My Sassy Girl poster (Korea): Jun Ji-Hyun became one of the transnational “Korean Wave” stars in Asia in the early 2000s after the huge commercial success of My Sassy Girl (2001) in the region.
“2 % Mineral Water” TV commercial (Korea): TV commercials often capitalize on Jun’s star images, particularly on images that emphasize her “sassy” and “quirky” qualities. Click on link to see commercial.
“Coca Cola” TV commercial (Taiwan): This Taiwanese commercial repeats the gender dynamics of My Sassy Girl through its characterization of Jun as a physical, domineering girl and her effeminate, submissive boyfriend. Click on link to see commercial.
Kyun-Woo sees Jun’s drunken and staggering character in the beginning of My Sassy Girl.
The reversal of gender expectations: Jun’s character physically surpasses her boyfriend at sports.
The screenplays “she” writes also convey the reversal of gender roles.
In one of "her" screenplays, Jun plays a female terminator-type who comes from the future to save her kidnapped boyfriend.
Windstruck poster (Korea): Co-produced by Korean and Hong Kong film companies, Windstruck (2004) primarily relies on Jun’s star images and her transnational stardom in Asia.
Windstruck poster (Japan): Windstruck did particularly well at the box-office in Japan.
Jun portrays a “sassy” and “quirky” police officer in Windstruck. She mistakenly arrests Myung-Woo as a pickpocket in the beginning of the film.
The policewoman's tough, reckless exterior contrasts with her soft, feminine interior. While we don't know who actually shot her boyfriend, Windstruck uses melodramatic conventions to focus on her emotional breakdown resulting from his death.
My Sassy Girl emphasizes Jun’s character’s physical beauty and feminine qualities underneath her “sassy’ and “quirky” exterior.
Jun’s debut film, White Valentine (1999), also constructs Jun’s images as a pure-hearted girl who develops a non-sexual immature love relationship with the film’s male protagonist.
Il Mare poster (Korea): Jun’s second film, Il Mare (2000), continues to construct her image as innocent.
Il Mare tells a story of two people who live two years apart and who fall in love while exchanging letters through a mysterious mailbox that enables them to communicate across time. The original Korean title is Love Across Time.
Daisy poster (Korea): Daisy (2006) was a co-production by Hong Kong and Korean film companies, in which multi-national casts and crew members participated. A Hong Kong director, Andrew Lau (who is most famous for the Infernal Affairs trilogy), directed the film.
Daisy poster (Hong Kong)
Daisy poster (Taiwan)
Daisy poster (Japan)
Daisy poster (Thailand)
by JaeYoon Park
This article examines the discourses around the images of a Korean female film star, Jun Ji-Hyun (1981- ), in order to explore how her star image and transnational stardom function in the production and circulation of meanings, identities, desires, and ideologies in contemporary Korean and Asian societies. Jun Ji-Hyun usually portrays a sassy, loud, and domineering character while also embodying traits of a pure-hearted girl.
At the domestic level, Jun emerged as a star in the late 1990s in the context of economically and politically turbulent years, in which Korean society was heading toward a more open and democratic society while dealing both with economic crisis and the implementation of a peaceful relationship with North Korea. At the regional level, her transnational stardom is situated within the burgeoning of Korean popular culture across Asia with the advent of global capitalism, which signifies a formation of pan-Asian culture.
This article focuses on Jun’s star image in relation to the construction of femininity and female sexuality in the context of Korean society during the late 1990s and the early 2000s as well as the changing landscape of the transnational flow of cultural objects in contemporary Asia. I discuss the formation and impact of Jun's star image using four approaches. First, I provide an overview of the socio-historical context of Jun’s stardom from the 1990s to the early 2000s and then brief synopses of Jun's films. This is followed by textual analyses of the films’ gender representations, particularly as seen through the articulation of the male gaze in her films. Finally, I analyze audience responses from focus group interviews that I conducted both in Korea and the United States with Korean and Korean American youth regarding issues of Jun’s star image and her stardom.
