1900 - 2013

Female Stars in Korean Films

Korean Film Archive

Renowned female movie stars in the history of Korean film, from Mun Ye-bong to Kim Hye-soo

Mun Ye-bong and female stars during the colonial period 

Mun Ye-bong was one of the greatest stars in Korean films during the colonial period. She played a poor girl in a farming village in <a ferry boat that has no owner>(Lee Gyu-hwan, 1932) and <a wayfarer>(Lee Gyu-hwan, 1937), and her role represented the daughter, sister and lover – the archetype of the ideal Korean woman.

Mun Ye-bong in <Sweet Dream> (Yang Ju-nam, 1936) Contrary to her image, she played a woman who left her husband and child, depicting the so-called “New Woman” consumed by decadence. 
Mun Ye-bong(1917~1999)
Kim So-young (1914 – ?) Kim So-young was an actress who represented the Korean film industry during the late colonial period. She was famous for her innocent and yet sensuous, as well as modern and yet classic charm.
Kim Sin-jae (1919 – 2003) Affectionately called the “forever girl”, this sweetly innocent and elegant actress played the role of a good wife and wise mother. After she got married to Director Choi In-kyu, she began her acting career with <Story of Simchung> (An Seok-yeong) in 1937. Kim Sin-jae, Mun Ye-bong and Kim So-young became the troika of female movie stars during the colonial period.
Jeon Ok (left) and Yu Gye-seon (right) in <Miles Away from Happiness> (Jeon Chang-keun, 1941)
Han Eun-jin in <Heartlessness>(Park Gi-chae, 1939)

Kim Jeongrim  and the female stars of the 1950s 

After the Korean War, American pop culture was introduced to Korea. Along with it came American products. In the movie, Oh Seon-yeong is a wife of a professor, but becomes a manager of an American import shop. She deals with liquor and cigarettes and slowly her daily dealings begin to include romance and dance. The shop of imports and the dance hall are symbols that represent the post-war society. 

Kim Jeongrim in <Madame Freedom> (Han Hyung-mo, 1956)
Choi Ji-hee playing Eunmi, a teenage pickpocket in <A Beautiful Wicked Woman> (Lee Kang-cheon, 1958)
Lee Min-ja (left) and Choi Ji-hee (right) in <A Negro Whom I Got > (Kim Han-il, 1959)
Choi Eun-hee playing Sonya, a prostitute who deals with foreigners in <The Flower in Hell> (Shin Sang-ok, 1958)
Kim Ji-mee, the Elizabeth Taylor of Korea
Jo Mi-ryeong in <The Wedding Day> (Lee Byung-il , 1956). When the western way of life dominated the screen, Jo showed the elegance of Korean beauty.

Choi Eun-hee, the Korean beauty

Choi Eun-hee (1928 – )

Born in Seongnam, Gyeonggi-do, Choi Eun-hee’s real name was Choi Gyeong-sun. She started her acting career in the Drama Company Arang. In 1947, she starred in her first movie <a new oath>. Her filmography includes <a hometown in heart> (Yun Yong-gyu, 1949), <dongsimcho> (Shin Sang-ok, 1959) and <mother and a guest> (Shin Sang-ok, 1961). In 1954, she married Director Shin Sang-ok whom she had met while working on the film <korea>. During the 1960s, she worked with her husband to establish Shin Films, their film empire. In 1964, she directed <the girl raised as a future daughter-in-law>, becoming the third female movie director in Korea. 

•Choi Eun-hee in <Mother and a Guest>(Shin Sang-ok, 1961) A young widow who lives with her daughter finds herself falling for a boarder in her house. The public loved Choi Eun-hee who played the widow, torn in two by love and the ethical dilemma within a society transitioning from feudalism to modernity.
Choi Eun-hee (right) Drama Company Arang
<Madam White Snake> (Shin Sang-ok, 1960)
Choi dressed up as a man in <The Youth> (Shin Sang-ok, 1955)
Choi Eun-hee dressed in the traditional Korean dress with her hair up is the image most loved by the public during the 1960s.
In the early 60s when society lived by the goal of ‘reconstruction’, the ideal women were tough women who worked hard. Choi Eun-hee in <Rice>(Shin Sang-ok, 1963)
In <Love Affair>(Shin Sang-ok, 1964), Choi played a bar hostess who seduces a university professor and moves in with him.

