Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Actress Choe Jinsil, 40, Found Dead at Her House in Apparent Suicide

Choi Jinsil, perhaps the most successful Korean actress ever, was found dead in her house in an apparent suicide. She apparently hung herself, and was discovered by her brother Choi Jinyoung, himself an actor.

I am in utter shock, and so is the entire Korea, evidenced by the fact that the news of her death is posted higher in all Korean online newspaper than such important news as the news of North Korean preparing to fire another missile, or the news of U.S. Senate passing the bailout plan.

Here is my tribute to Choi Jinsil, hastily written.


Choi debuted in 1988 as a 20 year old fresh face, and was an instant hit. Every drama, every movie, and every commercial she appeared was turned into gold. By the mid 90s, she fetched $100,000 per each commercial she appeared -- an incredible sum, given that at that point the highest paid professional athletes in Korea would be paid around $100,000 a year. She was so popular that a female voice actress who could mimic her voice for the purpose of radio commercials earned more than any other voice actress in Korea.

But to truly appreciate her career, one needs to see the general arc of Korean actresses' careers. Pretty faces are dime a dozen in Korea. Some of them can even act. But as they get older and lose their natural beauty, they generally cannot reinvent their persona into a longer career. This is true in Hollywood, but the decline in Korea is significantly worse, especially when there are relatively few dramas or movies where women are anything more than pretty ornaments.

But not Choi Jinsil. She was like Madonna in a way -- she may have started her career as a pretty young thing, but she transformed into a serious artist through her career. And the true reason why she was a hit above and beyond anyone began to show: she had spontaneous energy which was channeled into a very sincere acting. Her characters were always hopeful, and never discouraged no matter what the circumstances. Choi's brand of unrelenting hope was never melodramatic or phony, as Korean dramas often are, because she projected positivity with such conviction and sincerity.

Yet the low points of her personal life were as low as the high points of her career were high. In 1994 her manager was murdered by her driver, and she took the witness stand in a highly publicized trial. She married a star baseball player in 2000, only to separate in 2002 and officially divorced in 2004 following episodes of domestic violence; she had to pay her husband in exchange for his relinquishing custody of their two children. Adding insult to injury, she was sued for $3 million by the company that hired her as a spokeswoman, on the basis that her mismanagement of private life caused damage to the value of the company. Her career was left for dead.

Despite all this, she plugged on. Her acting now added a dimension of tenacity for life, which resonated with the unglamourous yet unrelenting spirit of Korean ajummas. Gradually, her star rose again. She became an inspiration for divorced women, who were not seen kindly in the Korean society although they were increasing in number. She dared to change her children last name into her own, drawing the ire of traditionalists.

She possessed beauty that is so rarely seen on television: the female beauty that does not rely on youth or make up. The type of beauty we would find in our mothers and grandmothers, perhaps. The inner glow of hope that survived all the years of hardship.

And that is why I am particularly saddened. I had really wished to see this woman happy, finally living her life trouble-free. I wanted to continue playing the roles of Korean everywoman well into her golden ages, perhaps as Julie Andrews does for Americans now. In the current media culture that glorifies early death, the beauty of fine aging is underappreciated. But if any woman in Korea could show that the beauty of aging into her 60s, 70s and beyond, in my mind, it was going to be Choi Jinsil.

Instead, it appears that her actual will to live was quite apart from all the characters that she had played. To this, I can only express sorrow and regret.

p.s. I am aware of other issues associated with this tragedy, such as the recent string of celebrity suicides in Korea and the vicious gossips on the Internet that sometimes claim lives. But I will deal with them another time. Right now I'm just not in the mood to rationally analyze those things -- I don't even feel like writing in third person, lest what I wrote would not sound serious.


  1. Thank you for articulating what so many of us are feeling--I grew up watching Choi Jin Shil and even during her struggles, always thought of her as one of Korea's best actors (and when I say actor, I mean it in the unadulterated, non-packaged sense in a time when it often seems all you need to be on screen is a tiny, plasticized face).

    She was uniquely talented and beautiful--sad just doesn't seem to cover what we're feeling.

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  3. I understand your sadness over the death of such a beloved public figure. I can only try to imagine the desperation and depression that made her take her own life.

    But as a father of a 4 year old girl, my thoughts can only go to the kids she left behind. It doesn't matter the problems you're facing, you can't put such a burden on your kids. She (and her ex-husband, of course) had already made them go through the pain of a divorce (God knows what it can cause on a child) and now she kills herself? What kind of a person does that? What kind of future her kids will have?

    I know I may sound too conservative (on the divorce thing) and judgemental. I know those who loved Choi may get upset by what I'm writing. I even heard somewhere that's not cool to talk bad about the dead. But what I feel now is anger.

    I feel anger towards somebody who willingly (assuming that it was really suicide) gives her children the worst possible start in life.

    I pray that, in the future, her kids will find the strength, dignity, honor and accountability that their mother apparently lacked.

  4. @ksoje: When you are depressed, it is very easy to believe that you are such a worthless person that your kids and family and everyone you know would be better off if you died. Yes, they might be sad for a while, but they would go on to lead better and happier lives. In that context, suicide looks like a necessary and even heroic act.

    I don't know what was going through Choi Jinsil's head when she decided to kill herself. Some people try to kill themselves because they can't deal with temporary problems or because they want sympathy and attention. These people are pretty selfish. But other people do it because they are deeply depressed and can only see a very skewed vision of the world. So please have some compassion for this woman.

  5. @melinda:

    As any normal person I have compassion for her. As I wrote before I can only imagine what she was going through to take her own life like that. But I'm not gonna give her a pass.

    If she had depression she should have searched treatment.

