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Ko-pick: BIFAN Spotlights the “One and Only Son Yejin”

Jul 05, 2024
  • Writer by KoBiz
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One of Asia’s top genre festivals, The Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN) kicks off its 28th edition on July 4th opening with Rose Glass’ Love Lies Bleeding (2024). Over the course of the event, it will screen a total of 225 titles from 49 countries, which will include 57 world premieres. 


Among its many events, it will showcase the work of actress Son Ye-jin in a retrospective titled “One and Only Son Yejin.” Son is one of Korean cinema’s leading performers with a career in prominent roles spanning more than two decades both in television and feature films.


Son made her silver screen debut in Im Kwon-taek’s Chihwaseon (2002) that was invited to the Cannes Film Festival in 2002 where Im won Best Director. But it was her roles in melodramas The Classic (2003), A Moment to Remember (2004) and April Snow (2005) that propelled her to stardom and a bankable star.


She continued to feature in leading roles in films during the 2000s with films such as The Art of Seduction (2005), Open City (2007) and My Wife got Married (2008). Apt at choosing a selection of roles that bring her box office success in films such as The Pirates (2014), The Last Princess (2016) and Be With You (2017) she remained one of the most sought after actors in the industry. She also took on daring roles in films such as Lee Kyoung-mi’s The Truth Beneath (2015) that brought her accolades, and critical acclaim.


BIFAN will screen a total of six films she features in: Kwak Jae-yong’s The Classic (2003), John H. Lee’s A Moment to Remember (2004), Chong Yun-su’s My Wife Got Married (2008), Hwang In-ho’s Spellbound (2011), Lee Kyoung-mi’s The Truth Beneath (2015) and Hur Jin-ho’s The Last Princess (2016). It will also a curate a special photo exhibition at the Hyundai Department Store in Jungdong, Bucheon where the actress will also attend a Mega Talk on Saturday July 6th.


To coincide with this event, this week we take a look at some of Son’s most famous roles beginning with Lover’s Concerto (2002), her first leading part.



Lover's Concerto

Directed and written by Lee Han who is known for his accomplished dramas (Punch (2011), Innocent Witness (2019)), Son in Lover’s Concerto (2002) plays a young a woman who is approached by a man (Cha Tae-hyun) while spending time in a café with her friend (Lee Eun-ju). It seems love at first sight when he sees her through his camera lens and immediately declares his feelings. She speaks bluntly, refusing his advances but the three of them form a close friendship taking them on a journey together.


Told through a non-linear structure and covering different periods; from the summer of 1996 to the summer of 2001, it’s a story of friendship, companionship but also one of unease and jealousy. Typical of films released in the early 2000s, it’s unconventional in its approach with the amateur photographer making the initial advance so early on in the story. The friendship between the three is also unusual and intriguing.


Son’s presence on screen is magnetic, her persona as Korea’s leading star in melodramas is evident from her introduction in the film. Her dialogue doesn’t consist of much, instead she is able to allure viewers with her charm conveying the innocence that is characteristic of so many protagonists in Korean melodramas.



The Classic

Melodramas in Korean cinema entered a renaissance in the late 1990s and 2000s with Son Ye-jin very much at the forefront of it. This is illustrated through Kwak Jae-yong’s The Classic (2003) that saw the actress win several awards as Best New Actress for her leading role at the Grand Bell and Baeksang Awards.


In the film, Son plays an undergraduate who has a crush on a fellow student (Zo In-sung) but her friend also likes him so asks her to write a love letter, which touches him. Feeling uncomfortable, she seeks to avoid him but keeps bumping into him.


Son also plays a dual role as her mother when the student finds a secret box in her attic.  This takes the story through flashbacks to the late 1960s where the mother meets a young man (Cho Seung-woo) one summer in the countryside. As such the narrative focuses on both characters and their relationships drawing parallels to each other.


Akin to many Korean melodramas, Son’s characters evoke the sadness, emotion, love and innocence that embody the characters of this genre. Her characters leave so much of an impression that make them so synonymous with the genre.



The Art of Seduction

Son would also star in romantic comedies featuring as the lead in Oh Ki-hwan’s The Art of Seduction (2005). It sold 2.3 million tickets after its release in December 2005 in time for the end-of-year box office season that is traditionally a popular time for couples to go to the cinema.


The actress plays a different character compared to many of her melodramas as a dating guru who works as a success investment banker. She attempts to seduce an architect (Song Il-kook) but he too is proud at being able to date who he pleases leaving the two in a game of a seduction.


Shedding some of the innocence that has come to characterise some of her roles, the film demonstrates her continued ability and willingness to further challenge the limits of her persona, embodying a range of roles. This has been central to her success as an actress evolving with the industry.



A Moment to Remember

Dealing with grief, loss and illness has been a central theme in Korean melodramas during this period. Son Ye-jin’s role together with her co-star’s Jung Woo-sung in A Moment to Remember (2004) would capture these themes in a manner that would resonate with viewers both in and out of Korea. It sold 2.5 million tickets locally becoming the fifth biggest hit of 2004 and was the highest grossing Korean film in Japan.