Socio-historical context of Jun’s stardom
The historical period of Jun’s stardom marks an era of an increasingly pluralist environment as well as an exploding consumer and popular culture in Korean society. Kim Young-Sam, a civilian politician, came to office as President in South Korea in 1993 for the first time since the 1961 military coup, thereby ending thirty-two years of rule by army generals. The newly elected President Kim initiated democratic and anti-corruption reforms toward a “kinder and gentler government” and replaced key military leaders in an effort to reestablish civilian control of the military.[open endnotes in new window] The actual process of change, however, turned out to be slow and ineffective. The Korean economy went through a recession at the end of 1997 as the Asian financial crisis hit the country hard.
Kim Dae-Jung was elected to the presidency in 1998 in the midst of this unprecedented financial crisis and began vigorous economic reforms recommended by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). President Kim also pushed forward reconciliation with North Korea through what came to be known as the Sunshine Policy. This peaceful cooperation and open-ended engagement with the North (with no set formulas for reunification) resulted in the inter-Korean summit meeting in Pyongyang in 2000. During the presidency of Kim Dae-Jung (1998-2003), South Koreans strived to pull their country back from the brink of bankruptcy. Ironically, while South Korea underwent economic depression, its popular culture enjoyed enormous popularity across many Asian countries. “Hallyu,” whose literal meaning is the Korean Wave, refers to this recent cultural phenomenon since the late 1990s, in which South Korea’s popular culture products such as music, films, and TV soap operas have been sensationally popular across national borders throughout Asia. Coinciding with this transnational cultural flow, Jun turned into a popular icon not only in Korea but also in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan after the huge commercial success of the film, My Sassy Girl (2001), in these countries.
Jun’s film career includes eight films thus far: White Valentine [Hwait’u Pallent’ain] (1999), Il Mare [Siwolae] (2000), My Sassy Girl [Yopkijogin Kunyo] (2001), The Uninvited [Sainyong Sikt’ak] (2003), Windstruck [Nae Yoja Ch’ingurul Sogaehamnida] (2004), Daisy [Teiji] (2006), If I Were Superman [Sup’omaeniotton Sanai] (2008), and Blood: The Last Vampire [Pullodu: Lastu Paemp’aio] (2008). The majority of these films are romantic comedies or melodramas with the exception of a horror film, The Uninvited, and an action-horror hybrid, Blood: The Last Vampire. Jun’s romantic comedies and melodramas figure prominently into the construction of her star persona as both a sassy and pure-hearted girl. In this article, I incorporate textual analyses of Jun’s star image with the life experiences of actual audiences.
I utilize focus group interviews with one group of Korean women in their twenties living in Seoul, Korea and one group of Korean-American women in their twenties living in Kansas, USA. One interview was conducted in Seoul, Korea in July 2006 and the other interview was conducted in Lawrence, Kansas in February 2007. I assembled clips from the films in which Jun starred and screened them before each interview, which lasted approximately two and a half hours. The demographic information along with brief descriptions of each participant in the two focus groups is provided in the appendix. While I have changed the names of the interviewees to protect anonymity, I have maintained the respondents’ ethnicity that they self-reported in the questionnaire. The interviewees paid much attention to Jun’s body images in the context of contemporary consumerist society. A more in-depth analysis of the focus groups in regards to Jun’s star image can be found in my doctoral dissertation, Seeing Stars: Female Film Stars and Female Audiences in Post-colonial Korea.
Sassy and quirky: re-gendering femininity
What distinguishes Jun Ji-Hyun from most of the female film stars from previous eras in Korea and Asia is that Jun’s characters reverse gender expectations through their “sassy” and “quirky” personalities. My Sassy Girl and Windstruck primarily construct her on-screen image as this sassy and quirky girl. Moreover, after the commercial success of My Sassy Girl Jun starred in numerous television commercials in which she portrayed a loud, physical, and domineering girl based on her “sassy” girl image. Jun Ji-Hyun’s image in these two films and television commercials radically differs from the virtuous female type (e.g., the obedient, self-sacrificial, self-effacing female), which both Korean society and Korean cinema have upheld for a long time. Thus her on-screen persona created a variety of debates about whether it signified a new subversive female type in Korea.
