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[Newsmaker] Shin Sung-il dies of cancer at 81

Prolific actor, one-time legislator integral part of Korean cinema’s growth

Actor Shin Sung-il died of lung cancer Sunday. He was 81.

Shin was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer in June 2017 and was undergoing chemotherapy when his condition recently deteriorated.

Shin was born Kang Shin-yeong in Daegu in 1937. He attended Kyungbock High School, an elite school in Seoul, but gave up going to college due to his family’s financial circumstances. In 1957, he joined director Shin Sang-ok’s studio, where he adopted the stage name Shin Sung-il at the director’s suggestion.

Shin Sung-il attends the opening ceremony of the 23rd Busan International Film Festival on Oct. 4. (Yonhap)
Shin Sung-il attends the opening ceremony of the 23rd Busan International Film Festival on Oct. 4. (Yonhap)

Shin was a prolific actor who, in a career that spanned more than 38 years, starred in more than 520 movies since his debut with director Shin’s 1960 film “A Romantic Papa.”

Director Kim Ki-duk’s 1964 film “The Barefooted Young” brought him both fame and his wife of 54 years, actress Um Aeng-ran, who played Shin’s love interest. They married the same year in a lavish wedding attended by some 4,000 guests. Despite the rocky marriage -- Shin boasted about his extramarital affairs in an autobiography -- the two remained married, Um referring to her husband as a “comrade.”

Shin starred in more than 10 films a year in the 1960s and ’70s, an early heyday of Korean cinema when it was greatly expanding in size.

According to a book published by Busan International Film Festival and Korean Film Archive last year, Shin starred in 51 films in 1957 alone. In the same year, a total of 185 films were produced. Among the 1,194 Korean films made between 1964 and 1971, he starred in 324 works, it added.

“Old Boy” and “The Handmaiden” director Park Chan-wook also remarked on the actor in the same book, “There is no other country in both the East and the West where its film industry and art scene so heavily relied on a single person. Without understanding Shin Sung-il, it is impossible to understand the history of Korean film, as well as that of modern and contemporary culture here.”

Shin is also known for having worked with Korea’s acclaimed modern filmmakers, leaving behind a number of films both popular and critically well received.

In addition to Kim’s “The Barefooted Young,” Shin’s major works include, “Mist” (1967) by Kim Soo-yong and 1968’s “A Day Off” by Lee Man-hee.

Shin regarded “Late Autumn” (1966), also by Lee, as his best work. The original negatives do not exist, however. There have been several remakes over the decades, including Kim Soo-yong’s in 1981 and Kim Tae-yong’s in 2010, which starred Chinese actress Tang Wei and Hyun Bin.

Shin won numerous awards for best actor or best supporting actor for films such as 1977’s “Winter Woman.”

Shin directed 1971 film “Lovers’ Classroom” and founded a film production company in 1989.

In 1979, he became the chairman of the Korean Actors League and held the position for several consecutive terms.

Shin withdrew from the industry and pursued a political career in his later years. After losing twice in 1981 and 1996, Shin won a seat in the National Assembly in 2000, representing a district in Daegu.

His time as an elected politician was short lived, as Shin was sentenced to five years in prison for bribery in 2005. He served two years in jail before he was released upon receiving a presidential pardon.

Shin last appeared in public at the opening ceremony of the 23rd Busan International Film Festival in October, were he walked the red carpet in a pair of faded jeans and a jacket.

Fellow actors, film industry personnel and celebrities attended the wake Sunday at the Asan Medical Center in Seoul.

His cremation will take place at Seoul Memorial Park on Tuesday. His remains will be buried in Yeongcheon, North Gyeongsang Province.

By Shim Woo-hyun (