But the screen persona has made the 22-year-old poster girl of South Korean cinema's commercial renaissance a star. Despite having made just five films, Jun has become famous throughout much of Asia, smiling on magazine and TV ads from Sapporo to Singapore. Her TV campaign for Olympus digital cameras helped hike the company's brand recognition by more than 15%, according to advertising company LG Ad. My Sassy Girl was seen by more than 5 million people in South Korea and sat on top of the box office for two weeks in Hong Kong, where local films and Hollywood exclusively rule. Now comes her new movie Windstruck, which reunites her with Sassy writer and director Kwak Jae Young, and which is set to open on June 3 simultaneously in South Korea, China and Hong Kong—a first for a South Korean film. "Jun is just a phenomenon," says Bill Kong, the Hong Kong film mogul who backed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, and who is co-producing Windstruck.
Jun became Asia's favorite South Korean actress by shattering stereotypes. "Korean women have been portrayed generally as submissive, but that's simply not true," she says. Her opening scene in Sassy buries that possibility: she wobbled drunk onto a subway train, vomited on a stranger's toupee and passed out in the arms of a scandalized young man (Cha Tae Hyun). Jun's bossy character quickly took control of her timid boyfriend's life. Through it all, Jun was in charge, and audiences loved it. Wild, free and utterly herself, Jun became a model for an assertive generation of young Asian women. "People have this notion that men have to be macho and women have to be pretty and act pretty," says Jang Hyuk, Jun's friend and co-star in Windstruck. "But if you look at Jun's character in the film [Sassy], she presents an honest, flawed character beautifully."
Great talent often leads to typecasting, however, and in the aftermath of Sassy, Jun was inundated with scripts that called for a vivacious, semiviolent heroine with a slight drinking problem. Instead, Jun signed on for The Uninvited, a classic South Korean horror film that dealt with infanticide, suicide, parricide and severe wedding anxiety. The depressing film had a lukewarm performance at the box office, but the role proved she had range.
When Jun decided she was ready to return to comedy, so was Kwak. He'd written the script for Windstruck, a tale of a romance between a goofy high-school teacher and a sassy female police officer, with Jun in mind. The script—and Jun's likely involvement—caught the attention of Kong, who was looking for a way into South Korea's ballooning film industry, which now captures more than 50% of the country's box office. Kong thought that a broad South Korean comedy like Windstruck, with an international star like Jun, had a chance to be a pan-Asian success. "Korea is not like Japan," separate from the rest of the region, he says. "Its culture is closer to China, closer to the rest of Asia."
Windstruck wants to be a more ambitious film than Sassy, so Kwak turns off the fun too soon and retreats to typically South Korean melodrama. Yet the movie manages to rise above its occasional sappiness, thanks mostly to the charm of its two young stars. Jun pulls off her signature trick: veering between violence and vulnerability and back again, without missing a beat. After lunch, she leaves for a photo shoot, for which the concept—apparently—is that she is "the world's favorite girlfriend." Not yet. But give her time.