My Sassy Girl is based on a series of stories that a college student uploaded to the “humor board” of a website in 1999 in Korea. In this boy-meets-girl story, the author recounts his own dating saga with his “quirky” girlfriend through first-person narration. This story, based on true incidents and written by an amateur writer, became phenomenally popular among Internet users in Korea. It was adapted into a film in 2001 with Jun Ji-Hyun playing the role of the “sassy” girlfriend. Both the writer of the original story and the filmmakers refer to Jun’s character only as “she.” In the beginning of the film, the male character, Kyun-Woo, sees Jun’s drunken and staggering character in a subway, where she throws up on another passenger. Before she passes out, she turns toward Kyun-Woo, calling him “honey.” Although a stranger to her, Kyun-Woo plays along as her boyfriend and carries her to a motel. The next day, “she” calls his cell phone and suggests they meet. In the scene where they meet, she talks to him in a very authoritative and non-apologetic way: “What do you want to eat?” “What happened last night? Stop mumbling!” “You pay for my drink.” She even interferes with two older men sitting with teenage girls at a nearby table, saying, “Having fun, huh? Don’t you have a daughter? Why do you live a life like that?” (Kwak Jae-Yong, 2001).
Kyun-Woo finds her attractive in spite of her “quirky” personality. What he likes about her is her long straight hair and her flashes of femininity. However, this young couple displays reversed gender roles during their unconventional courtship. Jun’s character not only takes the lead in their relationship through her authoritative mode of speaking but she also physically surpasses him at sports such as racquetball and fencing. Moreover, her behavior (e.g., drinking heavily, passing out in the middle of the street, and often hitting and kicking Kyun-Woo) runs contrary to Korean gender norms in which a girl is expected to carry herself with grace and decency. This reversal of gender norms also applies to Kyun-Woo, who appears effeminate and submissive — characteristics often attributed to women in Korean society. Kyun-Woo tells the audience about being raised as a girl (e.g., wearing girl’s clothes) because his parents wanted a daughter. Moreover, he takes orders from Jun’s character, does whatever she tells him, and never makes any sexual advances to Jun’s character throughout the film.
The fictional stories that Jun’s character creates in the film also convey this reversal of gender expectations. “She,” an aspiring screenwriter, tells Kyun-Woo about the screenplays she writes and the film visualizes these stories in its narrative. In her first scenario, which is a parody of The Terminator, Jun Ji-Hyun plays the role of the female warrior who comes from the future to save her helpless boyfriend, Kyun-Woo.
Her second screenplay is an adaptation from a famous Korean short novel, Shower, which is a beautiful story about platonic love between a teenage girl and boy. The story ends with the death of the girl, whose last wish is to be buried with the shirt that she wore when the boy carried her on his back. Maintaining that the original ending is too old-fashioned, Jun’s character argues for the girl’s burial to include the (still living) boy rather than the shirt. Her shockingly “sassy” imagination is also evident in her third screenplay in which she stars as a time-traveling samurai from the future. She dresses like a man, and brutally kills a character played by Kyun-Woo at the final duel scene.
Produced after the huge success of My Sassy Girl in many Asian countries, Windstruck similarly reverses gender roles. Korean and Hong Kong film companies co-produced Windstruck in the hope of bigger box-office receipts in Asia by capitalizing on the status of Jun Ji-Hyun as a national celebrity in these countries. The director of My Sassy Girl, Kwak Jae-Yong, wrote the role of Kyung-Jin in Windstruck for Jun Ji-Hyun. While the film primarily relies on Jun’s star image, she plays the role of a “quirky” female police officer, Kyung-Jin.
The film centers on the idiosyncratic happenings in a love story between Kyung-Jin and Myung-Woo, who is a physics teacher in an all-girls high school. One day, Kyung-Jin mistakenly arrests him as a pickpocket. Dragged to the police station, the innocent Myung-Woo asks her to apologize to him. She unabashedly retorts,
A few days later, Myung-Woo comes across her again in the police station while disciplining juvenile delinquents from his school. Kyung-Jin handcuffs him to her body so that they can go after a suspicious drug trafficker, and in the process Myung-Woo and Kyung-Jin gradually fall in love. Myung-Woo is concerned about the safety of his “quirky” girlfriend while she is on duty and therefore he voluntarily follows her during her patrol in order to protect her. Yet, he often finds himself in danger and in need of his girlfriend to rescue him. Ultimately, Myung-Woo dies during his volunteer police duty after Kyung Jin shoots him by mistake. The sad and distressed Kyung-Jin wanders around and eventually bumps into a man, played by the same actor that played the role of Kyun-Woo in My Sassy Girl and in this sense Windstruck serves as a prequel to My Sassy Girl.
