Oscars 2021: Minari's Youn Yuh Jung Becomes First Oscar-Winning Korean Actress
Minari actress Youn Yuh Jung (or Yun Yeo Jeong) may have rather bluntly thanked the ‘snobbish British people’ after her best supporting actress Bafta win, but here’s why the South Korean legend has definitely earned the right to say or do whatever she wants.
1/5 Rising above failure
Youn got into acting ‘by accident’. When she was a teenager, she participated in a children’s game show passing out gifts to the audience, a small stint that paid her good money. This got her into gigging with similar jobs until a director suggested she audition for a drama.
At the time, Youn had failed her college entrance exam, an all-important test in the education-obsessed South Korean society, which deeply disappointed her mother (her father died when she was young). Out of necessity, she dropped out of college and pursued acting. Youn made her debut in K-drama Mister Gong in 1967 and by 1969, she won her first award: best new talent at the TBC Drama Awards.
2/5 Life as an actress
Youn needs no introduction in her home country because of her enviable resume with more than 40 credits to her name. The South Korean entertainment industry mainstay has done everything from film to TV across a score of genres over five decades.
These days, she’s better known for more PG-rated content but the older generation would remember Youn for her extremely risqué roles in a number of critically praised, experimental films by late director Kim Ki-young, including The Insect Woman (1972) and Woman of Fire (1971). Unconventional in both the way she looks, speaks, and acts, she broke the mould of the typical actress.
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Youn was also praised for making a stellar comeback after nearly a decade out of the spotlight, which was no easy feat for a middle-aged actress. Among some of her most notable works in the later stage of her career are The Housemaid (2010), The Taste of Money (2012), The Bacchus Lady (2016), and Canola (2016), and K-dramas Men of the Bath House (1995), Be Strong Geum Soon (2005), Daughters-in-Law (2007), My Husband Got a Family (2012), and Dear My Friends (2016).
3/5 Personal connection to immigration
As grandma Soonja in Minari, Youn warmed our hearts and made us laugh with her un-grand-matriarch-like antics towards the adorable David (Alan Kim), her onscreen grandson. Together, they stole the show with many tender yet comical moments in life as immigrants in rural Arkansas.
Despite playing a role in a semi-autobiographical film that's based on the childhood of Korean-American director Lee Isaac Chung, Youn herself has a personal connection to immigration. At the peak of her career, Young retired and immigrated to the US after marrying singer Jo Young Nam. There, with little command in the English language, she devoted herself to being a housewife and mother to two boys.
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After discovering Jo's infidelity, she returned to South Korea with her two children and resumed her acting career. Youn and Jo divorced in 1987. Her status as a divorcée in an era that was unkind to such women meant she had to work extra hard to regain her name in the industry.
4/5 Age is just a number
While she seemed to have very naturally and seamlessly brought her acting chops, endearing qualities, and invaluable immigrant experience to her Minari role, the reality was that it's all down to hard work, regardless of the level of expertise.
This means practising her script harder than anyone else due to her lack of acting or film studies, navigating communication barriers due to her lack of English proficiency, enduring the heat in the dead of the Oklahoma summer during filming, and shooting physically difficult scenes such as the fire scene, all as a Korean elder.
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However, age means nothing to this veteran. "I'm still alive and finally enjoying acting," The New York Times quoted Youn as saying.
5/5 Awards, glory, and humility
The Western audience is just beginning to warm up to Youn, who more or less steamrolled into global mainstream popularity. Her role in Minari alone has earned her more than 25 best supporting actress titles. She's now being pegged as a frontrunner to take home the highly coveted golden man for best supporting actress at the 93rd Academy Awards on April 25, 2021 (April 27 MYT).
As they say, the sky's the limit but as fast as she had gained momentum, the humble actress was also quick to say that the credit wasn't all hers. Youn has mentioned time and time again that the success of 2019's Parasite helped get more recognition for Korean performers. The Bong Joon Ho-directed movie was the first non-English movie to win best picture.
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Youn said that because of Parasite, the pressure for her to win the Oscar is really hard on her. "They have hope I can win. I keep telling him, 'It's all because of you!" she told The New York Times.