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 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.
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.
Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!