Knowledge of Korean film and entertainment is essential for full appreciation of "The Actresses" -- E J-yong's delicious mockumentary in which top Korean stars play themselves or, more accurately, play on their professional personas. Liberally peppered with industry in-jokes and offering the titillation of watching outtakes of a "making-of," it cunningly toys with boundaries between fiction and reality. "JCVD" is a loose Western equivalent, but Hong Kong actor boy band parody "The Heavenly Kings" is the closest parallel.
It's probably too smart for the popular audience, even in Korea, where theatrical grosses were moderate. However, the celebrity aura of these ravishing beauties could make it a magnet at Asian-themed festivals. Overseas theatrical markets are constricted, with Japan having highest potential.
"Two's company, three's a crowd." Imagine six actresses across three generations, all screen goddesses of their time, flocking into one studio for a photo-shoot, their prima donna egos rubbing abrasively against each other. The shoot is for Korean Vogue's anniversary fashion issue, scheduled on Dec. 24, 2008. The stars are Youn Yuh-jung, Lee Mi-sook, Choi Ji-woo, Ko Hyun-jung, Kim Min-hee and Kim Ok-vin.
For the project's coordinators, it soon becomes the nightmare before Christmas as the models try to one-up each other, whether it's how to make a grand entry, or getting the best dress. The film gets the most mileage out of poking fun at "Winter Sonata"'s Choi for her popularity in Japan, and the envy engendered by her special status. Next in line is boozy, bolshy Ko ("Like You Know It All"), whose behavior is suggestively linked to her real life divorce after marrying into a mega-rich family.
E, known for being a sensitive and savant director of women, can tease out their bitchiness without letting things get really ugly. As they loosen up, some even find rapport across age gaps.
The oldest, Youn, exudes most dignity for having seen it all, but still has little vanities, like paranoia about being someone's replacement. Lee ("Hellcats") is the mellowest. The two Kims have less distinct personalities except for the usual insecurities of young stars.
The avalanche of dialogue, the shaky camera angles and fast cuts that simulate the effect of fashion snapshots can be overwhelming initially, especially for non-Koreans. However, as the film settles into its own rhythm, these technical contrivances become less noticeable. E claims he set the film concept while the actresses improvised the lines. This accounts for the narrative formlessness, particularly in the third act, set entirely around a dinner table.
The stars' champagne-lubricated conversations about job pros and cons like the stigma of divorce offer no deep revelations about the cutthroat nature of showbiz. Too earnest about being earnest, the whole scene is too prolonged. Of course, that might be their most deceptive of performances, especially when they start to cry, something they do on cue for the TV soaps. Stylish post credit stills of the actresses reinforce their true appeal -- as icons one can never quite touch or penetrate.