This article was created in partnership with Korean Film Festival in Australia (KOFFIA) to highlight the film, Broker, directed by Hirokazu Koreeda. The 2022 edition of the festival will be take place in various Australian cities from August 18 – September 11. For more information, visit the festival website.
“The scene where So-Young sang a lullaby was the only time that Lee Ji-Eun sang in the movie. The lullaby scene was added after Lee Ji-Eun was cast. I think perhaps I added the scene because I wanted to hear her sing,” said Hirokazu Koreeda.1Original Article: https://n.news.naver.com/entertain/article/437/0000300250, translated by IU Team Star Candy.
For most of the Korean public, Lee Ji-Eun’s voice is her superpower. It is the instrument she used to capture the hearts of the public, becoming one of the most popular K-Pop stars of the Second Generation in the early 2010s. So maybe it’s no surprise that even Palme d’Or winning Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda would fall under the spell of her voice. Broker marks Lee Ji-Eun’s commercial film debut and first starring role in a feature film; one that would take the artist to Cannes, no less. It may seem like the privilege of a popular star to nab a role with a prestigious filmmaker as their debut lead film role but in fact, this was a journey of hard work and choices more than a decade long in the making.
Lee Ji-Eun’s true power in fact, lies in her liminality; her ability to not just exist but thrive in the spaces between. Whether it’s glittery K-Pop idol and confessional singer-songwriter; actress and musician; commercial appeal and creative freedom; withholding and expressiveness; silence and song; Lee Ji-Eun and IU—she is all these things and everything in-between. Where once she struggled in how she should be classified, she now embraces ambiguity.2In her documentary Pieces: 29th Winter (2022), IU says about her career in her early 20s, “I am one person, why do so many distinctly different evaluations of me co-exist? Are you a singer or an actress? Are you an entertainer, an artist, an idol or a musician? Being the object of classification, my body will get torn. One person is trying to put me here, the other is trying to put me there. I am just still incomplete.”
Her performance and her character in Broker, Moon So-Young, are no different. So-Young’s morality is grey at best while her motivations and desires remain murky up until the end. On one hand, it’s a character who may frustrate those who want their characters to fit neatly into boxes. On another hand, it’s the perfect role for the artist to debut on the world stage as a film actress. But it is impossible to surmise my thoughts about Lee Ji-Eun’s performance in Broker neatly, simply because my understanding of her work stretches more than eleven years.
Dream High and the “Nation’s Little Sister”
Dream High (2011) sounded like a recipe for disaster. Casting idols in drama roles is looked down in the industry as a fad to milk their fanbases. It has to be understood that in East Asia, idols and actors face different types of expectations as they are seen as different ‘products’ to put it bluntly. Although IU debuted at fifteen years old as a singer, she was quickly pushed onto the path of an idol-singer after her debut EP did not sell well. After a string of moderately successful bubblegum pop hits, she was cast in Dream High, a drama built around many first-time idol-turned-actors playing aspiring idols at a musical arts high school. IU plays the supporting role of Kim Pil-Suk, a gifted singer with low self-esteem because she is chubby and plain-looking. IU’s character riffs off the public’s image of her then—she had just experienced a major surge in popularity from her breakout hit single ‘Good Day’. The song created an image of IU as a girl-next-door type, and her endearing and charming performance as Pil-Suk reinforced it.
Dream High was an unexpected hit, both critically and commercially. It managed to extend beyond idol fanbases and captivated South Korea’s general public, and of regular K-drama watchers around Asia. IU’s subsequent K-drama roles in series’ such as You Are the Best, Lee Soon-Shin! (2013) and Bel Ami (2013) would follow this template of playing plucky, ordinary young women: not outstanding in terms of talent, looks or personality. Although these series’ were fairly cookie-cutter and lacked room for her to grow as an actress, IU’s popularity as a pop star continued to soar. Her K-Pop image continued to tap into the innocence and naivete of a young girl, eventually garnering her the label ‘Nation’s Little Sister’, a title given out of affection but one that placed her on a burdensome pedestal.
