Thursday, July 01, 2010

NYAFF ’10: Actresses

Behold the power of publicity. On Christmas Eve, six of Korea’s most popular actresses endure each other’s catty company during the long hours of a cover shoot for Vogue magazine. Such prices must be paid to maintain their celebrity status. While the documentary might be fictional, the professional rivalries seem quite real in E. J-yong’s Actresses (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

These might be some of the bravest performances you will see on film. Since all six actresses play themselves, many will assume the insecurities and foibles on display truly reflect the actresses’ character. For instance, right from the get-go, it is clear Youn Yuh-jung, fictional or otherwise, will be trouble. Mortified to be the first to arrive, the acerbic diva keeps everyone on their toes. She is funny though.

Still a striking beauty at fifty, Lee Mi-suk is next in seniority, but appears to be the most at ease with herself, despite her self-deprecation. By contrast, thirty-something Ko Hyun-Jung seems like a bit of a mess, getting hammered on champagne and mixing it up with anyone who mentions her divorce to a Samsung heir.

The other three actresses are young and hot at the Korean box office. Choi Ji-woo, is not just big in Korea, she is an “Asian Star,” an important distinction, financially. Though truly a stunner, she comes across as a wee bit high maintenance. Probably the most recognizable to American audiences as the female lead in Park Chan-wook’s Thirst, Kim Ok-vin portrays herself as sweet but a bit spacey. Likewise, the trend-setting Kim Min-hee projects a similar image, if slightly less sweet and a bit more spacey.

Obviously, throwing together six superstars and their egos will produce some sparks. When technical difficulties prolong the tense shoot, look out. However, the famous actresses eventually find common ground through their shared experiences surfing the waves of celebrity. They might be famous, but they are still plenty human.

With its voyeuristic fly-on-the-wall perspective and its frequently biting dialogue, Actresses feels like a slick, glossy tell-all documentary shot by Robert Altman. Deliberately challenging genre boundaries, it is hard to parse how much mock is in the mockumentary. Fans of the fab six will be fascinated by this ostensibly candid look at their favorite stars. Yet for American audiences, it is still a provocative take on celebrity culture. The attractive cast (even including the magazine editor) should not hurt its international appeal either.

While there are plenty of “in” references that will probably be lost on mere mortals not thoroughly steeped in Korean cinema, the basic gist of Actresses is pretty universal. Indeed, it is fascinating to watch six major movie stars toy with their public images. Sure, there are risks in doing so, but as the film makes clear, it would be far worse to not be included in such an elite group. Ultimately they all fare rather well. Another shrewd programming departure for NYAFF, Actresses screens Saturday (7/3) and Monday (7/5) at the Walter Reade Theater, with special guest director E. J-yong in attendance.