20141228_seoulbeats_kim ah joongAfter three years of absence, actress Kim Ah-joong (김아중) cautiously returned to the small screen this December in SBS’s Punch. The show is already one of the top dramas in December, rivaling Healer and Pride and Prejudice. Ah-joong plays Shin Ha-kyung, a prosecutor and single mother who divorced her power-hungry husband Park Jung-hwan (Kim Rae-won, Gangnam Blues).

The success of Punch must be a relief for the actress, since she has been trying to redeem herself as well. Kim Ah-joong debuted in 2004 in a television commercial. Her beauty quickly got her roles in dramas and movies including Emperor of the Sea (2004), When Romance Meets Destiny (2004), and Bizarre Punch (2005). But she is probably best known to international fans as the leading lady in 200 Pounds of Beauty (2006). She played Han-na, an overweight pop singer who undergoes drastic plastic surgery to achieve her personal and professional dreams.

Ah-joong committed herself completely to the role, even taking singing lessons from Lee Jae-hak, the bassist for Loveholic, and Yumi. Her surprisingly beautiful and powerful voice was showcased in songs such as “Beautiful Girl” and “Maria.”For that role, she won Best Actress at the Grand Bell Awards.

After such massive success, Ah-joong was set to achieve even more. She worked on television for the dramas The Accidental Couple (2009) and Sign (2011) but also squeezed in the movie Present (2009). In 2011, she also earned her master’s degree in journalism and mass communications from Korea University in hopes that the degree would improve her acting skills. She co-wrote a thesis entitled, “The Influence of Emotional and Human Desires on Emotional Strength and Satisfaction: A Study on the Audience of Thriller Movies.” The Economy Culture Institute later published her work in their scholarly journal in July 2012.

20140703_seoulbeats_200poundsbeautyUnfortunately, her luck ran out in late 2011 when The National Tax Service of Korea accused her of tax evasion. Her agency claimed that she did not intentionally evade her taxes and would pay what was owed. They denied, however, that the fine was as large as 600 million won (about $559,440), perhaps in an attempt to soften the blow. Her scandal was exacerbated by the fact that other celebrities were being accused of tax evasion at the same time. Comedian MC Kang Ho-dong was also fined hundreds of millions and volunteered to leave One Night, Two Days. News reports also came out that month that Insooni had been charged with tax evasion in 2008. This was particularly surprising because in a survey by the Korea Independent Commission Against Corruption, she had been named “the entertainer with the most integrity” in 2007.

The information caused outrage among the public. It seemed like all of their most beloved entertainers were trying to take advantage of their celebrity status (and during an economic recession no less). Dong-a Ilbo editorial writer Chung Sung-hee noted, “Stars…live on popularity and are public figures who can greatly influence youths. If celebrities who are paid more than 10 million won ($9,320) per show do not pay their share of taxes, fans will be frustrated.” Civic activists filed a complaint against the National Tax Service for leaking tax audit results and defaming the celebrities, but the damage was already done.

The furor forced Kang Ho-dong into temporary retirement. Ah-joong decided to focus on films and stayed away from television. After all, even Kang Ho-dong couldn’t save his once wildly popular talk show Knee Drop Guru. Kim Ah-joong tried to win back fans with the film My P.S. Partner (나의 P.S. 파트너, 2012). Despite the scandal, opening day was a success for the 19+ romantic comedy.

The success of My P.S. Partner gave Ah-joong’s company the confidence to release two films the following year. After getting pushed back for months, Amazing (神奇), a joint US and China project, had its theatrical release in China in September 2013. She played the love interest in this virtual-reality basketball adventure movie (I swear I didn’t make that up). Unfortunately, the film didn’t quite make her into the global star her company had hoped.

Her next movie, Catch Me (aka Steal My Heart/Only You), fared much better at the box office. Critics were surprised that Catch Me became the biggest hit movie of the season, beating the highly anticipated Way Back Home, The Suspect, and The Attorney. Audiences couldn’t get enough of Kim Ah-joong’s portrayal of a beautiful master thief and her cat and mouse games with the handsome policeman pursuing her (who of course happens to be her first love). The film’s success showed that Kim Ah-joong could still reel in viewers even in the midst of intense competition.

Her well-received return to the small screen this year in Punch is an important moment for the actress. It proves that the public has largely forgiven, or forgotten, the tax evasion scandal. With the public on her side, Kim Ah-joong will be able to achieve her dream of breathing life into a variety of characters.

(Chosun Ilbo [1][2][3][4], MWave [1][2][3], Yahoo News, Dong-a Ilbo, The Korea Herald [1][2], Joong-ang Daily [1][2][3][4], Daum, Film Business Asia, MBN Star, YouTube, images via SBS, Harper’s Bazaar, KM Culture Studios)