Directed by John H. Lee, it tells the story of a young woman (Son) who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s after she falls in love with an architect (Jung).  It’s based on the Japanese television drama Pure Soul (2001).


Son plays a young woman who is having to come to terms with her ailing health as her character begins to lose her memory despite her best efforts to try and retain it. Her husband meanwhile sees her wife disappearing before his eyes making it a true heart wrenching film – emblematic of so many melodramas, not least, those Son plays a central role in.




My Wife got Married

Son also starred in Chong Yun-su’s My Wife got Married (2008) about a woman called In-ha who falls in love with a former colleague, Deok-hoon played by the late Kim Joo-hyuk. They both share a love of sports, and they soon get married. But things take an odd turn when In-ha decides that she will marry another man, yet she doesn’t want a divorce as she still loves Deok-hoon.


Securing three Blue-Dragon Awards including Best Leading Actress for Son Ye-jin, it again underscored Son’s natural acting talent and determination to bring something new to every role she delivers even when she is working within the same genre. It’s also the chemistry she shares with her co-stars collaborating with an array of performers connecting in tangible ways. Working with Kim Joo-hyuk was evidently special, the two performers would pair up again for The Truth Beneath.


Upon its release in the fall of 2008 the film accumulated 1.8 million admissions, which was a period when melodramas were becoming less popular amidst a decline in the Korean film industry.




Once again reflecting her desire to star in films that push the boundaries, Son featured as a lead in Hwang In-ho’s romantic comedy Spellbound (2011) that also incorporates elements of fantasy and horror.


Starring alongside Lee Min-ki, she plays a woman who is able to see ghosts and subsequently isolates herself from the outside world. A magician (Lee) approaches her and tries to find a way for her to escape the ghosts as they team up to perform together on stage.


Bringing together humor, charm and a dose of eccentricity, Son finds a quirkiness that you don’t often see in her other roles underlining her depth and range as a remarkably talented performer.


The film also resonated with audiences selling 3 million tickets after its release in December 2011 making it yet another hit in her long career.



The Pirates

In the 2010s as the industry grew ever more reliant on blockbusters Son also embarked on projects involving big-budgets with a focus on scale and visually daring set-pieces. This was evident in The Tower (2012) and in The Pirates, which was a considerable success accumulating over 8.6 million admissions.


Helmed by Lee Seok-hoon, Son plays a pirate called Yeo-wol who runs into a group of bandits led by Sa-jung (Kim Nam-gil). They are after the Emperor’s Seal that was gobbled up by a giant whale at the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty.


Not dissimilar to many Korean tentpoles, it emulates the Hollywood blockbuster formula with its inevitable comparisons to the Pirates of the Caribbean series that was enormously popular in Korea in the 2000s. But to be successful, it also has to adopt a local backdrop, which it does so in its setting and characters with Son illustrating she can lead an ambitious spectacle.



The Truth Beneath

One of Son’s most acclaimed performances during her career is her role in Lee Kyoung-mi’s second feature The Truth Beneath (2016) for which she won Best Actress at the Buil Film Awards. She stars as the wife of aspiring politician (Kim Joo-hyeok) who is seeking to run as a member of Korea’s National Assembly. But on the first day of the election campaign their daughter is kidnapped. Her mother is determined to find her, but her distress only worsens when her husband and campaign appear to care more about being elected.


Politics has featured in a number or prominent films of this decade with Inside Men (2015) being the most successful that came a year earlier. Han Jae-rim’s The King (2016) is also part of this trend but what sets The Truth Beneath apart is how is focusses on a female protagonist, who is the driving force of the narrative shedding light on pressures faced by those on spouses and the wider family during a gruelling election campaign.


Co-written by Park Chan-wook who is also well-known for his female leading characters, Son’s performance is layered and mesmerizing.



The Last Princess

Released two months after The Truth Beneath, Son’s role as Princess Deokhye in The Last Princess (2016) also drew significant critical acclaim. It, therefore, made 2016 a particularly notable year for the actress. She was nominated for Best Actress at the Blue Dragon Awards, while she won the award at the Grand Bells.


The film directed by Hur Jin-ho saw her reunite with the director after collaborating together on April Snow (2005). As the title suggests, it centers on Korea’s last princess as she is forced to move to Japan in 1925 during the Japanese Colonial period. The film follows her and her childhood friend played by Park Hae-il as they seek to return her back to Korea.


Like a number of colonial era films in the 2010s it struck a chord with viewers accruing close to 5.6 million admissions, which for a drama is notable. Again, Son is able to carry the film delivering the complexities of the leading character, making her relatable, enabling audiences to connect with her like her other roles. Few actresses of her generation have been able to continue starring in films, drawing in the crowds and critical acclaim over a career that spans two decades. 



Edited by Shim Eunha

Written by Jason Bechervaise


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