  6. Although I don't know her from Adam and dont follow her acting career, I really feel for the children that are left behind by her apparent suicide. Suicides in South Korea, along with Japan, is a social epidemic that seems to be never addressed by the Korean society. This may be attributed to our Conficius culture where taking our own lives isnt looked at as immoral and selfish, as its perceived in western societies. Nevertheless, its a critical issue, if not dealth properly, I regret to admit that it will continue to affect so many lives that could have been otherwise prevented.

    The Korean government need serious government-wide iniatives to address the current suicide crisis. From a perspective of a twinkie -- me, South Korean govt tend to focus on policies that affect them externally, -- U.S beef, FTA, etc, moreso than internal -- suicides, health care, education, etc.

    What matters most now is the safety and emotional health of her children; the latter of which I am most concerned. My thoughts and prayers go out to the family of the lossed one...

  7. Nuna remembers Choe Jinsil. Like many actresses, she was a puppet flung about at the whims of public entertainment.

    When she made a comeback in the late 90s just prior to her marriage, the first criticism she drew was that her acting style was faked and awkward, an embarrassing elephant from a bygone era. It was the era of woman-dies-with-rare-disease-after-fulfiling-unrequited-true-love dramas, and she simply did not fit in at the time.

    Her marriage was simply traumatic. Before marriage, she and her husband appeared on dozens of talk shows (presumably to cover the cost of wedding), at least one of which mocked them on primetime tv by getting them to dress up in humiliating costumes (one of them included a wolf suit for the groom and a nine-tailed fox dress for the bride). Tongues wagged about how she managed to snag a guy younger than her (!) and all sorts of things in between.
    Upon pregnancy, she was plagued with the Namyang Baby Formula scandal (mothers feared baby formula prices will rise to pay for showing her baby bump on tv). Then there was the fact that her marriage was fraught with allegations her husband cheated on her with a barfly/prostitute while she was pregnant with her second child, which apparently was understandable and she was an overreacting harpy.

    She was seen as constantly disrespectful of her husband, making jibes about how he was earning less than her depsite her career taking backstage since the marriage. She was seen as an opportunistic greedy pig, calculating and manipulative. People would never tell her to the face, but Nuna thinks Choe probably felt the hidden barbs behind careful words like "she was smart in snagging a rich husband younger than her".

    Nuna isn't surprised she ended up dead, one way or another.

    Also ksoje: Koreans have a very negative view of mental health treatment and professionals. Choe Jinsil seeing a counsellor or psychiatrist would have been the end of her career, and her children would have been ostracized forever as "spawns of a basket-case who might bite".

    Between "their mother killed herself" and "their mother is a basket case divorcee", Nuna wouldn't be surprised if the former is less traumatising in overall. Plus, Nuna doubts dead people care about yet another judgmental person refusing to give her a pass because, you know, MOTHERS are supposed to not have a life of their own they can take into their hands.

  8. @nuna:

    Good to hear from you again! You know, I missed you feisty disposition.

    Call me judgemental if you will, but your jab about dead people not caring was under the belt. You lost a little of the classic touch when offending someone. Practice some more for I miss the old sharp mouthed nuna. =)

    You come up with some interesting arguments (she had a hard life, she was misunderstood by the media, Korean society's view of mental patients, etc) but cap them with stupid conclusions, the "best" one being that a parent's suicide is less traumatizing for the children than divorce.

    You don't really think that way, do you?

    You probably don't have kids. If you did, you'd understand what I feel. Write me back in ten years and lets see.

  9. @ksoje: Children live both in their families and in the greater society. Depending on the degree of social ostracism the children would experience if the mother lived and sought mental health treatment, it may well be less traumatizing in the long run for the mother to kill herself. People identify children with their parents, in some cultures more so than others; if they judge the children based on the parent's actions, Choi may have avoided giving her children a permanent black mark on their record.

    Also, I've found that normal children tend to be resilient. Choi's children had two rich parents and will always be cared for well. A mother's love is only unique in its (typical) intensity and can be substituted for by the love and caring of other people. There are lots of orphans who have turned out just fine. As long as another loving caretaker shows up for them, they will be fine too.

  10. @melinda:

    I find it hard to believe that children will be better off if a parent commits suicide instead of looking for mental treatment, specially in a case like depression, so common these days.

    Hard to believe or not, I have to accept the fact that my opinion seems outnumbered in this discussion. So maybe you girls are right and I'm wrong, who knows?

    But if that's true, Korean society still has a lot to change.

  11. Less traumatizing for the kids to kill herself rather than standing by their side? Long run? Hmnnn...

    The quality of discussion on this site just took a massive nosedive. Administrator, please exercise some authority in weeding out these insane comments

  12. jw,

    The Korean won't tell you how to do your job, so don't tell him how to do his.

    The Korean did find the "in the long run" idea distasteful, however.

  13. May you rest in peace, Choi Jinsil.

    "Choi herself had gone through a difficult divorce. She had married baseball star Cho Sung-min in 2000, then a pitcher for the Japanese pro baseball team Yomiuri Giants, but they split in 2002 and divorced two years later (2004). The deterioration of their relationship became tabloid fodder, culminating in Cho's arrest for attacking her. Their children are in elementary school. Choi had been depressed since her 2004 divorce and worried about how to care for her two young children, friends told police. She had been distraught after the suicide of a fellow actor she was rumored to have pressured about a loan, police said. Choi denied loaning Ahn money and asked police to find out who was circulating the claims that Ahn killed himself after Choi pressured him to repay a large debt. No suicide note was found. Choi sent an assistant two cell phone text messages Wednesday night asking her to 'take care of my children no matter what happens' and telling her that 'I'm sorry,' the chief investigator said." - Associated Press.


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