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Bae Doona (right) and Zhou Xun in a scene from Cloud Atlas. Bae is one of South Korea’s most talented actresses and has carved out a career unique among her contemporaries. Photo: Media Asia (Hong Kong Distributor)

Bae Doona’s 12 best movies: from Air Doll to Cloud Atlas, the South Korean film actress’ top performances ranked

  • The Korean actress has made a career playing outsiders and oddballs; among her most memorable roles is humanoid clone Sonmi-451 in the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas
  • In Air Doll, Bae plays an inflatable sex doll who magically comes to life; she starred in Barking Dogs Never Bite after offering to do the role without make-up

One of South Korea’s most internationally recognisable actresses, Bae Doona is anything but a conventional movie star.

Rather than cultivate a clean-cut on-screen persona, she has fashioned a career playing outsiders, oddballs and outcasts, and ventured abroad to appear in Hollywood films, Japanese and French productions.

Bae has headlined numerous high-profile television series, most recently Netflix’s blockbuster space epic The Silent Sea, while building a filmography unlike that of any other Korean actress working today.

Below we rank our 12 favourite big-screen Bae Doona performances.

12. Tunnel (2016)

Before collaborating on period zombie series Kingdom, Bae was cast opposite superstar Ha Jung-woo by writer-director Kim Seong-hun in his 2016 disaster thriller.

When Jung-soo (Ha) is trapped in a collapsed tunnel while driving home for his daughter’s birthday, it falls to his wife (Bae) to keep his spirits high via radio while the authorities procrastinate over the financial benefits of a rescue attempt.

It’s a fairly pedestrian bit of melodramatic hand-wringing from Bae, but she delivers with assured aplomb.

11. Saving My Hubby (2002)

Bae more than holds her own as the unwilling hero of this mostly ridiculous comedy thriller. She plays a reluctant new mother who is left quite literally holding the baby after her drunken husband (Kim Tae-woo) is held hostage by shifty nightclub owners.

Strapping her infant to her chest, Geum-soon (Bae) heads out into the night, where she must contend with a rogues’ gallery of gangsters and assorted ne’er-do-wells in the hope of bringing her hubby home in one piece.

10. As One (2012)

In 1991, an effort was made to defuse cross-border tensions by forming a unified table tennis team to represent North and South Korea. Moon Hyun-sung’s bombastic sports drama stars Ha Ji-won as South Korean champion Hyun Jung-hwa, who is forced to team up with North Korean nemesis Ri Bun-hui (Bae) for the World Championships, where they face arch-rivals China.

Bae pulls off an authentic North Korean accent, as well as adeptly navigating her way through a physically gruelling performance.

9. Spring Bears Love (2003)

There is little to recommend about this sentimental and generic romantic comedy save for a brilliant lead performance from Bae that showcases the oddball eccentricities that set her apart from her female contemporaries in Korea.

Bae (right) in Spring Bears Love.

Beautiful yet ill-mannered, passionate yet oblivious and uncaring, Bae’s goofy sales clerk Hyun-chae, on a path to find true love, is a delightfully endearing heroine.

Bae would all but abandon romcoms after this, but here fashioned comedy gold from the most meagre of morsels.

8. Cloud Atlas (2012)

Bae began her fruitful creative partnership with the Wachowskis as part of the role-switching ensemble in their hugely ambitious time-twisting epic. Her most memorable role is that of humanoid clone Sonmi-451, an artificial waitress and sex worker who becomes embroiled in a rebellion to overthrow the leadership of Neo Seoul.

Bae has gone on to become a pivotal character in the Wachowskis’ sci-fi series Sense8, as well as appearing in a small role as a bounty hunter in 2015’s Jupiter Ascending.

7. Take Care of My Cat (2001)

First-time director Jeong Jae-eun’s coming-of-age classic sees five female high school graduates struggle to remain friends as the real world forces them on divergent paths.

Professional obligations, filial responsibilities, and differing ambitions threaten to tear the group apart, but their shared ownership of a stray cat becomes talismanic of their bond with one another.

Bae is great as Tae-hee, shackled by a family that demands she work for free, who ultimately takes a bold step towards independence and uncertainty.

6. Linda Linda Linda (2005)

Bae cemented her position as a cult favourite among Asian film aficionados playing a Korean exchange student attending a Japanese high school, who is unwittingly recruited into a struggling all-girl punk rock band.

A scene from Linda Linda Linda.

Despite her less-than-fluent Japanese, Son (Bae) joins Aki Maeda, Yuu Kashii and Shiori Sekine from rock band Base Ball Bear, and provides vocals for the film’s climactic performance.

Their band, Paranmaum, even released their cover of the Blue Hearts’ title track as a single in Japan and Korea.

5. Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000)

Bae’s first lead role came in director Bong Joon-ho’s debut feature. A pitch-black comedy set on a housing estate, Bae plays a young slacker working in the estate’s admin office who goes on the hunt for an elusive dognapper.
Bae in Barking Dogs Never Bite.

According to the director, Bae won the part because she was willing to play the role without make-up.

She cites a scene in which she is pursued through the estate by a deranged homeless man as one of her personal favourites of her career.

4. The Host (2006)

In Bong Joon-ho’s blockbuster monster movie, which became the biggest-grossing Korean film of all time upon its release, Bae plays Nam-joo, a contender for the national archery team who is suffering from a crippling crisis of confidence.

When her little sister (Go Ah-sung) is abducted by a rampaging leviathan that emerges from the Han river, the authorities are reluctant to offer help. The family has no choice but to take matters into their own hands and stage a daring rescue attempt, spearheaded by Nam-joo’s particular set of skills.

3. Air Doll (2009)

Hirokazu Koreeda’s adaptation of Yoshiie Goda’s manga, a contemporary reworking of Pygmalion, was Bae’s second Japanese-speaking role. She plays an inflatable sex doll that magically comes to life and explores Tokyo.

Koreeda’s film touches on themes of urban alienation and female objectification, while questioning what it truly means to be human. Bae is quietly brilliant as the wide-eyed innocent who experiences a variety of intimate and educational encounters.

Bold, ambitious, and ultimately heartbreaking, Air Doll features Bae at her idiosyncratic best.

2. Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002)

As the effortlessly cool anarchist girlfriend of Shin Ha-kyun’s deaf-mute protagonist, Bae inadvertently became the poster girl for Korea’s booming cinematic golden age.

The first part in director Park Chan-wook’s landmark Vengeance trilogy sees the hapless pair attempt a kidnapping in the hope of using the ransom to finance a kidney transplant.

Needless to say, nothing goes to plan, and events spiral into a nihilistic maelstrom of violent retribution as they go head to head with Song Kang-ho’s vengeful father.

1. A Girl at My Door (2014)

So determined was Bae to play the lead in July Jung’s 2014 drama that the actress agreed to waive her fee as soon as she had finished reading the script. And it is easy to see why.

She is fantastic as a disgraced, alcoholic police instructor who is banished to a small seaside town. Once there she attempts to rescue a young girl, whom she suspects is the victim of domestic abuse, attracting the ire of the entire community.

Bae’s performance earned her numerous accolades, including an Asian Film Award for best actress.

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