Sympathy For the 'Real' Lady Vengeance: Korea Falls in Love Again With Choi Jin-Shil

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Hong Sang-Soo once said: "There's no reality, just a collection of personal visions. No matter how long you talk about it, it'll always end up being two different visions of reality." Perhaps Choi Jin-Shil would agree with that, as the last two years of her life have become like one of the Dramas she used to star in, with their own personal reality: sometimes tragic, sometimes embarrassing, sometimes painful. But getting that last laugh didn't seem very likely, unlike what happens in the movies.

It was just a mere year ago, perhaps less, when hordes of vampires (sorry... I meant 'reporters') stormed to the hospital to capture the former 'National Sweetheart' in all the decadence of her past glory. With two swollen black eyes, barely holding her tears, saying: "I'm sorry." As if she did anything wrong. Her marriage with baseball superstar Jo Sung-Min, which looked like it could have become one of those Cha In-Pyo/Shin Ae-Ra 'dream relationships' which no rumour or scandal could break, fell down like a castle of cards. Money got involved, and when fists made their ugly appearance, people knew it was over for the girl everybody loved to see on the small screen. Examples of entertainers ruined by scandals are frequent (Oh Hyun-Kyung, Baek Ji-Young, Lee Kyung-Young, Lee Seung-Yeon... the list is long), as much as is the pathetic, continued pursuit of quick 'news' by the media, without considering that celebrities are people, too.

Choi, now approaching her late 30s, never had it easy. She never had the backing of a rich and powerful family being the daughter of a single mother that she supported through her acting, she didn't have famous brethren allowing her to experience fame by association (her younger brother Choi Jin-Young moving to singing - as 'Sky' - after a failed acting career), or a 'sponsor' who put her on the spotlight with his money and influence. All she had were natural good looks, and acting skills that could be taken advantage of. Jung Ji-Young certainly knew it when he first cast her in his 1990 masterpiece '남부군' ('Nambugun: Partisans of South Korea'). When Ahn Sung-Gi was strengthened by the thought of meeting this fresh, radiant beauty again, giving him the power to go on amidst all the tragedy, you could believe it and think you would do the same put in a similar situation.

Unlike past 'troika' heroines such as Jung Yoon-Hee, her looks and screen presence weren't the only thing she had going for. Although she had to compete with two of the best actresses ever seen in contemporary Korean Cinema (Kang Su-Yeon and Shim Hye-Jin), she started with some impressive roles, in Lee Myung-Se's delightful '나의 사랑, 나의 신부' ('My Love, My Bride), and '수잔 브링크의 아리랑' ('Susan Brink's Arirang'). Critical praise soon turned into commercial appeal, through entertaining crap like Kang Woo-Seok's '마누라 죽이기' ('How To Top My Wife'). But TV Dramas were what put Choi on the most important spotlight. She, along with Park Sang-Won, Choi Su-Jong and Chae Si-Ra, is responsible for most of the big hits of the 90s, and looking at the list of roles reveals some of the best TV Dramas of all time.

They were all mostly Family Dramas, but showing women who weren't merely flower vases. She often played independent women who wanted to advance into society, wanted to cut a space for themselves. And what's part of those Dramas' freshness is that they neither subscribed to mother/whore dichotomies of the 'male chauvinist' mentality that ruined many TV Dramas and films of the 90s, nor knee jerk feminism which doesn't consider the time it was set in or didn't give importance to small conquests over raging huge battles with males for world domination. A touch of realism, some silly cuteness and good acting later, she became the girl next door, the woman everyone wanted to love. '그대 그리고 나' ('You and I') in 98 and '장미와 콩나물' ('Roses & Beansprouts') in 99 showed Choi at her best, and it looked like she could take advantage of the reviving film industry to become an even bigger star.

But she never had much luck with films in the late 90s: the melodrama '편지' ('The Letter') was a big success financially, but it was so content with following genre conventions and jerking tears from the viewer with a phony story that it never left first gear. '베이비 세일' ('Baby Sale') had an interesting concept and even a good cast, but it turned out to be one of those cheap, easily digestible exercises in 'Fast Food Cinema' Chungmuro served so often in the mid 90s. '홀리데이 인 서울' ('Holiday In Seoul') was too occupied with trying to ape the cinematic sensibility of Wong Kar-Wai (back then quite popular in Korea), without finding its own rhythm, although it's a pleasant and underrated film. '마요네즈' ('Mayonnaise') in 99 was merely a re-telling of her late 90s Drama, with even the same mother figure (Kim Hye-Ja) she faced with in 'Roses & Beansprouts.' Close, but no cigars.