The Abyss Stares Back: Persona & Performance
Satoshi Kon’s 1997 film, Perfect Blue, still holds so much power today. It’s easy to read the film as a dark commentary on the idol industry but Kon confessed he had very little knowledge of the idol industry when he made it. Many also use the film to comment on the dangers of technology and social media in creating conflict between our ‘real’ selves and our ‘public’ self. That’s a fair if one-note reading of the film. Kon’s recurring themes in his body of work are of identity and performance in a world of blurred realities. Perfect Blue depicts a young woman’s coming-of-age and the realisation and (violent) negotiation of one’s lived reality as that of performing multiple personas. But what does Perfect Blue have to do with IU? Well, I’ve always thought that IU, her career, and public persona was one of the ultimate reflections of what Perfect Blue explored, albeit in a less horrifying (if still unsettling) manner. To be an idol means to have a fixed, unchanging image. The notion lies in the word itself. IU made attempts to shake off the ideal image foisted onto her with a more mature one, as reflected in her music. The most visible shift towards maturity however came in her performance in the drama series Producers (2015), written by Park Ji-Eun, most famous for writing the global phenoms My Love from the Star (2014) and Crash Landing onto You (2020).
In Producers, IU plays Cindy, a top celebrity at 23 who debuted at the age of 13 in girl group Pinky4 as its maknae (youngest member). In the present day, she’s known as a demanding diva after her popularity skyrocketed and eclipsed the rest of her former girl group. IU’s performance in Producers is more nuanced than her past acting work, precisely because this role allowed her to turn inwards. The role was a complete switch from the peppy girls from before. Instead, Cindy’s personality mapped onto the Korean public’s perception of IU during her attempts to shake off her ‘Nation’s Little Sister’ image—cold, sullen, ungrateful and even duplicitous. IU’s performance initially threw people off because of its lack of outward expressiveness, some even calling it wooden. But both the character Cindy and IU’s performance were understood by many of her female fans. We could see the star referencing herself and her image. It’s also impossible to not connect this role and performance as referencing her friends Suzy and Sulli, two former maknae members of their respective idol groups, Miss A and f(x), who found themselves thrust into an unforgiving spotlight that’s particularly merciless to young women.
In referencing herself and her peers in irony, this could easily have been a satirical take on a superstar, the way Jun Ji-Hyun charismatically achieved in My Love from the Star (2014). But IU offers her own take on ‘the superstar’. By withholding herself in every way, right down to the way the character holds her hands and conducts her physicality with stillness, IU instead gives the audience more. Through body language, we understand how an entire childhood in the glare of the spotlight resulted in Cindy’s body to shirk up, reject touch, become guarded and anticipate humiliation. IU imbues Cindy with tremendous vulnerability and depth, making her far and away the most compelling character and performance in a cast full of veterans and actors who should have out-acted her on any given day. As a young star herself, IU’s lived reality and public image gives an added, meta-nuance to the idea of what was sacrificed in the pursuit of those dreams. Cindy’s teenhood was exchanged for a life of scrutiny that fractured her sense of self, ability to process, show emotions, and form ordinary human relationships. All of these elements had to be addressed and re-learned in the course of the character’s arc.
This period in IU’s career essentially sees a young woman struggling and negotiating in the performance of self, image (her public persona) and the actual characters she inhabits. Publicly, she faced controversy, both on her image, and her creative pursuits such as her music3Following the release of her 2013 EP, Chat-Shire, IU was embroiled in a controversy alleging her of perpetuating ‘Lolita’-type imagery in her album jacket’s photoshoot, and encouraging pedophilia in one of her songs, Zezé., which she forecasted in her performance as Cindy. Ironically, this was also the period of time where she was actively claiming greater control over her career and image, mirroring the protagonist Mima’s journey in Perfect Blue in her attempts to break from her idol image as an actress. While the idol is meant to continue playing one role her whole life, the actress is given the literal freedom to perform many roles and explore their identity.
