Shin Seong-il, Legendary South Korean Actor, Dies at 81

'The Barefooted Young' film still - H 2018
Courtesy of Korea Film Archive

"Without understanding Shin Seong-il, it is hard to get a grasp of either Korean film history or Korean modern cultural history," said 'Oldboy' director Park Chan-wook.

Legendary South Korean actor Shin Seong-il died on Sunday at the age of 81 after battling lung cancer for a year and a half.

Shin starred in more than 500 works, including most recently 2013's Door to the Night, and has been hailed as "a living witness of Korean film history."

"His name is synonymous with Korean cinema," said film critic Kim Si-moo.

Oldboy director Park Chan-wook famously said of Shin: "If there is … Gregory Peck in America and Alain Delon in France, we have Shin Seong-il. For all the times and places, never was there a country [in] that both film industry and art are so dependent on one person. Without understanding Shin Seong-il, it is hard to get a grasp of either Korean film history or Korean modern cultural history."

Indeed, in 1967 alone, Shin appeared in 51 films that opened in local cinemas, and he starred in 324, or about 27 percent, of the 1,194 films that showed in Korea over eight years between 1964 and 1971.

Shin (née Kang Shin-young) was born in Daegu, South Korea, on May 8, 1937. Having spent a rather ordinary childhood, the actor shot to immediate stardom through his debut piece A Romantic Papa (1960). During the Golden Age of Korean cinema, which spanned from the 1960s to 1970s, he enjoyed immense popularity as the country's top leading man. The film Only for You (1962) played a crucial role in allowing Shin to rise to further stardom, while The Barefooted Young (1964) solidified his reputation as an "icon of youth."

He also starred in Shin Sang-ok's The Eunuch (1968), which was invited to the Berlin International Film Festival, and established himself as a more serious actor through acclaimed performances in films such as Im Kwon-taek's Kilsodeum (1986). Last year, the Busan International Film Festival, Asia's largest cinema event, presented a retrospective in Shin's honor.

In 1964, Shin married actress Um Aeng-ran, which until this day is recognized as a nationwide event. The two were virtually the local equivalent of "Brangelina" in their glory days. Shin and Um never divorced, but lived separately for a good part of their marriage; Um nevertheless is known to have stayed by his side in his battle against cancer.

Shin's death has saddened many in the Korean film industry, especially since he was known to have signed up for a role in Sohwakhaeong (working title). Slated to go into production next year, Lee Jang-ho is set to direct the pic. "I spent my childhood with [Shin] and we worked in the industry together after I became an adult," actor Ahn Sung-ki told reporters Sunday during Shin's funeral at Ansan Hospital in Seoul. "The script I hear is almost complete, and I was really looking forward to starring with him in the film."

Shin is survived by his wife, Um, and their son and two daughters.