Um Aing-ran and the actress troika during the 1960s

After the release of <the barefooted young> (Kim Kee-duk, 1964), Shin Seong-il and Um Aing-ran became the most loved movie stars of the time. Their appearance heralded the beginning of films for the younger generations, not to mention the heyday of the screen stars. In the early 60s, Um Aing-ran was one of the hottest stars at the heart of this trend. She became more popular because she was a university graduate, depicting the cheerful young university student and young, modern girl in her own way. Moreover, she married Shin Seong-il, the most famous actor of the time. After Um Aing-ran, the star industry was booming. The troika of Moon Hee, Nam Jeong-im and Yoon Jeong-hee opened the door to the golden age for actors and actresses in the 1960s.

Um Aing-ran in <The Housemaid> (Kim Ki-young, 1960)
Shin Seong-il and Um Aing-ran in <The Barefooted Young>
The troika of the 1960s (Moon Hee, Nam Jeong-im, Yoon Jeong-hee) In the 1960s, the troika of Moon Hee, Nam Jeong-im and Yoon Jeong-hee dominated Korean films. The three actresses had different images: Moon Hee was calm and virtuous, Nam Jeong-im was lively and confident, and Yoon Jeong-hee was feminine and sexy. 
Moon Hee 
Nam Jeong-im
Yoon Jeong-hee 

Moon Jung-suk, the persona of Director Lee Man-hee 

Moon Jung-suk (1929-2000)

Born in Seoncheon, Pyeonganbuk-do, Moon Jung-suk was one of the most renowned actresses in the 1960s. She was known for her attention to detail in acting and psychological depiction of the characters. She began her career as an actress at Drama Company Arang and starred in <life> (Lee Kang-cheon, 1958) as one of the leading roles. She diversified the scope of her acting in films such as <holiday in seoul>(Lee Yong-min, 1956) and <my sister is a hussy>(Han Hyung-mo, 1961) . In 1962, she was cast in Director Lee Man-hee’s film <call 112>, and her career with Director Lee began. In <the devil's stairway>(1964>, <black hair>(1964), <full autumn>(1966>, <homebound>(1967), etc., she portrayed characters consumed by listlessness, anxiety and nervous breakdowns. As one of the most talented actresses of her time, she became the persona of Director Lee.

Moon Jung-suk and Director Lee Man-hee on set 
Moon Jung-suk, <My Sister is a Hussy>(1961) 
Moon Jung-suk, <Call 112>(1962)
Moon Jung-suk, <Black Hair>(1964) In <Black Hair>, Moon Jung-suk plays a woman who was once a mistress of a mafia boss but became a prostitute. Her powerful representation of her character, as if she transcended everything that is worldly, rendered the rules of the world of men powerless.

Actress troika of the 1970s

The actress troika following that of Moon Hee, Nam Jeong-im and Yoon Jeong-hee comprised of: Chang Mi-hee, Yu Ji-in and Jeong Yun-hui. They first appeared in the late 1970s when the film industry was experiencing a decline, but was loved as film and commercial stars well into the 1980s.

Chang Mi-hee rose to stardom, thanks to the phenomenal success of Director Kim Ho-sun’s <winter woman> (1977). Her mixed image of innocence and sexuality fascinated the public. Jeong Yun-hui is considered to be one of the most beautiful actresses in the history of Korean film. Her image was mostly of a vulnerable, passive, victim-like woman wounded by modern history and a male-oriented society. Meanwhile, Yu Ji-in played intelligent, middle-class roles.

Jeong Yun-hui
Jeong Yun-hui <Do You Know Kotsuni?>(Jeong Inyeob, 1978)
Chang Mi-hee, <Winter Woman>(1977)
Yu Ji-in <The Hut>(Lee Dooyong, 1980)

Actress troika of the 1980s

When the government introduced the 3S policy in the1980s, the film industry began to produce erotic films as a source of cheap entertainment. The actress troika of the 1980s – Won Mi-kyung, Lee Bo-hee and Lee Mi-sook – captured the hearts of fans during a time when the theaters were inundated with erotic films. While they starred in the erotic movies, they also worked with directors Lee Doo-yong, Lee Jang-ho and Kwak Ji-kyoon, who represented the 1980s, to become the best selling actresses of their time.

