Following an extended battle with Alzheimer's disease, Yoon Jeong-hee, an icon of Korean cinema, has died at age 78. After winning a national competition-style audition in 1967, Yoon became an overnight sensation for her debut performance in "Sorrowful Youth," one of many films she would go on to make which dramatized the Japanese occupation of Korea. Yoon starred in over 300 films before retiring in 1994. Though she lived most of the rest of her life in Paris with her daughter and husband, the famed pianist Paik Kun-woo, she continues to top lists of the most beloved actresses of the late '60s/early '70s "golden age" of Korean cinema, alongside the two stars that make up the so-called "troika" of that era — Moon Hee and Nam Jeong-im.
A fiercely self-possessed modern woman whose open heart and unsophisticated charm pre-figure the "manic pixie dream girl," a ferocious action heroine who took on gangs, ghosts, and monsters alike, and a tragically romantic martyr in historical epics and noir-tinged melodramas; Yoon Jeong-hee's career is an object lesson in versatility. But the actress will most likely be remembered, at least by international audiences, for the lone performance she gave after her retirement, in Lee Chang-dong's 2010 drama "Poetry."
As with the Daniels offering Michelle Yeoh a chance to both recapitulate the high points of her career to a new audience and try something different in "Everything Everywhere All At Once," Yoon's searing performance in "Poetry" has acquainted a whole new generation with her inimitable poise, pure-heartedness, and the fearless way she approached character.
To that end, here are five of Yoon's finest films — all of which are, wonderfully, available to stream.
We might as well start at the end, with the film that marked for Yoon Jeong-hee a comeback, a turning point, and a farewell in one.
Lee Chang-dong followed up his acclaimed 2007 depression epic "Secret Sunshine" with something even more soul-crushing, for the fact that every ribbon of anguish in "Poetry" is laced with beauty, and a kind of unbearable optimism. The film follows Mija (Yoon), an upbeat grandmother who scrapes a living together by caring for her ailing neighbor, in order to raise her teenage grandson in his mother's stead. Two blows strike Mija's already precarious existence at once: she's diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and her grandson is caught committing a horrible crime at his school. As solemn questions concerning violence and justice drag Mija down into uncharted emotional territory, a newfound love of poetry (her doctor's recommendation to battle the disease) lifts her up, allowing her to appreciate the beauty of the natural world for the first time.
Director Lee has said he wrote the character with Yoon in mind. The part was substantial enough to lure her out of a 16-year retirement, and her performance sent shock waves around the globe, earning her top acting honors at the Blue Dragon Awards, Los Angeles Film Critics' Association, and more.
The world is full of women like Mija, but you rarely ever see them taken so seriously on film. She's aging and lives alone. There's no one to take care of her but herself. The practical demands made upon her are complicated by the physical limitations that come with age, and yet her heart is completely open to new experience. She's overcome by the grandeur and fragility of nature, which makes her even more dumbfounded in the face of human violence and arrogance. It isn't just the best performance of Yoon's career; it's one of the greatest performances in 21st-century film.
Stream it free on Tubi.
1967 was a banner year for Yoon, and for Korean film itself. After beating out some 1200 other hopefuls for a role in Kang Dae-jin's "Sorrowful Youth," Yoon became an instant fixture in the fast-changing film scene in Seoul. She would star in as many as a dozen films that year, many of which are completely unavailable on streaming and physical media, if they haven't been lost altogether. But another film she made that year is now regarded as a high point in Korean modernist film, or "art cinema" (yesul-younghwa).
Directed by the prolific and criminally underrated Kim Soo-yong, "Mist" (or "A Foggy Town") is a haunting parable of modernity's false promises. Yun Gi-gun (Shin Seong-il), a rising star in Seoul's pharmaceutical industry, strategically marries the widowed daughter of his company's CEO. It mints him a new executive position, but Kim portrays the act in surreal, horrific terms as the literal sale of Yun's soul to the devil. Jaded, he returns to his hometown, nostalgic for the sunny pictures of simple pastoral life fading in his memory. What he finds is anything but.
Yun's final shard of hope for humanity is shattered when he finds a town embittered by the paranoia and isolation brought on by industrialization and urbanization. The only solace Yun finds back home is in Ha In-sook, an idealistic schoolteacher played by Yoon Jeong-hee. Though Ha and Yun's encounter is brief (recalling, in fact, David Lean's "Brief Encounter"), Yoon Jeong-hee infuses the film with her guileless charisma, almost turning this nightmare into a sweet dream.
