In her 20s, she was the darling of the silver screen who enjoyed a meteoritic rise to stardom. Starring as the ever-laughing, ever-cheerful young woman in the 1974 film “A Girl Who Looks Like the Sun,” Moon Sook captivated the audience with her ray of sunlight. In real life, she and the film’s genius director Lee Man-hee, 23 years her senior, fell in love and secretly got married.
Their fairytale romance, however, came to an abrupt end when Lee died a year later from liver cirrhosis. After winning the Grand Bell new actress award for Lee’s last film, “Road to Sampo,” in 1975, Moon disappeared from public view.
Forty years later, Moon, now 61, has returned to Korea, her once thick, black hair now long and silver gray, her skin wrinkled and naturally tanned, and the lithe frame looking light but strong. To the surprise of many who remember her as a young star, Moon has returned as a “healing guru,” for lack of a better word, writing and speaking about healing food and leading yoga sessions.
Gone is her glamour, but she now exudes serenity and elegance even in her simple cotton top and long knit skirt over which she draped a large scarf. Her large eyes, full of curiosity, framed by thick, dark eyebrows have remained the same as has her soft, girlish voice.
“I exercised for about an hour. About 30 minutes of weight lifting and 30 minutes of yoga,” says Moon when we meet near a community center in Dogok-dong, southern Seoul, on Aug. 26. When she is not busy, she spends afternoons exercising at the community center gym. “It is virtually empty and I have it all to myself,” she says.
영화배우 문숙. 박해묵 기자email@example.comNatural healing instructor Moon Sook poses near Yangjaecheon Stream in southern Seoul on Aug. 26. (Park Hae-mook/ The Korea Herald)
Weight lifting is something she has added to her exercise regimen since coming to Korea. “You need to do strength training to sort of counteract the energy of the city,” she says, adding that yoga alone is not sufficient in a hectic metropolis like Seoul. “Yoga makes you too transparent,” she says.
When she returned to Korea last year to take care of her ailing father, who has since passed away, Moon had no idea that she would stay on. One thing led to another and she even found herself starring in “The Beauty Inside,” a fantasy romance film that opened in theaters last month. She played the protagonist’s mother, admittedly a minor role but one that she had fun with. It was a split-second decision to accept the role. “Why not? It was a great opportunity,” she says.
Asked whether she intends to stay in Korea permanently, she says, “After a certain point, I stopped making plans. I have to let go of everything before I die. Let’s live fully whatever comes to me. The thing is not to seek, but to appreciate.”
When she left Korea in 1977, Moon thought she was leaving the country for good. “I thought there was something more out there,” she recalls. The death of her partner in life and work, so unexpected and sudden, was a big shock and she felt the need to “find something more than just this,” she says.
“‘Who am I?’ That was the question I left the country with. Me now is the product of all that has happened. But the essence of life has not changed,” she says.
I note that it takes courage to reinvent oneself, as she has done, but Moon denies that she is brave. “I just accept life. It is frightening, but it is exciting. It is also part of my personality, and it is a matter of survival. I have to move on,” Moon says.
In fact, everywhere Moon has lived, people know her as a different person. In Florida, she was a college student studying art; in Santa Fe, she was a painter; in New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut, she was a student of natural cooking; in Maui, she preached natural food and healing.
“I am all of this,” she says, explaining how she lives as an artist although she doesn’t paint now. “I will always be an artist,” she declares, adding, “If you hang on to something, it leaves. But if you let go, the essence stays with you.”
Painting professionally left her physically ill. “You are surrounded by toxic chemicals when you are painting. I switched from oil painting, which involves breathing in turpentine fume, to acrylic painting, but my health did not improve,” she says. Adding to the problem was her profound unhappiness. “I tried too hard and got locked in by what I had accumulated. I was 36 or 37 and I still hadn’t found what I was looking for. Financially I was OK, but everything else could not have been worse,” she says.
Someone suggested that she take up yoga and she ended up training with a yoga instructor for three years, healing herself both physically and spiritually in the process. Through yoga, Moon also found the self-confidence to continue with her life.
It was also at this time that she began to cook at home. “At some point, cooking became a lot of fun. Did you know artists are good cooks?” she says with a laugh.
“Julian Schnabel is a great cook. It has to do with creativity,” she says. “Cooking, for me, is like practicing Zen. There is water, light, sound and all my senses are involved,” Moon says.
When Moon’s daughter started boarding school, she moved to Santa Barbara to be nearby. “You see, children were the most important part of my life,” she says. Again, it was her concern for her son who was studying in New York that she moved there soon after 9/11. In New York her passion for natural cooking found theoretical grounding at the Natural Gourmet Institute, a whole foods-focused culinary school.
Upon graduation, she studied macrobiotic food at the Kushi Institute in Massachusetts and joined the Kripalu ashram, a yoga and holistic health retreat, as an intern, scrubbing pots and pans all day just so that she could stay in the kitchen and learn whatever she could. “I had to throw away my pride to learn. This is the biggest gain from the experience ― throwing away my pride. I lived there as if I did not exist,” she says.
Realizing that she needed to learn about the yin and yang of food in order to create a natural food menu, she moved to Connecticut where she found a teacher in Oriental medicine. Of her many trainings and learnings, she says, “I am not goal oriented, but curiosity led me to the next thing.”
When she was done with her studies, she moved back to New York but soon found herself looking to move to a place that was very different. “New York is a very harsh place and physically very difficult.” The opposite of New York she found in Maui, where she took up painting for herself and taught natural cooking and yoga for the next 10 years before returning to Korea last year.
Looking back at all the twists and turns in her life, Moon says, “I never regret my life. Regret is the stupidest thing you can do. You make a decision and that is that. Your life path is already drawn. I am grateful for being here, for being there,” she says.
Moon credits yoga with her self-acceptance. “There is only the floor, me and the naked body,” she says. “I can only change myself to influence the world. I waited for many years for someone to come and rescue me, but I now know that if you change, the surrounding changes. We underestimate ourselves,” she says.
Korean women who dare not leave the house without wearing makeup find Moon’s graceful aging inspiring yet, at the same time, something of a shock. “You need to abandon thoughts about becoming younger,” she advises. “We learned somewhere that aging is not beautiful and we wage wars against aging, a battle we are bound to lose,” Moon says with a laugh.
Moon’s secret to looking beautiful? “Eyes that see beauty,” she says, encouraging women to look at how beautiful they are and to not pay attention to what others say.
“I am the only one who can encourage myself,” she says. “We are made of the most beautiful things in the universe. Don’t be harsh on yourself. Feel beautiful. We are like fireworks.”
By Kim hoo-ran