In memory of Kang Soo-yeon – Programmer’s Note


For a good decade and a half, from the mid-1980s till the end of the 1990s, Kang Soo-yeon was one of the most significant actors in Korean television and film. After that period, she made the odd cameo (With a Girl of Black Soil 2007, Sunny 2011), even tried her hand at crime-horror (The Circle 2003) or performed in limited roles in films such as the bombastic Hanbando (2006) or Im Kwon-taek’s valedictory Hanji (2010). The focus of our LKFF retrospective is, however, on her earlier work: from one early example of Kang’s television career in High School Diary (1983) to Park Jong-won’s neglected Rainbow Trout (1999) where she lends her star quality to a talented ensemble.


The sudden and unexpected death of Kang Soo-yeon this past May shocked entertainment professionals, ordinary Koreans, especially those who had grown up watching her performances, and film critics around the world. After all, since winning the ‘la Coppa Volpi’ at the 1987 Venice film festival for ‘la miglior interpretazione femminile’ (the first winner had been Katherine Hepburn in 1934) Kang in a sense belonged to world cinema. And it is in a globalised limbo of streaming services that her final film role still has yet to materialise. Release of the sci-fi dystopian thriller Jung_E (정이), with Kang as a brain-cloning scientist, still awaits the whims of Netflix schedulers.


It really does appear to be true that Kang was scouted right off the street, spotted as potential talent by an upcoming TV station before she had begun elementary school. From children’s TV programmes it wasn’t a big shift to taking small film roles as well. By 1976 she carries off a fairly substantial part as a post-war orphan in the film Blood Relations; in 1979 she is the central character in A Letter from Heaven, the sentimental tale of a girl learning to live with grief. Mi-gyeong writes to her dead father in heaven, the kind local postman writes replies in his guise. It is probably the first of Kang’s performances that older Koreans remember to this day: the sparkling eyes, the smile, the killer dimples, the sheer skill of the acting – it seems all there from the start. She was, by the way, all of thirteen-years old.


A first adult role came with Whale Hunting II (1985). When Lee Mi-sook, female star of Bae Chang-ho’s original 1984 hit Whale Hunting, declined the part for family commitments, Kang Soo-yeon took it. Although this follow-up feature wasn’t the success of the earlier film, Kang’s pickpocketing amnesiac Young-hee was an irresistible mix of cheekiness and vulnerability. Women actors of Lee Mi-sook’s slightly older generation would get used to seeing Kang taking on parts that once might have seemed destined for them. The year she made her international breakthrough with The Surrogate Woman (1986), Kang embodied Soon-na, another example of wounded cheekiness, in We Are Now Going to Geneva (1987). From cheerful teenager Kang was being transformed, it seemed, into a staple of melodrama, that good-girl-gone-bad who is still retrievable through love of a good man, or her mother.


Kang Soo-yeon, however, chose to work with directors who saw her potential for a much wider range of expression. For example, the 1980s was Im Kwon-taek’s finest decade.


Twice he called on Kang to realise extremely challenging roles, first as Ong-nyeo in The Surrogate Woman then only a few years later she became his Soon-nyeo, the tormented nun of Come, Come, Come Upward (1989). In the next decade, generally a tough one for Korean filmmakers, she worked with two of the most original artistic filmmakers in Korean cinema: Jang Sun-woo and Lee Myung-se. Her role in The Road to the Race Track (1991) as the cryptically named J calls upon her to be at once deliciously dishonest and elusively sexual in this parodic portrait of  intellectual life at century’s end. It is hard not to read the film as a bittersweet critique of that 3-8-6 generation who, born in the 1960s and having struggled for political change during their youth in the 1980s, were settling into a conformist, disillusioned thirty-something existence in the 1990s. Postmodern blues, Seoul style.


Park Jong-won made some of the best films of the 1990s, though he is largely unknown outside his country. The 1999 Rainbow Trout gives us a chance to see Kang working with a team of both veteran and upcoming actors. Future star Sul Kyung-gu plays her husband. New Year 2000 saw the release of Lee Chang-dong’s contemporary classic Peppermint Candy, starring Sul Kyung-gu: Sol was poised on the crest of the wave of Korean film’s surge into the new century.


One television episode and five films cannot present anything like a full portrait of Kang Soo-yeon’s career. From well over forty films, we have picked features which should make clear the fact that in a relatively brief period of intense artistic activity, Kang achieved more, created more than most actors could hope to realise in a career of many decades.



         Mark Morris