Watch it on YouTube.
Yoon Jeong-hee and Kim Soo-yong made some of the best films in their respective careers together, including "Mist," the kidnapping noir "Splendid Outing," and "Night Journey," a film that, made a decade later, interestingly reads as a kind of inversion or rebuke of their first collaboration.
1977's "Night Journey" tells the story of Lee Hyun-joo (Yoon in the starring role this time), a young bank teller whose life couldn't be more different from Yun Gi-gun in "Mist," yet she encounters the same feelings along her lonely road. Purposelessness, a longing yet inability to connect with others, and confusion over how to make her life meaningful outside of material success wrack Lee's mind. Yun Jeong-hee gets to exhibit the unique capabilities which made her a star here: the way she can with such clarity convey the resistance of a pure, hopeful heart against encroaching cynicism and shame.
Lee is unsatisfied by her affair with a high-level executive at her bank who keeps her stowed in his private life like a dirty secret, and she can't seem to outrun the memory of her vivacious young boyfriend who was killed in the Vietnam War. So, like Yun Gi-gun, she returns home. She also finds that village life doesn't present many more appealing options than city life, but what's remarkable about "Night Journey" is that, by installing Yoon in the driver's seat, the film is buoyed by her irrepressible lightness of spirit, saving it from concluding as an outright tragedy like "Mist."
"Night Journey" also boasts some of the best cinematography from the period — sweeping wide shots of a bustling Seoul, revealed to be just another soulless metropolis by Kim Soo-yong's long, long takes.
Watch it on YouTube.
Women Of The Yi-Dynasty
Yoon's late '60/early '70s output wasn't all miserable modernism. She starred in ghost stories ("Regret"), crime capers ("A Woman Pursued"), and many, many historical films. One of the finest in that vein is 1969's "Women of the Yi-Dynasty," directed by the "Prince of South Korean cinema," Shin Sang-ok.
Shin and his wife, the actress Choi Eun-hee, were something like the Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer of their day, bringing some of the strongest scripts in circulation to life while crowding out their competition. But 1969's "Women of the Yi-Dynasty" provided an opportunity for the elite talent of the era to all work together, rather than compete for the plum roles. It was as if, to continue the (tenuous) analogy, "The Women," starring Shearer, had been produced by Thalberg, or "Grand Hotel," a Thalberg production, had featured Shearer.
"Women of the Yi-Dynasty" is an omnibus film of historical vignettes illustrating the lifestyles of women in late 18th/early 19th century Korea. Mother, daughter, concubine, wife: four stories of four women, played by the era's leading ladies, including Choi Eun-hee, Kim Ji-mi, fellow "troika" member Jam Jeong-im, and of course, Yoon Jeong-hee. The stories are largely tragic, but the performances infuse them with pathos, making this far richer than a dry history lesson.
Watch it on YouTube.
A Shaman's Story
Surely one of the wildest and most potent films in Yoon's catalog, at least of those still available to watch, "A Shaman's Story" is an unsparing look at the religious conflicts that led to Korea becoming one of the primary global dominions of evangelical Christianity.
Yoon was often cast as naive idealists, dreamy naifs, and lonely optimists, but she got to show off a completely different side of her range with Mo-Hwa, the ferocious, angry, and entirely self-possessed woman at the center of "A Shaman's Story." Mo-Hwa is the powerful shaman of a rural fishing village whose son, sent off on a Buddhist retreat, returns home a converted Christian. He was successfully evangelized on the road after escaping the retreat, and has come to the village to spread the gospel. This draws him into a conflict with his mother so deep it feels primordial: the new vs. the old, the colonizer vs. the indigenous, the natural world vs. the material world.
The 1972 film culminates in what can only be described as an exorcism competition: Mo-Hwa versus her son, the individualism of the messiah and the community of shamanism in a head-on conflict that Yoon enacts with supreme agony and indignation. You can watch it here on Youtube.
Yoon Jeong-hee's distinct combination of vulnerability, poise, aloofness, and strength meet no match in our contemporary moment. Her presence will be greatly missed. Let's give Yoon's character Mija in "Poetry" the parting words — from her poem "Agnes' Song":
"Will time pass and roses fade?Now it's time to say goodbyeLike the wind that lingers and then goes,just like shadows."
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The post Honor the Life of Legendary Korean Actor Yoon Jeong-hee with Some of Her Greatest Films appeared first on /Film.