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.