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Actor You Need to Know: Kang Soo-yeon

The sudden demise of the veteran actress is a huge loss to Korean cinema and television

Debashree Dutta May 10, 2022

Photo: Courtesy of HanCinema

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Korea’s “first world star,” Kang Soo-yeon, was a highly venerated actress, and winner of multiple accolades in the world of Korean entertainment. Her career dates back to 1969 when she debuted as a child actor. From the 1970s to the 1980s, she featured in a host of films and television programs. Her leading role as teenager Ok Nyo in the film The Surrogate Woman marked a watershed moment in her career. Kang depicted a 17-year-old destitute Ok, a determined girl willing to do anything for money. For the role and her outstanding performance, the actress won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress award at the 1987 Venice International Film Festival, alongside the Best Actress Award at the Nantes International Film Festival. This win was a one-of-a-kind success that also helped in establishing the South Korean film industry.

Photo: Courtesy of HanCinema

Kang portrayed Soon Nyeo in the Buddhist film Come, Come, Come Upward, or Aje Aje Bara Aje (1989), in which she struggles after joining a Buddhist temple as a nun owing to a lack of discipline. She rescues an alcoholic from committing suicide, but he later assaults her and compels her to leave the temple. Despite this, she develops a liking for him. Kang had to shave her head to play a nun in the film. She won the Bronze St. George at the 16th Moscow International Film Festival, earning herself the moniker “Korea’s World Star.”

Still from Come, Come, Come Upward: Photo courtesy of Korean Film Council

The Road to the Racetrack (1991) actress continued appearing in several movies like That Woman, That Man (1993), Their Last Love Affair (1996), Girls’ Night Out (1998) so on and so forth. One of the most notable projects among these was The Road to the Racetrack. The story follows R (Moon Sung-geun) who returns to Korea after studying in France for several years, hoping to rekindle his relationship with J (Kang). But she’s a different person now, capable of ditching him in hotel rooms whenever he tries to get hold of her and adamant about R returning to his family. 

Still from The Road to the Racetrack: Photo courtesy of Korean Film Council

The film earned excellent feedback and is regarded as one of the Korean masterpieces of the 90s. Subsequently, Kang bagged multiple awards: the Baeksang Arts Award, Chunsa Film Art Awards, and the Blue Dragon Film Awards for the Best Actress category. By this time the actress had 32 films to her credit already when she moved to the small screen after the film Rainbow Trout was released in 1999.

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Kang returned to the television with the Ladies of the Palace after a long hiatus of 15 years. The historical drama series garnered good audience reviews, and the actress was yet again lauded for her brilliant performance. She made her return to the world of cinema as an attorney in The Circle, followed by films like Hanbando (2006) and With a Girl of Black Soil (2007), while also continuing television projects like the drama Moon Hee—an emotional story of motherhood and sacrifice. In the series, Kang played the titular character Ha Moon-he, who gives birth to a child at the age of 18 but is obliged to give up the child due to dire consequences. In 2011, the 55-year-old reunited with filmmaker Im Kwon-taek and starred in the film Hanji, aka Scooping Up the Moonlight, which was based on true incidents.

Hanji Poster: Photo courtesy of HanCinema

On May 5th, 2022, the actress was discovered unconscious at her home. According to reports, she suffered a cardiac arrest after fainting from a cerebral hemorrhage and became unresponsive in the hospital while receiving treatment in the intensive care unit. Two days later, she passed away. The sudden demise of the legendary actress comes as a great shock and is a huge loss for Korean cinema and television. Her work, accomplishments, and legacy, however, will live on, and she will continue to be recognized as a shining star both by the Korean film fraternity and the global audience.

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