Actress Lee Young Ae goes from Jewel In The Palace to painter-poet

Being a mother herself has helped Lee Young Ae relate to her role as iconic poet Shin Saimdang

New South Korean drama Saimdang stars Song Seung Heon and Lee Young Ae (both above).
New South Korean drama Saimdang stars Song Seung Heon and Lee Young Ae (both above).PHOTO: GROUP 8
Lee in Jewel In The Palace (above left).
Lee in Jewel In The Palace (above left).PHOTO: STARHUB

Lee Young Ae was a bachelorette when she starred in Jewel In The Palace, the 2003 costume hit drama that helped turn the Korean Wave into a tsunami.

Since then, the South Korean actress has married, given birth to twins and become more than eligible for her first television role in 12 years, as Shin Saimdang, the 16th-century painter and poet who is perhaps the most famous mother in Korean history.

Shin graces the 50,000 won (S$60.90) bill and her son, celebrated Confucian scholar Yulgok, is the face of the 5,000 won note.

As a working mother, Lee, 44, says she identifies with Shin, who painted nature and raised seven children, including Yulgok.

"I can relate to the historical figure Shin, who went on the same journey as a mother and a wife. She was also a gifted painter," the actress says. "I feel that working mothers, whether in the past or present, will face the same challenges. I chose to take on this role as I felt the drama would resonate with women around the world."

She was speaking at a press conference with her co-star Song Seung Heon on Mondayat the Seamarq Hotel in Gangneung, in Gangwon province on the east coast of South Korea. Their upcoming drama Saimdang is being filmed in Gangwon, in locations including Ojukheon House, the historical site in Gangneung where Shin lived and gave birth to Yulgok.

There has been much attention on the drama as Lee has largely remained out of the spotlight since marrying Korean businessman Jeong Ho Yeong, 59, in 2009. Their twins are five.

Jewel In The Palace, which aired from 2003 to 2004 and has reportedly been exported to close to 90 countries, solidified the regional popularity of Korean television, which had early hits such as the 2000 melodrama Autumn In My Heart, starring Song.

Lee remains a household name, though she has not worked much after starring in the 2005 art-house movie Sympathy For Lady Vengeance. In September, she was given the Korean Wave Contribution Award at the Seoul International Drama Awards.

Asked if Saimdang will be the next smash hit, she answers: "I cannot guarantee it will be as successful as Jewel In The Palace, but viewers will enjoy the drama."

Saimdang will alternate between the present and the past. Lee takes on a dual role, playing Shin and a present-day art history lecturer. The show will premiere next year on the cable channel Oh!K (StarHub TV Channel 816).

In a separate group interview, Lee is forthcoming about her own dual roles, as a superstar and a mother who has to sneak family time into her packed schedule.

She says: "I have twins - a girl and a boy. My children always want their mummy. When I'm busy filming, their dad will take them to the set. For this event, I brought my family along so that we could enjoy some time together."

Out of the public eye, married life for Lee seems blissful. She says: "My husband is like a big tree that provides shade. He is trustworthy and makes me feel safe and secure."

Off set, the genteel actress relies on her husband. On set, though, she has a way of making Song - who plays Shin's childhood sweetheart, multi-talented artist Lee Gyeom - quake in his boots.

Although Song, 39, is a bone fide Korean Wave star himself, he is in awe of Lee and took on his role for a chance to work with the icon.

Song, who is acting with Lee for the first time, recalls: "There was a scene where I was angry at Saimdang. I was mad on the surface, but I could hear my heart thumping. I was nervous around her because it's a real honour for me to act opposite her."

Lee repays the compliment, saying: "Song looks so gorgeous in this period drama. I believe the women across Asia are not anticipating seeing me in the drama. They want to see him."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 02, 2015, with the headline 'Mother knows best'. Print Edition | Subscribe