It was probably 1998, on the legendary SBS sitcom 순풍산부인과 (Soonpong Clinic), that I first saw her.
She wasn't one of those actresses whose obnoxious beauty jumps straight at you, but her charms were much subtler, as if she knew she didn't have to flaunt anything to get by. And, strangely, her acting had the same exact aftertaste. Until Kim Jee-woon cast her in 2000's 반칙왕 (The Foul King), she went through the usual steps most actresses her age had to endure: a debut with a supporting role on low-key TV dramas, and then a move to Chungmuro, where she headlined the CG-heavy fantasy-melodrama 자귀모 (Ghost in Love). Film was pretty bad, but she managed to shine anyhow. And it's not like The Foul King would be anything that could display her acting chops, as she was one of the few straight-faced characters in what was a wonderful cinematic zoo full of ad-lib magic. Her career changed by meeting Yoon Jong-Chan, but perhaps she was the one who felt the need for a change. It's funny, because looking back at 2001's phenomenal psychological thriller 소름 (Sorum), Yoon cast two nearly unknown actors (Kim Myung-Min and Jo An) next to someone who had never even breathed in the direction of something so complex. The result was what is still one of the best examples of the genre, and the realization that Jang had major talent. It had just been hidden by clouds of fluff.
Yoon is important because he essentially gave us, or allowed Jang to give us the two highest peaks of her career. After Sorum, she was cast in a couple of average melodramas and the lovely romcom 싱글즈 (Singles), but it was with the wonderful 청연 (Blue Swallow) that she touched the sky. Her acting there wasn't just great, it had those intangibles which, mixed with the endless raw power of Yoon's fantastic period drama, made for one of the very best Korean films of the last 10 years, albeit the controversy surrounding it created more smoke than the film ever needed. Actor and writer Kim Hae-Gon's flawed but intriguing debut 연애, 그 참을 수 없는 가벼움 (Between Love and Hate) was another proof that her acting was taking off, catapulting her into the A-list, but it's sort of sad that her last project, that maligned mess known as 로비스트 (Lobbyist), never took advantage of her skills. Sad that she never really got the chance to prove how much upside she still had, if not for those moments of magic up in the colonial sky of Yoon Jong-Chan's great little jewel.
I can't say I'm very surprised to hear this. It became a possibility, when we first reported last September of her gastric cancer, but you never want to think about it, particularly when the victims are so young, and still with so much to give. Jang had been living in the US with her boyfriend the last few months, and it seemed like things would at least go back to normality, at least when it came to her life away from the cameras. But, upon her return to Korea last August 5, she was hospitalized once again, for an uphill battle which ended this morning, at only 35. Hard to say anything in cases like this, other than cliches like "Korea has lost one of its brightest stars." She never fully realized all the immense potential she had, and in retrospect, her choice of projects wasn't always the best. But when Jang Jin-Young was game, few actresses in Korea could ever contend with her.
So I'd just like to remember her for those little, great moments she gave us. And, wherever she is now, to say goodbye. And thank you.