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Youn Yuh-Jung is our favorite grandma, and we love to see her win a SAG Award

Youn Yuh-Jung accepted her SAG (Screen Actors Guild) award for outstanding performance by a female actor in a supporting role with tears in her eyes and careful care of her articulation in English. There was a moment in which she consulted someone off-screen to check her pronunciation of “supporting actress”, taking due diligence with her words even in a moment of fervor. Fans on Twitter call her their queen and relate with her fellow nominee fangirls. It’s heart-warming to see positive Asian representation in mainstream media – something that’s sorely lacking.

Her role in Minari has welcomed her to the Western sphere of cinema. She stars as the doting yet vulgar grandmother Soon-ja who moves to the US to help raise the children of her immigrant son. To much of her grandson’s chagrin, Soon-ja brings a carefree spirit to a house that is injured by poverty and marital discourse.

For much of the movie, she holds as the emotional tether for the children of the household, something that is lost on the struggling family. She reminded me much of my own grandmother who provided me a safe bubble from the afflictions of my own parents and I’m sure that this empathy is universal for many that were born here too. Throughout Minari, Youn’s performance felt and stayed raw and heartfelt, as she channeled her own immigrant experience to America during the ’70s. 

But who is this veteran Korean actress that has managed to capture every international heart? 

Youn Yuh-Jung in a floral sweater. Her hands are wrapped around her as she looks up to the sky, eyes closed. She looks deep in thought.
Image Description: Youn Yuh-Jung in a floral sweater. Her hands are wrapped around her as she looks up to the sky, eyes closed. She looks deep in thought. Credit: Philip Montgomery for New York Magazine.

Youn Yuh-Jung didn’t think of acting until the start of her term at Hanyang University in Seoul. She was dejected after receiving her low college-entrance exam scores barring her from any elite colleges so when a TV director suggested she try out for an open talent audition, she went ahead with it. 

She debuted on the screen with the drama series Mister Gong in 1967. Though she received a TBC Drama Award for Best New Talent, it was not until 1971 that she gained critical acclaim. Her role as a paramour femme fatale in the film Woman of Fire awarded her three  Best Actress awards from the Stiges Film Festival, Grand Bell Awards, and Blue Dragon Film Awards, the latter the Korean equivalent to the Oscars. Awards aren’t enough to quantify the impact of her role, however. 

To this day, sexism is deeply ingrained in almost all pillars of respect due to historically Confucianist ideals. Within Confucianism, there are the Five Relationships that symbolize the basic links that must exist for harmony: ruler and ruled – be it father and son, husband and wife, elder brother and younger brother, and friend and friend. The kinship between the husband and wife particularly contains increments of patriarchal values when considering the adjacent values of filial piety. A woman was expected to show only love and respect to her husband with their subservience. 

 Yuh-Jung’s role as a young woman grappling with the moral complexities of marriage, poverty, and lust, was unbeknownst to the big screen; women were simply never characterized so humanly, at least in popular films and TV shows. 

From then on, Yuh-Jung shot to popularity but at its zenith, she married and disappeared to the US, following her husband where he attended college. During her time, she gave birth to two sons but moved back to South Korea with them after divorcing her husband. 

Youn Yuh-Jung (left) received critical acclaim as a paramour femme fatale in "Woman of Fire."
Image Description: Youn Yuh-Jung (left) received critical acclaim as a paramour femme fatale in “Woman of Fire.” Credit: HanCinema. 

Yuh-Jung was a 40-year old divorcee returning to a country that rarely turned on its screens to middle-aged actors starring in anything but a parent role. She had no chance but to labor at any opportunity that came her way; to act was to work and support her family. To date, Yuh-Jung has starred in more than 30 films and 70 series. 

Eventually, Yuh-Jung was able to relinquish the chains of financial responsibility for her two boys. This finally allowed her the possibility of choice, the ability to choose what kind of roles she’d take on. At an age where women retire, Yuh-Jung looked frequently to amateur directors who, like Woman of Fire, weren’t scared to play around with the boundaries of the status quo. In The Bacchus Lady, for example, Yuh-Jung plays an aging prostitute who grapples with her role in a modernizing world. 

Yuh-Jung is, however, not simply just an actor but an adored public figure. Korea’s bustling entertainment TV business gives way for many actors to reveal their true personalities and personas. Youn’s Kitchen stars Yuh-Jung leading an ensemble of other actors in functioning a cafe in a foreign country. The show has not only gained general popularity with another show called Youn’s Stay in production but has cultivated a public image for Yuh-Jung. One in which many are able to watch her calm and pensive attitude infused with a dry wit that only age could give you. 

Now, she is an Oscar-nominated actress and holds a SAG award. There doesn’t seem to be any more that this actress can do yet for Youn Yuh-Jung, there’s no telling what’s next. Western cinema needs more Asian representation, and I am so excited to see Youn Yuh-Jung get the praise that she deserves. 

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Race The World Inequality

2017 Oscar nominations are historic for many, but not for all

Before this year’s Oscar nominations came out, it felt like we were collectively holding our breath. Would the nominees be as white-washed as the past two years? Would we see another year of #OscarsSoWhite?

Thankfully, this year diversity seems to have been recognized in the nominations. Movies starring, written by, and directed by people of color were phenomenal and have rightfully been recognized by the Academy. Here are just ten of the nominees that broke records for the number of nonwhite nominations.

These nominations are truly historic. Black actors were nominated in every acting category for the first time in history. Writing, directing, documentary, film-editing, Best Picture, and cinematography also have Black artists nominated, some for the first time in history!

These nominations are for an assortment of genres, spanning more topics than typical for Academy Award nominees of color: narratives of slavery and oppression. 2017 nominations saw an expansion from cliche roles and a recognition of actors from diverse casts, playing complex roles and characters. Those nominated for behind the scenes work are some of the first to be recognized in fields generally dominated by white artists.

At the SAG Awards last night, many received awards for best in their field, some for the first time. Denzel Washington, for example, finally took home a SAG Award for Best Actor for his role in Fences after years of nominations. Hidden Figures took home Best Picture and Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. The speeches had political edges to them and the audience felt electrified all night by the long overdue recognition of talent from a much more diverse pool.

But in all this excitement, it has become more obvious that while this is indeed a large step (and probably several steps) in the right direction, many still do not see their races represented or recognized by the Academy or Screen Actors Guild.

There weren’t many, or any for some, nominations for Latin American, Native American, Asian American, or Asian artists.

Outside of the acting categories, not many women were nominated. For example, there are no female directors nominated this year — or, for that fact, since 2008 when Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman to bring home the Oscar for Best Director.

Thankfully, this is not the end of the story. Promising words came from the Academy President, Cheryl Boone Isaacs. “This year, the goodness really has jumped out. What we have said all the time is this is about recognizing talent, in whatever form it comes—race, color, gender. This conversation will continue. The conversation becomes action. Action becomes fact.” Her vision for a more inclusive awards show is finally on the right track, but it seems to have far to go.

Representation in the movie industry is about more than just nominations. Opportunity and resources are not as readily available to directors, producers, screenwriters, and actors of color. This year, the pool of nominees reflected the rich contributions of African-American artists. There is still work to be done, but hopefully the widespread excitement over this year’s nominations will encourage the industry to provide more opportunities for artists of color.

For now, I am anxiously awaiting those acceptance speeches. You know they’re going to be powerful, pointed, and some literally for the history books.