Following Producers, IU starred in the South Korean remake of mega successful Chinese drama Scarlet Heart (2011), Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Goryeo (2016). It was, at the time, the biggest production IU was part of: opposite the singer in the leading role was Lee Joon-Ki, an already extremely popular and well-regarded actor in Asia; half a dozen young and emerging actors (including idols) filled out the supporting cast and the show’s scale signified an intent for global crossover appeal with audiences abroad. The role was immensely challenging, requiring her to adopt the sageuk (Korean historical drama) manner of posture and speech. The character’s journey is also long and complicated, with many physically, psychologically and emotionally intense and distressing scenarios. IU’s performance was initially criticised as not having the poise needed for a sageuk role. As her character is a modern woman from present-day Seoul who transmigrates back into the body of a teenage girl in the Goryeo Dynasty, her performance was perfectly serviceable in the early episodes, where she had to ham up the naivete and confusion of being both a modern young woman placed in an extraordinary situation and the teenage girl’s body she was inhabiting. Only afterwards when the character has matured into a young woman with immense resilience and inner strength do we see IU shine as an actress with newfound maturity and complexity in her performance.
This role was also a challenge to see if she could take on the responsibility of female lead in such a huge production; if she could shoulder the weight of being both star and actress. Moon Lovers was also significant to her career for two other reasons: the series has the distinction of being the first acting role in which IU was credited by her birth name, Lee Ji-Eun, and additionally lacks soundtrack involvement by the singer, something that she previously contributed to other dramas she was involved in. These two decisions are representative of her mindset: in acting projects, she wanted people to focus on seeing her as an actress.
A palette; a work-in-progress: maturity and growth
Many will point to My Mister (2018) as a major turning point for Lee Ji-Eun as an actress. In music, she was already being re-classified by critics as moving beyond the idol label and solidifying herself as an acclaimed singer-songwriter through taking major creative control in the production of her music. Her casting in My Mister showed there were directors who could see past the pop star and tease out the truth and humanism she had constantly strove for in both music and acting. Her acceptance of the part showed an actress determined to challenge herself. The performance she eventually delivered was nothing short of extraordinary.
My Mister was a very different breed from Ji-Eun’s previous dramas, more aligned with that regrettable label: prestige television; ‘serious’ drama. The director, Kim Won-Seok, was well-known for his work on other critically-acclaimed, social realist dramas: Misaeng (2014) and Signal (2018). The drama was led by Lee Sun-Kyun, known then to international cinephiles for his roles in Hong Sang-Soo films and now widely known as the wealthy Mr Park in Bong Joon-Ho’s Palme d’Or and Academy Award winning Parasite (2019). Ji-Eun stated that when she received the script, she was amazed by it4Original Article: https://n.news.naver.com/entertain/article/016/0001378995, translated by IU Team Star Candy., but was extremely hesitant to take on the role for many reasons: she had never played such an intense role before, was worried about her ability, and was exhausted after a hectic promotion schedule following the release of her album Palette (2017). She was also worried about the drama being associated with a past controversy surrounding her.5Given My Mister revolves around the relationship between a young woman and a middle-aged man, Lee Ji-Eun was worried her previous ‘lolita’ controversy from the Chat-Shire EP would re-emerge, even though the relationship in the drama is ultimately non-sexual and never veers into romance. Director Kim assured her he didn’t mind it at all. He would become crucial in Ji-Eun’s involvement in the project as she became struck with both personal tragedy6It has to be unfortunately stated that the first script reading of My Mister, coincided with the passing of Ji-Eun’s friend, Kim Jong-Hyun, member of the group SHINee. A singer-songwriter himself, the pair were close and Jong-Hyun had gifted Ji-Eun the song “A Gloomy Clock” for her album Modern Times. (2012). While it’s not necessary to make inferences, it is likely that grief no doubt played a role in her poor health and initial desire to withdraw from My Mister. and poor health, leading to multiple hospitalisations during the series’ production. Ji-Eun also offered to withdraw from the series and pay all the damages for disrupting the production, but was persuaded by Director Kim who informed her that he would wait for her to be well.