2000 was the crucial year, with the industry slowly moving towards blockbusters after the success of '쉬리' ('Shiri'), and the advancements in film production and technology. But despite its early promise and good cast (Seol Kyung-Gu, Lee Mi-Sook, Kim Yoon-Jin), '단적비연수' ('Legend of Gingko') was a colossal flop. When her much publicized marriage arrived in 2000, people expected her to quietly and slowly fade away from the business, perhaps moving to supporting roles in Daily TV Dramas. In fact, with the exception of a few TV appearances, and TV Dramas that re-enforced how much better her previous work was, she slowly moved out of the elite 'A list' of Chungmuro. The industry was receiving acclaim and awards overseas, and the new stars of this generation became names like Moon So-Ri, Shin Eun-Kyung, Jang Jin-Young, Kim Jung-Eun. But she probably didn't care, having an allegedly happy marriage and even two kids. The end?

Not that easy. Several lawsuits, embarrassing moments on TV and fights with her husband later, she found herself alone, raising two kids, with no career prospects, with viewers increasingly less interested in her matters, and producers on TV and the big screen labeling her 'damaged goods.' Teenagers going to theaters knew who Choi was more for her personal life than for being an icon of the 90s, and TV Dramas had moved on from her era, with the help (?) of the 'Korean Wave.' What could she do, with the public forgetting all those beautiful memories she gave them, with suits behind the scenes quickly putting aside the fact she could upstage and outperform most actresses on TV AND the big screen?

Enter '장밋빛 인생' ('Life in Pink'), which is quickly turning into the new sensation on Korean TV, and is putting Choi on the stage she deserves for the first time in over 5 years. After the Kim Sam-Soon syndrome, the TV Drama population needed something to settle down. Kim Jung-Eun's non-sensical and ridiculous 루루공주' ('Princess Lulu') wasn't certainly the answer. As great as it were, even '부활' ('Rebirth') wasn't exactly what Ajumma in their mid 30s would enjoy watching. But Choi, playing Maeng Soon-Yi, a character a little too similar to her real life situation to be ignored, is igniting discussions, not so much about the Drama, but Choi herself. First few episodes averaged at around 30% ratings and destroyed any competition, a spectacular result considering expectations.

The same people in the media who accused Choi of being a 'pretty face with no acting skills' in the mid 90s, the same people who criticized and abandoned Choi for her marital problems are all coming out of the closet, 'suddenly' praising her acting skills, which are now elevating her to a major actress in the making. Although they should have known better (she ALWAYS had those acting skills, from the beginning), this marks what could be considered a fresh new start for the former sweetheart, now turned into a tough as nails mother facing divorce and the difficulties Korean society puts on people like her. It's a second career for her, like what happened for Lee Mi-Sook and her return to the big screen in '정사' ('An Affair').

Although I can't say the Drama is awash in originality, it's a glorious showcase of the kind of great character-based Dramas MBC was turning by the week from 1992 to the late 90s. Not one single actor picked here is out of place, not one 'pretty face' who can't act worth a lick stinking the whole place. Veterans like Na Moon-Hee, the eccentric character played by the amazing Kim Ji-Young (the granny in '파이란' ('Failan'), if you're not familiar), Jang Yong; the sly Son Hyun-Joo, a master of ad-lib and comic timing on the big screen, who seems to like playing adulterous husbands on TV a little too often, but who offers a great mix of irresponsible Peterpan Complex-afflicted mama's boy, and a slick playboy; Lee Tae-Ran, amongst the most underappreciated actresses of her generation.

With all the focus currently put on pretty stars whose acting is embarrassing, or bulky 'momjjang' singer-turned-actors whose facial expression consist of 'cool', 'slightly less cool' and 'pissed off cool', all the overseas based series which forgot the script on the airplane, all the bullshit cultural masturbation this Korean Wave is bringing to TV Dramas (how effective can a cultural movement be when it promotes vapid beauty and crappy acting over culturally-relevant stories and acting that transcends nationality? If it was a fair world, 'Rebirth' would make a trillion zillion Yen in Japan, and Choi Ji-Woo would still be doing cell-phone commercials in Korea, nothing else), 'Life in Pink' is air that I'm glad to breathe again, for it means there's still people out there who care about storytelling in TV Dramas.

And, as a longtime fan of Choi Jin-Shil, as someone who respects her as a person first, but also acknowledges her often underappreciated acting skills, seeing the entire Korean Media raise in unison and proclaim the (re)birth of a new star in Chungmuro makes me smile. Because hypocrisy never dies, but thankfully it's the same for talent.

How about some sympathy for this Lady Vengeance? You won them all again, miss Choi.

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