In the Netflix sci-fi series “Sense 8,” actress Bae Doo-na plays Sun Bak, vice president of a Seoul-based firm by day and an underground kickboxer by night. Bak is one of the toughest characters Bae has played in her prolific 17-year acting career. This is also the most widely watched series she has been in.
“I heard season one ranked as the most popular show in every region from North and South Americas to Europe. I was thrilled to learn that,” said Bae, who was speaking to The Korea Herald while in Berlin on Saturday. She is in Germany for the shooting of season two of “Sense 8,” which will take her to 16 different locations.
A scene from "Sense 8" (Netflix)
The drama series is streamed globally by Netflix which has helped the Korean star gain recognition outside of the Korean movie scene.
Bae has made regular appearances in the Wachowski siblings’ films ever since she was scouted by the American directing and producing duo made up of Andrew Paul and Lana Wachowski. She has starred in “Cloud Atlas” (2012) and “Jupiter Ascending” (2015). “Sense 8” is Bae’s third work with the directors.
“I was surprised to find out I would be actually shooting scenes in cities where the characters live. I was constantly travelling from Iceland to Nairobi, then to Seoul, to Berlin and to Mexico City when filming the season one,” said Bae. Each of the eight characters in “Sense 8” live in different cities around the world. Their minds connect with one another unexpectedly when their mental and emotional states are linked.
There will be even more globetrotting for Bae this year, as she will be filming season two in 16 cities, spending two weeks in each city until September.
“I always think the script writers are geniuses in putting together scenes scattered in many parts of the world,” said Bae.
But Bae was wary of giving too much away about Bak’s fate in season two.
“The directors are very cautious about spoilers,” said Bae. “Sun Pak, who was put in prison for taking her brother’s crime upon herself, will return stronger than ever in season two,” she added.
The similarity between her character in “Sense 8” and Bae in real life is that they have both grown stronger over the course of filming the series.
Acting in English-language films has been a great challenge for Bae. She had to leave her comfort zone in Korea and test her limits in delivering lines in English while adjusting to a new culture and system at the same time.
“I was thrown into a new world,” Bae said. “Everything was a challenge. I had to make new friends, learn a new language and a new culture.”
Bae plays Sonmi-451 in "Cloud Atlas," her 2012 Hollywood debut. (Cloud Atlas Productions)
Lee Han-lim, head of Saetbyeoldang Entertainment, which represents Bae in Korea, said Bae tried to immerse herself in English-speaking environments whenever she had spare time.
“To deliver lines in English, you have to know how sentences and words you would say in movies are used in real life. Bae went to the U.K. several times to acquaint herself with everyday English,” said Lee. For a while, she dated English actor Jim Sturgess, a fellow cast member in “Cloud Atlas.”
Bae said that it takes her extra effort to master her English lines.
“I act instinctively in Korean, but in English, I have to try harder and also be mentally strong at the same time. Everything was a challenge,” said Bae. “The good thing is that the Wachowski directors have motivated me to battle insecurity about acting and continue to push forward. I feel I have become stronger now.”
In Korea, Bae has been an art-house movie darling, more likely to be cast in indie movies rather than commercially popular hits. Since her 1999 debut in the Korean edition of Japanese horror film “Ring,” Bae has played a variety of roles including a tough married woman in the comedy movie “Saving My Hubby” (2002), an archer in “The Host” (2006), a North Korean table tennis player in “As One” (2012) and a lesbian policewoman in “A Girl at My Door” (2014). She has starred in films by Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, two Korean directors who are well-known internationally.
A scene from "A Girl at My Door," for which Bae won the best actress award at last year`s Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong. (Fine House Film)
Bae has won several best actresses awards in and outside Korea, including the Asian Film Awards in which she was recognized by the Hong Kong International Film Festival for her role in “A Girl at My Door” in 2015.
“I was particularly proud of myself starring in that movie. It was my type of movie. I didn’t consider any commercial aspects of the film when I selected that film,” said Bae.
Bae voluntarily waived payment for starring in the low-budget film.
She knew she had made the right choice when the movie was invited to the Un Certain Regard section at the 2014 Cannes International Film Festival.
“I began to feel confident in roles that I selected,” said Bae.
She has built a unique standing in the Korean film scene for her diverse roles.
“Bae has created unique characters in films – characters that could only be made by her,” said Jeong Ji-ouk, a movie critic. “Bae focuses on films that she can do best and is not swayed by a desire to be in big-hit films.”
Her unique onscreen character drew attention in the world of high fashion last year. She was selected to be a muse of Louis Vuitton by its creative director Nicolas Ghesquiere.
Bae Doo-na appears in Louis Vuitton`s spring-summer 2016 ad campaign. (Louis Vuitton)
“I discovered the Korean actress Doona Bae in the sci-fi action film ‘The Host.’ I was struck by her character and mysterious beauty. All of her movie choices are quite particular. She flits between an archery champion and an accomplished boxer (in the sci-fi TV series ‘Sense 8’), or even an inflatable doll (in ‘Air Doll’),” Ghesquiere said in the press release announcing Bae as the French luxury company’s new muse in January.
Her role as a sex doll in the Japanese movie “Air Doll” drew exceptional reviews from movie critics and the sci-fi image of the life-size doll in “Air Doll” allowed Bae to develop the cyborg character Sonmi-451 in “Cloud Atlas.”
“Her previous Japanese movies received quite good reviews. Her role in ‘Air Doll’ left a strong impression on many people,” said Jeong.
Bae’s agency added that Bae’s appearances in Japanese movies gave her the confidence to act in foreign languages.
“The movie (‘Air Doll’) was the beginning of Bae’s breakthrough in her acting career,” said Lee of Bae’s Korean agency.
Ghesquiere has praised her versatility in acting, which in turn inspires the French fashion house’s collections.
“I am fascinated by her gift for transformation, and I had her image very much in mind as I was creating this collection. She radiates strength and an artistic sensibility that corresponds to the values of the Maison,” said Ghesquiere in a press statement last year.
Bae appears in Louis Vuitton`s spring-summer 2016 ad campaign. (Louis Vuitton)
As a Louis Vuitton muse, Bae posed for the brand’s spring-summer advertisement campaign and attended its spring-summer collection show in Paris last October, rubbing shoulders with Catherine Deneuve, Alicia Vikander and Adele Exarchopoulos.
Between her busy overseas schedules, Bae found time to return to Korea to film the upcoming movie “Tunnel” by director Kim Sung-hoon, in which she co-stars with Ha Jung-woo and Oh Dal-su.
“Starring in Korean movies gives me comfort. That’s why I come back to Korea from time to time to search for good films,” she said.
“But I want to be good in every film, including those in foreign languages. After all, I am an actress and I love movies.”
By Lee Woo-young (firstname.lastname@example.org
) This is the sixth article in a series that explores the driving forces behind hallyu and the global rise of Korean pop culture. --Ed.