The wait paid off. Ji-Eun’s performance was a revelation and the show was a critical success. As Lee Ji-An, a young woman facing a bleak future who comes to let go of her unhappiness and accept herself,Ji-Eun earned her first ever Best Actress nomination at the Baeksang Arts Awards. This performance was what prompted Hirokazu Koreeda to cast her in Broker: “As I was stuck at home during the pandemic, I started binge-watching Korean drama series on streaming services. I became a huge fan of Lee Ji-Eun after watching My Mister. Towards the end of the series, I found myself crying whenever she appeared in the drama, so I thought only Lee Ji-Eun could be So-young and eventually made a casting proposal.”7From Broker press conference in South Korea, compiled and translated by IU Team Star Candy: https://4seasonswithiu.tumblr.com/post/683865614121615360/trans-220510-film-press-conference-lee-ji-eun
Ji-Eun’s performance in My Mister no doubt caused critics and directors to take her seriously as an actress and led to her involvement with the anthology series Persona (2019). Consisting of four short films, she worked with directors Lee Kyoung-Mi (The Truth Beneath, 2016), Yim Pil-Sung (Scarlet Innocence, 2014), Jeon Go-Woon (Microhabitat, 2017) and Kim Jong-Kwan (Shades of the Heart, 2019). An experimental project that puzzled many, it nonetheless gave the multi-talented artist an opportunity to work with critically-acclaimed actress Bae Doona, several up-and-coming independent auteurs and give the vital star power this project needed to secure buzz and a Netflix release in April 2019.
2019 would be the year where Ji-Eun’s direction as an actor would continue to take shape, as she clocked in a wrenching performance in alternative hip-hop group Epik High’s music video, Lovedrunk. Opposite veteran actress Jin Seo-Yeon, the roles both actresses play recall two sides of Zhang Ziyi’s powerful turn in The Grandmaster (2014, dir. Wong Kar-Wai). Ji-Eun would also make a cameo in indie director Kim Jong-Kwan’s gentle and melancholic anthology film, Shades of the Heart, which would only get its release in 2021.
And then came Hotel Del Luna.
A Star is Born
Hotel Del Luna (2019) required a star. Jang Man-Wol, the central character who Ji-Eun plays, is a powerful immortal being who runs a ‘hotel’ that prepares lost souls for their crossover into the afterlife. Beautiful, impetuous, cruel and demanding, the role needed someone with the charisma and magnetic screen presence to make audiences believe that this being had seen over a thousand years of the world with a longstanding grudge and regret that kept her tethered to this mortal realm. And it also needed someone entirely confident in their own skin. This was important as over the course of 16 episodes, Jang Man-Wol dons over 200 glamorous looks each intricately styled in such a way that even a single strand of rhinestone-clipped lock of hair or the design of her nails could reveal emotional layers to the character. Ji-Eun is petite in stature but big in presence and here, her liminality returns as Jang Man-Wol, a woman who oscillates between intimidating and vulnerable; imperious and fragile. She is a woman who never lets her clothes wear her: think about Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, women who transformed clothing into stories with their charisma and screen presence. This was also the power of a star.
My love for cinema developed from Classic Hollywood cinema stars, where I’d be drawn to a single figure and consume their filmography and ponder what it was that made them burn brighter than others. I also love being drawn to new talent in cinema today because cinema to me is about humanity–it’s about people and faces. I’ve come to find there are two moments with actors that I love arriving at. The first, is when you watch an actor, and then there’s a moment in a performance where you realise, “Oh, they can do anything.” This usually happens when the actor shows a complete lack of self-consciousness, that they reach a point where their performance reaches a certain assured standard. The second is, “Ah, this is a star.” Both instances are rare, but the second is much harder in this day and age. The star is no longer as it once was and people rarely make the right types of vehicle that allow a star to truly showcase why only they can play this role and no one else.
For me, that first such moment where I thought “Lee Ji-Eun could do anything” was somewhere in My Mister. I know what Koreeda means by saying that just by watching her, you can’t help but cry because you become anxious, and worried for the character of Lee Ji-An. She becomes that character, and is utterly raw and vulnerable. It’s both a restrained, yet open and humanist performance. The second revelation came during the final moments of the first episode of Hotel Del Luna. Jang Man-Wol finds herself attacked by one of her many enemies. She is slumped on the ground; the resignation and world-weariness from a lifetime of immortality writ on her face. This is what she deserves for being so hateful. But Goo Chan-Sung (Yeo Jin-Goo), the young man she’s tormenting into working for her, is determined to help her get up. In a split second, behind her eyes her emotions cycle through suspicion, hostility, vulnerability, indignation, fury, that someone could genuinely want to help her. It’s infuriating! Condescending! Why would she, Jang Man-Wol, need help?! Ji-Eun conveys all this quietly, with just the shifting in her eyes. The next moment, she stands up, and her lip curls. Her invulnerable mask is back on. She goes in for the kill. I was so floored when I watched this scene for the first time, that I can pinpoint that exact moment to this day. Her role in Hotel Del Luna did not have the same intensity as Ji-An in My Mister and was a complete change of style of performance; it’s more theatrical and more expressive, something that Ji-Eun had struggled with in the past. Here I had been thinking after her turns in My Mister and Persona that she suited a much more reserved style of acting. But Hotel Del Luna was proof that Ji-Eun had come a long way as an actress who could be both restrained and go big in a split second.