Windstruck demonstrates the reversal of gender expectations in the same manner as in My Sassy Girl. Kyung-Jin is not at all a desirable feminine character in the traditional sense. She is a “quirky” tomboy who is as reckless and “sassy” as Jun’s character in My Sassy Girl. She is loud and violent, often using her physical power. In contrast, her boyfriend, Myung-Woo, is effeminate, weak, and submissive. His romantic personality puts him in danger regardless of his intention to protect his girlfriend. He loves his “quirky” girlfriend and is likely to do anything for her. In this regard, the gender roles portrayed in My Sassy Girl and Windstruck challenge the characteristics traditionally associated with masculinity and femininity in Korean society as well as in Asian societies in general.
The Korean scholar, Kim Hyun-Mi, argues that the reversal of gender roles in the Korean Wave reflects a notion of “gender instability” that characterizes the experience of a new modern sensibility in contemporary Asia. According to Kim, the Korean Wave is a cultural phenomenon that manifests the strong desires of Asian people to destabilize and change gender relations within their current social orders. Seen in this view, Jun Ji-Hyun may appeal to audiences across Asia because of her persona as a “sassy” and “quirky” girl, which is at odds with the traditional gender expectation in Korea and in Asian countries. Indeed, the male characters in Jun’s films represent romantic, sensitive, and loyal boyfriends who are far from the image of a martial and productive Korean male promoted by the previous military regimes.
Yet, it is a mistake to consider Jun’s star image as a step forward in terms of presenting a strong and autonomous female subject. While Jun’s characters ostensibly reverse established gender norms, her on-screen persona still embodies a stereotypical female role. For instance, the characters she plays always display physical beauty with her thin, feminine body and her long straight hair, which is her trademark. Moreover, the narratives of her films repeatedly reinforce her images as a pure girl emphasizing her feminine quality underneath her “quirky” personality. Jun’s films juxtapose characters with tough, reckless exteriors and soft, feminine interiors. Jun’s “quirky” personality in My Sassy Girl, in fact, masks the grief and heartbreak resulting from the death of her former boyfriend. Thus, the film portrays conflicting notions of femininity while utilizing the different generic conventions of comedy and melodrama. The scenes, which serve to reverse gender expectations, tend to exaggerate the sassiness of Jun’s character towards comical effects. On the other hand, the scenes, which demonstrate the feminine side of Jun’s character, are likely to emphasize the melodramatic aspects of her mourning for the dead ex-boyfriend. In this sense, the mixture of the two film genres, comedy and melodrama, enables this implausible coexistence of the two different female types within Jun’s character.
The awkward coexistence of conflicting notions of femininity functions to prevent Jun’s characters from maturing into a woman in these films. For instance, Jun’s character in My Sassy Girl remains a tomboy-like girl who never recovers from the traumatic experience of losing her boyfriend. Furthermore, Windstruck utilizes the conventions of a weepy melodrama in a more blatant way. The film forces Kyung-Jin (Jun) to deal with two traumatic experiences: first, the death of her twin sister; second, the death of her boyfriend, Myung-Woo. The film’s narrative focuses on Kyung-Jin’s emotional breakdown and vulnerability instead of her recuperating and moving on with her life. Therefore, the seemingly reversed gender roles in My Sassy Girl and Windstruck fail to truly overturn the gender stereotypes due to their conflicts with Jun’s image as a pure girl who is inherently soft and feminine and who has not recovered from her lost love.
