The Korea Herald


Actor Kim Hye-ja's memoir explores 60-year career

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : Jan. 28, 2023 - 16:01

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Kim Hye-ja (Hong Jang-hyun/Suo Books) Kim Hye-ja (Hong Jang-hyun/Suo Books)

Best known for playing the archetypal Korean mother, Kim Hye-ja, 81, has established herself as an iconic actor in the Korean entertainment industry.

Over some 60 years, the beloved actress has starred in more than 100 drama series and films, including the recent series “Our Blues” (2022), “The Light in Your Eyes” (2019) and “Dear My Friends” (2016).

Kim’s recent memoir, “Thank You For Life” (Suo Books), released Dec. 22, is a "confession" about her career and life -- her anguish about acting, the hopes and passion she found in it.

She says what has sustained all these years is gratitude.

“I am grateful for being able to forget myself and immerse myself in the next role; having the capacity to memorize a script; and having a piece of work that I can act in,” she writes.

"Thank You For Life" by Kim Hye-ja (Suo Books)

Kim begins with her childhood. She describes her father, who encouraged her to act while everyone else was opposed to it. She also recounts her high school years, when there were three other students with the same name as her, along with other stories of her youth when she was engrossed in watching films almost every day.

Kim also writes about her acting career since her 1961 debut. She says acting is not a job, but her life.

She confesses that she completely immerses herself in a character because she has to be wholly “that person” when she takes on a role. However, she is seized with a feeling of emptiness and sadness afterward.

Kim criticizes herself for being a perfectionist only when it comes acting, deeming herself a failure as a mother or a wife. She felt like an empty cicada shell when she wasn't acting because she had exhausted all her energy working.

Kim Hye-ja plays a widow who is overly protective of her son in Bong Joon-ho's 2009 film Kim Hye-ja plays a widow who is overly protective of her son in Bong Joon-ho's 2009 film "Mother." (CJ Entertainment)
Kim Hye-ja plays a widow who is overly protective of her son in Bong Joon-ho's 2009 film Kim Hye-ja plays a widow who is overly protective of her son in Bong Joon-ho's 2009 film "Mother." (CJ Entertainment)

Ironically, she felt trapped in the role of a mother, which she played for 22 years. It's a role which brought her fame and also came to define her image as an unconditionally loving and self-sacrificing mother. She starred in MBC’s weekly drama series “Country Diaries” from 1980 to 2002 -- the longest-running TV drama in Korea with a total of 1,088 episodes -- as a countryside wife, mother and the eldest daughter-in-law of a widow.

It was when she was getting tired of playing generic mother roles that director Bong Joon-ho cast her in his noir thriller film “Mother” (2009). In the internationally acclaimed film, Kim plays a widow who is extremely protective of her intellectually disabled son and attempts to free him from a murder charge.

She says Bong’s film and the gripping character awakened her “dying cells.”

“As an actor, it is exhausting to play the same characters over and over, but director Bong talked about things I hadn’t thought of. … The thoughts and images that were static, and the mannerisms that resided inside me got a wake-up call,” she said.

“I thought I had lost my passion for work, but after traveling around the countryside for the filming, it was amazing to see my chronic headaches disappear. A new passion and ecstasy emerged. I am grateful to Bong for rekindling the passion that was fading away.”

She also shares stories of her colleagues, such as screenwriter Noh Hee-kyung, with whom Kim worked with on "Our Blues" and "Dear My Friends.

Wrapping up her memoir, she writes that she wants to live "decently" until the end, like the promise to herself that she wrote in her calendar.

The book is Kim’s essay in 18 years. Her previous bestselling essay collection “Don’t Hit Even With Flowers” (2004), is about the scenes of war, poverty and starvation Kim witnessed while participating in humanitarian relief activities in Africa.

“Thank You For Life” jumped up from 86th to 2nd place in the overall bestseller list for this week after she appeared on tvN’s popular talk show “You Quiz on the Block” on Jan. 11 according to Kyobo Book Center, the biggest bookstore chain in Korea.

According to Yes24, the country’s largest online book retailer, the memoir topped the best seller list with sales recording 19 times the figure for the previous week.