Which leads us to the present day where we arrive at Broker. As So-Young, the young woman who journeys with the film’s ‘baby brokers’ to find parents who’ll adopt her baby in exchange for cash, Ji-Eun’s role is the most mercenary and abrasive out of the cast. The film itself is liminal in many ways, starting with it being a road movie with no clear destination. In typical Koreeda fashion, his gentle style is in sharp contrast to its unsettling and difficult themes, and offers absolutely no answers regarding the questions it brings up around the morality and ethics between parenting and giving up one’s child. Although she was cast based on her performance in My Mister, Ji-An and So-Young are very different characters. Both characters are guarded because of their difficult pasts, but So-Young is more assertive, aggressive, and swears readily (which must have come as either a shock or an amusement to her more family-friendly fans). Ji-Eun even shared that she helped to rewrite the profanity in the script to better suit her character’s manner of speaking.8Interview with Broker cast and director, translation provided at: https://iu-jjang.tumblr.com/post/686451633226465281 She carves out a very different physical presence and manner of speaking for So-Young that answers to the humanity of the character.
The Golden Hour of Lee Ji-Eun
“When I was younger, I used to separate the two. But as I started to use the name ‘Lee Ji-Eun’ too, over time the separation disappeared. I often think I should just enjoy this moment,” Lee Ji-Eun says on the distinction she once made between her ‘IU self’ and her ‘Lee Ji-Eun self’.9Interview with Broker cast and director, translation provided at: https://iu-jjang.tumblr.com/post/686451633226465281 On the surface, her journeys as both musician and actress seemingly run on parallel and separate paths, and even she herself thought to keep these two roles separate and distinct from each other. Really though, her acting career is often an echo of her musical one, and she has come to accept her liminality and capitalise on it in service of others’ stories. Her visibility has allowed projects like Persona, Shades of the Heart and Broker to be exposed to a broader audience, while her ability to straddle both the mainstream and the arthouse is proof that broad appeal does not mean a lack of creative control and quality.
In May of 2022, she represented Korean cinema on the world stage at the Cannes Film Festival with Broker, the first such instance of a Korean idol-turned-actress to do so. In September 2022, she will perform at the Seoul Olympic Stadium in South Korea over two days in her sold out solo concert titled “The Golden Hour”. With a capacity of approximately 70,000, she will also be the first ever Korean solo act, and first Korean female artist to stand on that stage (previous acts at the stadium include Elton John, Lady Gaga and Korean groups H.O.T and BTS). It’s undoubtedly a fitting name for her to herald a golden age of her career as she enters her 30s as both a rookie film actress and South Korea’s most beloved singer.
Part of her ability to occupy so many spaces and be infinitely liminal lies in her ability to tap into truth, be it in her work as a songwriter in telling the story of who she is, or acting, where she works collaboratively to tell the story of others. Her body of work appeals to the humanity of whoever is willing to pause, stop and listen to her voice, or contemplate the stories she became part of. Lee Ji-Eun’s own story has been a long, slow-burn of fourteen years full of other stories she has lent her voice and image to, that have and will stand the test of time.
Editor’s note: Unlike our previous profile pieces, this essay refers to actor-singer-songwriter Lee Ji-Eun by her first name. This decision was made to reflect the artist’s popular appeal.
Author’s note: Much of this essay would not have been possible without the tireless work of IU Team Star Candy (@IUteamstarcandy on Twitter), run by a team of fans who have constantly translated every bit of information, news and interviews with IU to bring to the wider international audience since the early years of her career.