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Yoon Jung-hee, beloved actress and icon of Korean cinema

The nationwide reaction to the recent news that Yoon Jung-hee has Alzheimer’s disease was a testament to her place in South Korean cinema today.

Yoon, perhaps not the best-known actress to the younger crowds as she appeared in only one film after 1994, commanded the spotlight in the 1960s and 1970s as one of a “troika” of actresses considered the best and most influential of their time. The other two were Moon Hee and Nam Jeong-im.

Born in 1944 as Son Mi-ja, she debuted in 1967 with “Cheongchun Geukjang (Youth Theater),” directed by Gang Dae-jin, after an audition where the competition was 1,200 to 1. After beating her rivals, she rose to stardom in one of the biggest hits of that year. 

Yoon Jung-hee (The Korea Herald)
Yoon Jung-hee (The Korea Herald)

While touted as one of the most beautiful people on the silver screen, her acting skills and on-screen presence are what captured the audience. Yoon went on to become one of the best and most prolific actresses of her day, appearing in period pieces like “The Three-Day Reign” and melodramas like “Affair on the Beach,” drawing widespread praise for her range.

Her 1972 work “Oyster Village,” directed by Jung Jin-woo, was named best film at the Blue Dragon Film Awards -- where she also won the award for best actress -- and nominated for a Golden Bear at the 22nd Berlin International Film Festival.

Her career went strong into the 1980s, with the 1981 film “Liberal Wife ’81” becoming the biggest hit of the year.

After 1994, Yoon disappeared from the public view after making 330 films and earning 24 best actress awards at domestic award ceremonies.

In 2010, she came out of retirement to pair with renowned Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong, starring in the drama “Poetry” at the age of 64.

Her return to the silver screen was a success, as the flick won her a number of accolades in and out of the country, including best actress awards from the Blue Dragon Film Awards and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. The film itself won the best screenplay award at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, along with best picture awards at a number of local award ceremonies.

Yoon is also famously known as the other half of Paris-based pianist Paik Kun-woo. The two tied the knot in 1976, two years after they first met in Paris, where the couple and their violinist daughter reside today. It was Paik who, in a recent interview, released the news that the beloved actress has been living with Alzheimer’s for the past 10 years.

It was around the time when Yoon was shooting “Poetry” that the disease struck, ironically while she was playing a character with Alzheimer’s. Paik said Yoon had to read many of her lines from a paper and that the illness made it impossible for her to do another film. 

By Yoon Min-sik