In Memoriam: Eun-Ju Lee
South Korea lost one of its brightest stars with the passing of 25-year-old Eun-Ju Lee. A closer look at her life, her legend and her demise...
Published: Thursday, March 10, 2005
The Korean entertainment industry was sent into shock with the news that the popular actress Eun-ju Lee had committed suicide on February 22nd. Only 25 years old, Lee was found in her Gyeonggi-do apartment by her brother, having hung herself and cut her wrists. As word spread, citizens in Korea flooded the internet with inquiries, temporarily shutting down the popular web portal Naver, and filling her fan pages with thousands of messages. Shaken as they were by Lee’s suicide, some even alleged conspiracy theories and wondered openly if she really would have taken her own life. Sadly, the details that have emerged since her death support that she did in fact kill herself. She left behind several suicide notes, ranging from a short note to her mother to a longer, more rambling note of three pages that has raised serious issues about the social milieu actresses in this conservative Confucian nation must navigate through.
Born in the southwestern province of Jolla-do, Lee first came to public attention as a model for school uniforms. She then followed the usual trajectory for young stars in Korea by breaking into television dramas such as Start and KAIST, then having her film debut in the award-winning Rainbow Trout. Lee later starred in popular and well-received films like A Bungee Jumping of Their Own, A Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Lover’s Concerto, and Taegukgi. Her performances were equally well-received, and she was one of the most popular and respected actresses working in Korea. However, many of her more recent films had been critical and box office disappointments, even as she reached new heights of popularity on the television drama Firebird.
Her final film role as the mistress of a detective in the movie The Scarlet Letter has frequently been cited as a contributing factor in the depression that enveloped her in the months prior to her suicide. Lee was by some reports very uncomfortable with the sexually explicit nature of her role in The Scarlet Letter. The South Korean movie industry is full of pitfalls for actresses for whom roles that use and exercise sexuality and sensuality -- both keys to fueling fame and ending it. The movies coming out of South Korea today are among the most cutting-edge and experimental in the world, and even those intended for mainstream audiences frequently have content or techniques that push the envelope. It is this very energy that has helped Korean films gain recognition on the world stage and win awards at venues like Cannes and Berlin. However, while actors are seldom censured for portraying violent or sexually explicit characters, many an actress has found her reputation damaged for playing characters whose morals don’t match the mainstream standard. Many actresses, such as Eun-kyeong Shin and Jin-shil Choi, stop taking roles temporarily -- or even permanently -- when they get married, partially out of the need to avoid “inappropriate” roles.
Lee was no stranger to provocative roles though. She had been involved in several roles that pushed the boundaries, including the virgin object of pursuit for two men in the Sang-su Hong (The Turning Gate, Woman is the Future of Man) feature A Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, as well as a woman who is reincarnated and reunited with a former boyfriend -- only this time, she returns as a teenage boy (A Bungee Jumping of Their Own). Despite this, Lee’s reputation was remarkably unstained, and many fans described her as “pure”. Some of this may have been because she balanced her more inflammatory work with parts as more conventional characters familiar to Korean melodramas -- like her role as a terminally ill woman in Lover’s Concerto. She also benefited from her undeniable talent and her acceptance as an actress, rather than one of the ubiquitous “talents”: the multitasking stars who work not only on TV and in film, but also release albums, dance, and appear in virtually every form of entertainment, only to flame out in a few years. While some of these entertainers are able to gain some small measure of respect -- such as Nara Jang, who flitted between comedy sitcoms, dramas, and singing -- most of them exhaust their fame in a few years. Criticism is especially harsh for female “talent” who take sexually explicit roles or appear in nude or semi-nude photo shoots, whether in an attempt to hold onto fleeting celebrity or out of real artistic concern.
Ultimately, Lee’s concerns about the role seem to have been unnecessary, and her reputation likely to have remained intact. She was accepted as a real and respected actress, on the A-list and in a position strong enough to take on a spectrum of different characters. In the end, she was victim to something just as scandalous as her final role -- the lack of quality mental health care in South Korea. Visiting a psychologist or psychiatrist is seen as very suspect, and Lee had become depressed and suffered insomnia in the past year. When she finally managed to visit a psychologist, she was properly diagnosed and scheduled another session. She never kept her follow-up appointment.
Rainbow Trout/. . . 1999
A Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors/. . . 2000
A Bungee Jumping of Their Own/. . . 2001
Lover’s Concerto/. . . 2002
Unborn but Forgotten/. . . 2002
The Garden of Heaven/. . . 2003
Taegukgi/. . . 2004
Au Revoir, UFO/. . . 2004
The Scarlet Letter/. . . 2004
Start, Kaist, Firebird