Actress Choi Eun-hee, left, a living film legend along with her late husband, director Shin Sang-ok. Choi, now aged 77, reveals her story in full through her autobiography ``Confessions '' / Courtesy of Random House Korea
By Lee Hyo-won
Choi Eun-hee. The movie star defined an era and shaped Korean film history with her husband, director Shin Sang-ok ― on both sides of the 38th parallel, when they were kidnapped by North Korea in the late 1970s.
Now, at 77, Choi finally broke her long silence to tell her side of the story, one that is sure to silence the countless gossip and rumors that took on a life of its own over the years.
In her autobiography ``Confessions,'' the film icon looks back on her life, sans regret.
Yet, Choi's story is more than an autobiographical account. It entails the history of Korean cinema and documents the tumultuous events that marked Korean modern history, from Japanese colonization to the military regime. It is also a woman's love letter to her late husband.
Born in 1930 in Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province, the shy, young Choi stumbled into the world of acting by accident and fell in love with it.
In 1943, she joined theater troupe Arang and made a name for herself. Although she went on to successfully debut onscreen, her personal life was far from glamorous. Her first husband was abusive and incompetent. When the Korean War (1950-53) broke out, she was seized by North Korean troops to perform in propaganda plays. She escaped only to do the same deed for the South Korean army.
``How ironic,'' she recalls of that time. ``But I accepted my fate, which was simply to act.'' Although being an actress spared her life, it also left an incurable scar when she was raped by a South Korean army officer.
When the war finally came to an end, false rumors about Choi being repeatedly violated by troops, and her husband ― crippled and plagued with morbid suspicions about her chastity ― awaited her. Yet, Choi persevered, pouring out her emotions in her work.
In 1953, Choi met Shin Sang-ok, a dashing young director who would become the love of her life. She became his muse and favorite leading lady, while Shin gave her newfound hope.
Overcoming accusations of adultery, they would marry and lead Korean cinema into its golden age, producing classics such as ``Mother and a Guest in the Room of Master'' (1961) and ``Bound by Chastity Rules'' (1962).
Choi also became Korea's third female director and head of a film academy. The only misfortune was that she couldn't bear children, so the couple adopted.
The 1970s, however, was a cruel decade. Shin's production company suffered financially and had to deal with strict censorship under Park Chung-hee's presidency. But the critical blow came when Shin had two children in an extramarital affaire.
Brokenhearted, Choi filed for divorce. Their relationship, however, would take a more dramatic turn. In 1978, Choi was kidnapped by North Korean agents in Hong Kong as part of Kim Jong-il's scheme to revamp Pyongyan's film industry.
Five years later, Choi would reunite with Shin, and give birth to a new era for North Korean cinema. They were winning awards in international film festivals, and in 1986, staged a successful escape by seeking asylum in the American embassy in Austria.
But the couple would not be able to come home for another decade because they were afraid of being accused of collaborating with the North. They finally returned home in 1999, but Choi would lose Shin to hepatitis in 2006.
Despite all the odds, Choi is not bitter. She writes that she understands Kim Jong-il's passion for cinema that fueled the abduction, although she does hold him responsible for Shin's failed health. She also expresses sympathy as a woman for Shin's lover who initially broke their marriage.
``People say I am an actress who lived a life like a movie… When I was in North Korea, I cried every night, thinking I wouldn't have suffered this had I not become an actress,'' she writes in the prologue.
``(My husband and I) were victims of the tragedies of a divided nation. But I do not regret becoming an actress. Through acting, I have rehearsed living the lives of others and learned that all of these different lives are beautiful and dear,'' she writes.
The road Choi has taken is truly larger than life.
But what is most impressive and compelling is Choi's steady and honest voice ― and astounding courage ― to tell it all, without a trace of shame or spite.