a murderous female mobster in Kim Yong-hoon’s black comedy thriller Beasts that claw at straws (2020).
Jeon is making her first trip to the Berlin International Film Festival this week in support of Kill Boxing, Netflix’s hottest Korean movie of 2023. Written and directed by Byun Sung-hyun, the movie features Jeon as a legendary assassin who also happens to be a single mother of a teenage daughter. Caught between the mission of killing someone and the duties of raising someone, Jeon’s character, the titular Boksoon, decides to step back from her double life by refusing to complete an assigned mission. In the process, she becomes the target of the entire Seoul underground hitman industry. The film will have its world premiere in the Berlinale Special section on Saturday, February 18, ahead of its worldwide launch on Netflix on March 31.
The Hollywood Reporter connected with Jeon via Zoom in Seoul to talk about her own double life as a mother and movie star – and the long and unique career leading up to her first appearance at the Berlinale.
What initially attracted you to this character and this movie?
Well, from the title to every detail of the story, this is a movie that came about from my conversations with director Byun. He approached me and said he wanted to make a movie with me, or even about me, and after many conversations, we started coming up with this idea of the female killer, Gil Bok-soon. So it all started from there, even before the script was written. As for the character and her traits, director Byun told me he wrote it based on his observations of me, including my relationship with my daughter. So when I finally read the script, I felt like I almost got a third-person view of my own life. I came away from it thinking, “Oh, this must be how some people see me.”
Did director Byun explain what it was about you that inspired him to write this character who leads a double life as a hitman and common mother? In a way, I can see how this plays into your pre-existing screen persona, as you’ve often played characters that have a unique blend of natural warmth and charm, and an underlying strength or fearlessness.
Do you really think I come across as hot? (laughs) It’s really hard to know what kind of person you are, isn’t it? I think director Byun saw the actor in me and the mother in me and thought those two sides were very different. He saw a very drastic contrast and that intrigued him. He said he wanted to portray it in a realistic way. So he observed my actual conversations with my daughter and tried to bring that into the character and the script.
I think there are similarities between the character and I because we’re both professionals who take pride in our work, but at home we’re women just learning how to be a better mother – we have all the usual issues of being with our child. communicate and understand. I was really drawn to that. Through the different films I work on, I come to understand what my personality is like and what thoughts I have in my heart. As both an actor and a mother, I like to think of myself as a person with a lot of love but also a lot of passion.
Do you think you would make a good assassin in real life?
I think I would be fantastic at it.
Aspiring Korean actresses who take their craft seriously often cite you as a major inspiration, because of the way you’ve taken on such a diversity of characters over the course of your career, some of which were very daring in the time you’ve been playing. them. Many in the industry praise you for expanding the range of roles contemporary Korean actresses can play. What has been important to you as you have selected parts throughout your career?
Looking back, I did play a wide variety of roles, but there was a time in my life when I was incapable of doing that. At one point, there were definitely restrictions on what actresses were [in Korea] could play. But we see changes; there are now many more types of roles for women. And I think streaming services have come to play a very important role here because these services need more genres, more stories and more content, so we’re seeing new doors open and more diverse opportunities.
I’ve taken on some very adventurous and daring roles. But it wasn’t the fact that they were adventurous that attracted me. For me, I was always drawn to the story. Above all, the stories had to be interesting and convincing to me. And I was lucky that they found their audience.
The Korean film industry has experienced incredible growth and change over the past two and a half decades, and you have been one of the central figures of that movement. What does the recent global recognition of Korean filmmaking mean to you and what is your assessment of the current state of affairs in the Korean industry?
With Korean content going global and getting so much love from all over the world, there’s an aspect of me that’s really looking forward to working on a wider variety of projects with a lot of other directors. However, I think while there is more content coming out of Korea, my personal concern is that as much as we are so loved, we are really providing them with the quality that that kind of love deserves. I sometimes wonder that, I think it could be that we are going through a transitional phase. But my only hope is that we will be able to tell more and more great stories and that I would be lucky enough to be in it.
In the future, I still have a thirst to want to try more genres – to play more roles and tell more stories. That has been the constant in my career and something that hasn’t changed. It was not my intention to bring about change in the industry. All the while, my only hope was to play a convincing character in a great story.