In period films such as <spinning the tales of cruelty towards women>(Lee Doo-yong, 1983) and <hanging tree>(Jung Jin-woo, 1984), Won Mi-kyung portrayed the traditional female characters who were suppressed by a patriarchal society, accentuated by her classic beauty. Lee Bo-hee was loved for her innocent and yet sexy characters in <declaration of idiot>(Lee Jang-ho, 1983), <between the knees>(Lee Jang-ho, 1984), <lee jang-ho's baseball team>(Lee Jang-ho, 1986), etc. Lee Mi-sook was more varied in her roles, from innocent to tough, in films such as <whale hunting>(Bae Chang-ho, 1984), <winter wanderer>(Kwak Ji-kyoon, 1986), <mulberry>(Lee Doo-yong, 1985), etc. 

Won Mi-kyung, <Spinning the Tales of Cruelty Towards Women>(1983)
Lee Bo-hee <Lee Jang-ho's Baseball>(1984)
Lee Mi-sook <Whale Hunting>(1984)

Kang Soo-yeon, the heroine of Venice 

In movies that were based on the feudalistic patriarchal society, women were often used as the means to continue a bloodline. These women were forced to stay faithful to their men and bear them a son, and the films show the tragedies resulting from these inhumane customs. The women couldn’t be anything but passive and submissive. Many films of this type recreated the life of the nobility during the Joseon Dynasty in an exquisite and beautiful manner, and they were often submitted to international film festivals in the 1980s, some of which resulted in awards. At the heart of it was Kang Sooyeon, the heroine of <surrogate mother> (Im Kwon-taek, 1986). Kang began her career as a child. In 1986, she won the Best Actress Award for <surrogate mother> at the Venice International Film Festival and has since been the actress who represents Korea.

Kang Soo-yeon, <Surrogate Mother> (Im Kwon-taek, 1986)

Shim Hye-jin and the icons of the new generation during the 1990s

Since the 1990s, there was talk about the new generation, and society was more keen on everyday life and culture than ever before. The film industry also welcomed new young directors and actors with their own unique characters, to breathe new life into the industry. For one, Shim Hyejin in <the marriage life> (Kim Eui-suk) in 1992 rejected all that was stereotypical and stale to show the new face of romance of the new generation. This down-to-earth and confident image built from <the marriage life> became her trademark and a model to other young actors and actresses such as Choi Jin-sil and Ko So-young. Thanks to the massive popularity of the TV series <jealousy> (1992), Choi Jin-sil worked with Director Kang Woo-suk in different comedies such as <mister mama> (Kang Woo-suk, 1992) and <how to top my wife>(Kang Woo-suk, 1994), utilizing her cute, friendly and confident image. One of the best films among the young generation of the 1990s was <beat> (Kim Sung-su, 1998) and its heroine was played by Ko So-young. The character she portrayed was selfish and resisted the system, by which the new generation was characterized.

Shim Hye-jin, <The Marriage Life>(1992)
Choi Jin-sil, <Mister Mama>(1992)
Ko So-young <Beat>(1998)

Jeon Do-youn and the female movie stars of our time

In <secret sunshine> (Lee Chang-dong, 2007), Jeon Do-youn brought to life a mother whose child had been kidnapped, and her acting skills brought her the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Festival in 2007. She joined the ranks of those globally renowned actresses who had won awards at international film festivals, such as Kang Soo-yeon in Venice in 1987 and Moon Sori (Best New Actress) in Venice in 2002. 

Jeon Do-youn of <Secret Sunshine> 
Shim Eun-ha, <Christmas in August> (Hur Jin-ho, 1998)
Lee Youngae, <Joint Security Area> (Park Chan-wook, 2000)
Jun Ji-hyun, <My Sassy Girl>(Kwak Jae-yong, 2001)
Jang Jin-young, <Sorum> (Yoon Jong-chan, 2001)
Lim Soo-jung, <A Tale of Two Sisters>(Kim Jeewoon, 2003)
Bae Doona, <The Host> (Bong Joon-ho, 2006)
Kim Hye-soo, <Tazza: The High Rollers> (Choi Dong-hoon, 2006)
Credits: Story

Curator — Park Hye-Young, Korean Film Archive
Publisher — Yoo Sungkwan, Korean Film Archive
English translation — Free Film Communications

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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