YUN JUNG-HEE appeared in the lounge of the Grand Hotel InterContinental here wearing a gray wool suit and a silk blouse the color of heliotrope, a grande dame trailing a half-century of South Korean film history as lightly as a wisp of perfume.
She was on the arm of her husband, the pianist Kun Woo Paik. They live in the Paris suburbs. “I’m his secretary,” Ms. Yun said, flirtatiously. “I fold his socks.”
Mr. Paik gazed at his wife with amusement. “Before I leave home on concert tours,” he said, “she makes sure I have black socks in my suitcase.”
He flinched at the memory of the socks that she once packed for a recital at Alice Tully Hall in New York. “They were black, all right,” he said, “but they belonged to our daughter, Jin-hi.”
Ms. Yun, 66, flashed the wry, wide smile that illuminated some 330 feature films from 1967 to 1994, the year she stepped out of the spotlight to fold and pack for Mr. Paik. Moviegoers will once again be able to glimpse that grin in “Poetry,” Lee Chang-dong’s intricate meditation on art and empathy, which opens Friday in New York.
She plays Mi-ja, a pensioner in a provincial town who signs up for a poetry class and struggles to find inspiration in everyday beauty. Her attempts at writing are complicated by the onset of dementia, the demands of mercy sex from the stroke victim she cares for, and the news that her sullen teenage grandson, whom she is raising herself, was involved in the gang rape of a classmate, leading to her suicide.
“To Mi-ja, writing poems is important because she’s discovering the meaning of the world,” Mr. Lee said. “The paradox of her life is that she’s leaving the world and forgetting the words.”
The paradox of Ms. Yun’s real life is that despite attempts to remain in the background she is celebrated all over the world. Her performance in “Poetry” has been wildly praised in South Korea, where she was named best actress at the 2010 Daejong Film Awards — that nation’s Academy Awards — for the third time.
Ms. Yun is “one of Korea’s most treasured, decorated and beloved actresses,” said Ted Kim, a Los Angeles-based executive at one of Korea’s biggest entertainment companies. “Like Michael Jordan she stepped away from the game in her absolute prime.”
Though Ms. Yun had been considered the front-runner for best actress at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the honor went to the local favorite Juliette Binoche for her role in Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy.”
“Great reviews are better than prizes,” Mr. Paik said, perhaps speaking from his own experiences. “It would be awful to get prizes and terrible reviews.”
Ms. Yun has been earning accolades since her film debut, in 1967, at 23. Born into modest affluence in Gwangju, she appeared in school musicals and idolized Audrey Hepburn but aspired to be a diplomat. She was majoring in history at a college in Seoul when, on a whim, she auditioned for “Cheongchun Geukjang,” (“Sorrowful Youth”), a film adaptation of a popular novel about Korean resistance fighters during the Japanese occupation.
She had read the book and strongly identified with one of the characters, an exchange student in Tokyo who falls in love. “I felt as if I could enter her personality directly,” recalled Ms. Yun, who won the part over 1,200 other hopefuls.
While the film was a sensation, she was something else again. (At that time in Korean cinema women were mostly limited to roles as housewives or femme fatales.) Screaming teenage girls mobbed her. Teenage boys scrawled fan letters in blood. “I couldn’t leave my house,” Ms. Yun said.
Not that she spent much time at home. During the ’60s and ’70s Ms. Yun worked on as many as 50 films a year, sometimes three in a single day.
“A melodrama in the morning, a historical drama in the afternoon, a comedy at night,” Mr. Paik said. At one point five of Ms. Yun’s films played in theaters simultaneously.
She essayed spies, teachers, taxi drivers, nightclub singers, shamans and kisaengs, the Korean equivalent of geishas. “Villains, not very much,” she said. “Once I was a servant who loved a man already married.” There was the slightest of pauses. “No, make that several times.”
Originally Ms. Yun planned to make movies in her homeland for five years, then move to the United States and attend film school. “I was grateful for the adoration I received in Korea, but I had no freedom,” she said of her popularity. “I wanted my real life to be a quiet life.”
Seven years later, in 1972, Ms. Yun did resettle, in Paris, where she enrolled in a film program and commuted to shoots in Asia. “I realized I should live in the land of the Lumière brothers,” she said.
That same year Ms. Yun and Mr. Paik, who was born in Seoul and was then living in New York, met at the National Theater Munich during a performance of “Sim Tjong,” an opera based on a folk tale about a girl who lives with her blind father.
“I saw a beautiful lady,” Mr. Paik said. “I didn’t know she was an actress.”
Ms. Yun said, “I didn’t know he was a pianist.”
She did know the opera’s plot, having just played the girl in a film version. The next night Mr. Paik accompanied her to a screening of the feature.
“I didn’t see much of the girl in the movie,” he said. “I was too enchanted by the beautiful lady in the audience.”
The couple married in 1974, and Ms. Yun scaled back her schedule considerably. After a Daejong Award-winning turn in the Korean War epic “Manmubang” (1994), she was offered — and declined — many projects.
As Mr. Lee, a novelist turned filmmaker who served as culture minister of South Korea from 2003 to 2004, wrote “Poetry,” he imagined the main character in Ms. Yun’s image. He introduced himself to her, and one night over dinner with Ms. Yun and her husband he sheepishly mentioned the screenplay. She was so flattered that she accepted the role without even knowing what the movie was about.
“I am like Mi-ja,” she said. “I daydream and lose myself in beauty. When I see a flower, I scream with joy.”
Sitting in the bright, airy lounge of the Grand Hotel, Mr. Paik listened to his wife with a look of infinite understanding.
“Years ago we went to Venice, and she practically floated through the city,” he said. “I felt like I was holding onto a balloon with a thin thread.”
Mr. Paik crossed his legs, revealing a black sock.
Franz Lidz at NYT