Long before her 'Minari' Oscar, Yuh-Jung Youn won South Korea's heart

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Long before her 'Minari' Oscar, Yuh-Jung Youn won South Korea's heart
Yuh-jung Youn, who plays the grandmother in motion picture "Minari," sits for a portrait in Seoul, South Korea, on March 31, 2021. She won the Academy Award for best supporting actress in the film. Peter Ash Lee/The New York Times.

by Choe Sang-Hun

SEOUL (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- “Minari,” the critically acclaimed movie about a hard-luck family of Korean immigrants in the United States, was not exactly a commercial blockbuster in South Korea: Fewer than a million people watched it in 54 days of screening across the country.

But when one of its stars, Yuh-Jung Youn, won the Academy Award for best supporting actress, South Koreans rejoiced not only because it was a first for a Korean actor, but also because of the recipient.

On Monday morning, the South Korean media sent out news flashes when Youn won her Oscar. Cable channels announced plans to screen her previous films. Social media was abuzz with fans congratulating her.

“Her performance brilliantly helped us relive the memories of our own mothers and grandmothers,” President Moon Jae-in said in a statement, referring to Youn’s character in the film.

Youn, 73, was the first Asian woman to win the best supporting actress Oscar since 1957. But it’s her life story — as well as those of her characters — that made her award resonate so deeply in South Korea, particularly among women who have long struggled under the country’s male-dominant hierarchical order.

Minari is a parsley-like vegetable ubiquitous in Korea. It grows anywhere with a smidgen of moisture, including swamps and abandoned rice paddies.

If there is anyone like minari in the South Korean movie industry, it’s Youn.

Long before Youn's Oscar, her image as a fiercely independent woman with an often-irreverent wit had endeared her to South Koreans. In her 55 years as an actress, she often took on any work that she could get, including Korean soap operas, indie movies and reality shows. Her success defied the predictions of male producers who considered her plain-looking and found her raspy voice grating and unappealing.

“The producers said they would eat their hat if I would make it as an actress,” she once told a South Korean cable channel. “Unfortunately, they are all dead now.”

For most of her career, Youn didn’t have a choice but to take the work as it came. She had early success in films such as 1971’s “Woman of Fire,” but left acting to marry Jo Young-nam, one of South Korea’s best-known singers. In the 1970s, she followed him to the United States, where Jo tried on a career as a gospel singer. The marriage ended in divorce in the 1980s.

Youn returned to Seoul to pick up acting again at age 38. South Korean society at the time still held deep prejudices against women who were divorced, forcing her to scrape by. With two sons to raise, she said she “never had the luxury of actresses who have wealthy husbands and can pick and choose movie roles.”

“I did my work for survival and to put food on the table,” she told a South Korean TV station in 2009. “An actress can do her best work when she is most starved for cash. When you are hungry, you put your desperate best into your work.”

Her versatility landed her roles as a femme fatale, a loving grandmother and even an over-the-hill prostitute. When producers were casting for “A Good Lawyer’s Wife” (2003), many female actresses declined the role of a woman who has sex with another man while her husband is terminally ill. Youn took the role, saying she could use the money to redo her living room.

She once performed the role of a spiteful queen in a Korean soap opera so well that people often cursed when they saw her on the street.

“People like her because they know her life story,” said Huh Eun, a retired college media professor in Seoul. “When they think of her, they don’t think of the glorious spotlight usually associated with film stars, but of a woman who has struggled to make a living all these years like the rest of us.”

Youn’s global breakthrough came when she was offered a role in “Minari.”

As the news of her award hit Monday morning, fellow actresses and female fans in South Korea flooded social media with their favorite dry humor from Youn.

“I am 67 this year and this is my first time being 67,” actress Kim Hye-soo quoted Youn as saying. “This is our first time living this life, so we can’t help but feel regretful and hurt.”

Youn’s Oscar acceptance speech went viral for a characteristic tongue-in-cheek attitude. The award was presented by Brad Pitt, whose production company financed the film. “Mr. Brad Pitt, finally, nice to meet you!” she said to the American superstar. “Where were you when we were filming in Tulsa?”

“Minari” depicts a Korean family struggling to build a life as farmers in rural Arkansas in the 1980s, when many poor Koreans headed for the United States for a better life. It is the second film about Koreans to make history at the Academy Awards, after “Parasite,” directed by Bong Joon Ho, won four Oscars last year.

“Parasite” grossed more than 10 million viewers within two months of its release. Part of the reason “Minari” failed to achieve the same commercial success in South Korea is because the immigrant experience of the 1980s that it portrays is quickly fading.

These days, far fewer Koreans emigrate to the United States, and those who do are usually the children of rich families who go there to study. That may change, too, as Koreans watch hate crimes involving Asian American victims soar in the United States.

But Youn struck a chord with South Koreans in her "Minari" role as Soonja, the foul-mouthed but loving grandmother who moves from South Korea to the United States to take care of her grandchildren. Her grandson doesn’t consider Soonja a “real grandma” and complains that she “smells like Korea.” They slowly build a bond by playing cards together and sharing Mountain Dew, which Soonja seems to think is a health drink because it is made from “dew from the mountains.”

After “Minari” began accumulating awards at film festivals in recent weeks, fans started calling Youn “the Meryl Streep of Korea.” Youn has done what no other Korean actor or actress has done: While “Parasite” won for best picture and best director, none of its actors were nominated for Oscars.

On Sunday night during the awards ceremony in Los Angeles, Youn said her true inspiration was her two children. “I’d like to thank my two boys who made me go out and work,” she said while holding her statuette.

“This is the result because mommy worked so hard.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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