Perpetually pure-hearted: re-claiming virginity
The presence of a non-sexual immature love relationship is a dominant characteristic of the films in which Jun has starred. Unlike Hollywood romantic comedies, Jun’s characters in the romantic comedies My Sassy Girl and Windstruck have no sexual relationship of any kind (i.e., kissing, sex). As the Korean film scholar, Soyoung Kim, correctly observes, Windstruck seems reluctant to engage Myung-Woo and Kyung-Jin (Jun), who are in their twenties, in a sexual way. Kim takes an example from a scene in which Myung-Woo tries to kiss Kyung-Jin (Jun) and Kyung-Jin stops him by putting a burning stick to his lips. Kim claims that this “inscrutable purity” makes it difficult to consider Jun’s character realistic. Therefore, the reversed gender roles in both My Sassy Girl and Windstruck result in “much ado about nothing” between a “sassy” girl and her effeminate boyfriend, while not having much to do with subversive meaning for gender politics in Korea.
White Valentine, Il Mare, and Daisy are all examples of films sharing this characteristic of a pure-hearted, virginal image of Jun. Jun Ji-Hyun’s debut film, White Valentine, tells a story of an 18-year old girl, Jung-Min, and a twenty-something man, Hyun-Jin. Jun Ji-Hyun plays the role of Jung-Min, who has quit high school to teach herself painting. One day, a white pigeon flies into her window with a love letter on its foot. Jung-Min replies to the anonymous man without knowing either the letter’s writer or intended recipient. In fact, the letter is from Hyun-Jin, who writes messages to his dead girlfriend. Jung-Min and Hyun-Jin gradually fall in love while exchanging letters using the white pigeon. In this fairytale story, Jun’s character draws paintings in a park, takes care of a lost puppy, and helps her grandfather run a small bookstore. Yet, these pure-hearted actions contrast with Jung-Min’s feeling of sorrow resulting from the death of her parents when she was young. White Valentine shares characteristics with My Sassy Girl and Windstruck in that Jun’s characters in these films suffer traumatic experiences in their lives and these characters do not have sexual relationships.
Il Mareis a time-travel narrative that reinforces the image of Jun as an innocent and lonely girl who has not recovered from her lost love. Jun’s character, Eun-Joo, moves out of a house standing alone by the sea, which is called “Il Mare.” She leaves a message in the mailbox, which asks for the forwarding of her letters to her new address in the hope of receiving a letter from her ex-boyfriend. Mysteriously, the message reaches Sung-Hyun, who lived in “Il Mare” two years ago. Eun-Joo and Sung-Hyun come to believe that there is a rupture in the fabric of time that allows them to communicate through the mailbox. The two continue to keep each other company through their letters and fall in love. Eun-Joo later discovers that Sung-Hyun died two years ago from a car accident inadvertently caused by her. She hurriedly puts her last letter in the mailbox in the hope that the letter will reach him before he leaves. The film ends with the scene in which Sung-Hyun visits Eun-Joo on the day of her moving into “Il Mare,” saying “I have a very long story to tell you” (Lee Hyun-Seung, 2000). Jun Ji-Hyun’s character in this film is so pure-hearted that she cannot forget her ex-boyfriend even though he has betrayed her. Once more, she finds love through adolescent-like act of exchanging letters and only expresses her love in a non-sexual way.
Daisy is another example that perpetuates Jun’s image as a pure-hearted girl. Set in Amsterdam, Daisy tells a story of a love triangle between three Koreans. Jun plays a twenty-four-year old woman named Hye-Young who has never been in a romantic relationship. On weekends, she works as a street artist, painting portraits of tourists in a picturesque square. An anonymous admirer delivers daisies to her every day. Being curious about who is sending daisies to her, she dreams of meeting the anonymous man someday. One day, she meets Jeong-Woo, who asks her to paint his portrait. Jeong-Woo is an Interpol officer who is investigating drug trafficking between Europe and Asia. Hye-Young falls for him mistakenly thinking that he is the anonymous man. In fact, that person is a contract killer, Park Yi, who has been watching and sending her daisies. For him, Hye-Young represents a “pure soul” as opposed to his tainted soul. Yet he only watches her from a distance. The tragedy develops as the police officer and the killer both fall in love with Jun’s character. Just as in the previous films, in Daisy Jun Ji-Hyun portrays a pure-hearted girl who is waiting for true love. Her pure soul leads her to wait for the anonymous man whom she has never met. Even though she gets involved with two men who love her, the audience never sees her having a romantic or sexual relationship with either man. Despite the fact that the primary audience for Jun’s films may be younger audiences, it is significant that a young female character in romantic comedies and melodramas uniformly portrays a virgin since romantic and sexual relationships are central to these genres.
