Sohn Sook's Lifetime Role Is the Role of a Lifetime

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Sohn Sook's Lifetime Role Is the Role of a Lifetime

For Sohn Sook, the play "Mother" is like a precious child for whom she literally traded a ministership. Eighteen months ago, while still Environment Minister, the actress toured Russia with the play, which details the turbulent life of a woman during the Japanese occupation.

After the tour, Korean corporate heads presented her with $20,000. The media called it a "bribe." Sohn claimed it was an "encouragement fee," which she shared with other performers. But it was too late. The damage was done. After 30 days as minister, Sohn resigned.

Public reaction was mixed. Some criticized her for not giving up her acting career when she became a minister. Others drew a theatrical analogy, saying the situation was a real-life drama and that the curtain had come down for the minister. But most people expressed regret about what had happened to Sohn, who has allowed environmental groups to use her name to promote their activities.

Shortly after she resigned, she was starring in a one-woman drama called "That Woman." Before the play began, she gave a moving speech about the violence of Korean media and the country's deeply rooted patriarchy.

Starting next week, Sohn will again star in the controversial play, which has been given a new name, "Sohn Sook's Mother." The play will run at the Seoul Arts Center near Kangnam until the end of the year.

During an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition at a restaurant near the Seoul Arts Center, Sohn was as fastidious as ever. She refused to eat her stir-fried seafood on rice until the kimchi arrived. She waited patiently for 10 minutes.

"I can't function like a normal person if I don't eat proper meals," she explained.

Sohn is thin, which is one reason people were puzzled when the "Mother" playwright and director, Lee Yun-taek chose her for the lead. People thought Sohn would not fit the bill as a typical overweight and serene Korean mother.

But Sohn says: "People should throw away their stereotypes. There are different kinds of mothers in the world. There are thin mothers and mothers who are not so thin. My mother was very much like me. She was thin, small and very sensitive. I know that Lee's mother was very similar to mine."

"Mother" is based on the true story of Lee's mother, who at 18 meets her first love, Yang San-bok. But to help her father, she allows herself to be traded to another man, Dole-e, for three acres of rice paddies. The marriage is bad, and made worse when her mother-in-law, a former geisha, mistreats her. During the war, the suffering wife loses her precious son, who she later confesses was Yang's child.

It is not the first time Sohn has played a woman who suffers because of her gender. She performed in "Agnes of God," "Woman in Crisis" and "Three Sisters." She also hosted a radio show "The Age of Women" for 10 years, which gained popularity in an audience ranging from housewives to taxi drivers.

Nevertheless, she refuses to be labeled a feminist.

"I played those roles simply because that's all I knew," she says. "A performer is just a performer. There isn't a 'female performer' or a 'feminist performer.' Being an actor in Korea is tough for both sexes." She says many stage performers in Korea still hardly make enough to feed themselves.

Sohn is rehearsing from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, a pattern she has followed for 35 years when preparing for a role.

"It's fun," she says. "I like working with a team, which is probably because I have been in so many one-woman shows." Sohn has also signed a contract to star in "Mother" for 20 years, which basically means she will star in the play until she retires or dies.

At 57, she realizes that the beauty of theatre is simply being on stage with other performers. She is not bitter about misfortunes in her life. She says it was during these times that she felt most "blessed" to be an actress.

Most surprisingly, she agreed to an interview with the affiliate media that treated her so cynically when she was a minister.

by Park Soo-mee

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