Photo: The Straits Times/ Turner TV

Family will always come first for South Korean actress Lee Young Ae.

The star has six-year-old twins – a boy and a girl – with her Korean-American businessman husband Jeong Ho Yeong. She tells The Straits Times that she will accept work only if it allows her enough time with her family.

“Even though I want to take on more roles, my kids need more care from their mother. And that will be the case in the near future as well,” says Lee, 45, in an e-mail interview.

“If I can play my roles as a mother and wife in my family while I take on work at the same time, then I will be glad to do it.”

That balance must have been created somehow on the set of her new TV drama series – Saimdang – her first acting project after 12 years out of the spotlight.

She was also drawn to the historical drama because she could relate to the titular role that she plays, as it involves a working mother from a bygone era.

Famed Joseon-era poet and artist Shin Saimdang, who lived in the early 16th century, was known for her landscape paintings and for raising seven children, including prominent Korean Confucian scholar Yulgok.

At a press conference for the series held in South Korea last November, the actress was quoted as saying: “I can relate to the historical figure, Shin, who went on the same journey as a mother and wife. She was a gifted painter.

“I feel that working mothers, whether in the past or present, face the same challenges. I chose to take on the role as I felt the drama would resonate with women around the world.”

Lee was last seen in Park Chan Wook’s thriller flick, Sympathy Of Lady Vengeance (2005), but most audiences will remember her best for playing the king’s first woman physician in epic period drama Jewel In The Palace (2003).

The lavish 54-episode series, which was reportedly exported to about 90 countries, solidified the regional popularity of Korean television, which had early hits such as the 2000 melodrama, Autumn In My Heart.

Jewel In The Palace, about perseverance and triumph in the face of injustice, has become such a classic that it continues to be rerun on various TV channels today.

Lee says: “I sometimes watch it with my kids because I think it contains good messages for young children. My kids know that I am in it and they love it.”

She will have no regrets if none of her future work eclipses the immensely successful Jewel In The Palace.

“As long as a drama has an interesting storyline, like in Saimdang, I will do it. Now that I have kids, I believe I tend to choose film and drama roles that can be watched by everyone from the young to the old.

“In the past, I didn’t think about those things. I used to think only about myself, but now, I have to think about my family as well.”

Still, there is something else about Saimdang that drew her to the project – the chance to work with South Korean heart-throb Song Seung Heon, 40.

In the series, Song plays Lee Gyum, an aristocrat and painter who was Saimdang’s childhood sweetheart.

Lee says: “As we all know, Song is an actor who is loved by women across Asia. The female staff members on the show adored him so much.

“I believe that the love story between Saimdang and Lee Gyum in this series will touch viewers.”

Saimdang premieres on Oh!K (StarHub TV Channel 816, Singtel TV Channel 525) on Jan 26 at 9pm.


The original version of this story was published in The Straits Times on Jan 4, 2017.

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