The topic of Jun’s virginal images generated much discussion during my focus group interviews. While referring to Daisy, Amy, a twenty-five-year old Korean-American interviewee, wondered,
As Carrie said, “Jun Ji-Hyun is not portrayed as a sex object in films,” Helen, who is more familiar with Jun, explains,
When asked about this desexualized representation of Jun’s characters, the Korean women maintained that Jun’s virginal purity appealed primarily to male audiences in Korea and her films functioned to serve male fantasies. According to Tae-Hee who is a twenty-one-year old college student,
Yu-Mi, who wants to become a screenwriter, added, “Mostly, all the writers and directors are men in Korea. So, it’s natural that the films reflect male fantasies.” Hyun-Su, a twenty-one-year old college student, touched on the appeal of Jun’s sexual purity to Korean male audiences:
Sung-Ah, a twenty-three year old college student, even interpreted the effeminate representation of male characters in Jun’s films as being in the service of male fantasies:
Why, then, might Jun’s characters’ sexual purity be appealing to Korean/Asian audiences? I argue that the underlying fantasy appeal of Jun’s virginal body is intrinsically connected to the discourses on the female body inscribed by neo-Confucian traditions. During the Choson dynasty (1392-1910) the ruling class established neo-Confucianism as a state ideology and code of conduct for both men and women in Korea. In contemporary times, South Korea’s entrance into a post-industrial consumer society has generally improved the socio-economic status of women, but the ideology of neo-Confucianism still plays an important role in the continuing control of women’s bodies.
An explanation of the impact of neo-Confucianism on contemporary gender roles in Korean society necessitates an understanding of qi concept — a material force which flows through all things giving them form and vitality. Since qi exists in everything, from the whole universe to the tiniest dust particle, “the many are ultimately One” and thus there is no distinction between the self and the universe. Neo-Confucian texts consistently encourage individuals to
However, only men were expected to pursue this ideal of selfless subjectivity. Neo-Confucianism incorporated the discourse of yin and yang, which were paired complementary opposites whose interactions kept the world in balance. Yin was associated with the feminine, the passive, the negative, and the weak while yang was associated with the opposite qualities and forces (i.e., the masculine, the active, the positive, the strong). Neo-Confucian scholars created a hierarchical gender relation based on this “natural order” of things and situated yang, i.e., men, as the dominant and more important gender. While men’s primary role was to cultivate themselves through the mind and body and eventually transcend their bodies, women, as an inferior gender, functioned to maintain and reproduce the family line through their corporeal bodies. As a result, this tradition created the idea of women as bodies more than subjects, and reinforced the concept of women as primarily physical bodies. This emphasis on disciplining and controlling women’s bodies was central to neo-Confucianism because these bodies were so valuable due to their potential capacity to bear children (particularly boys).
The neo-Confucian notion of the female body (with its emphasis on the corporeal) continues to hold true in contemporary Korean society in general and in Jun Ji-Hyun’s on-screen images in particular. Jun’s body should be preserved physically pure for the sake of her potential for child bearing because she may be progressing towards the roles of wife and mother. Unlike Hollywood romantic comedies (whose narratives center around female protagonists’ search for “Mr. Right”), Jun’s films focus on retarding the situation and/or the moment of finding a romantic partner, i.e., her “Mr. Right.” The effeminate male characters in Jun’s films function to delay the meeting of Jun with her romantic partner while simultaneously providing comical effects. As the Korean interviewee, Sung-Ah, has pointed out, Jun’s films do not allow Jun’s characters to have any sexual desires towards the male characters. The fact that the audience never gets to see any sexual relationship between Jun’s characters and the male characters serves to construct Jun’s images as a pure/virginal body rather than a subject. It is significant that My Sassy Girl, which transformed Jun Ji-Hyun into one of the most popular icons in Asia, endows no name to Jun’s character in the film. Jun Ji-Hyun is reduced to a body but this body is so valuable and appealing because she represents a desirable wife-to-be or wife-in-progress from a standpoint of the long-standing neo-Confucian ideology.