Trophy Talk

The Essentials: Youn Yuh-jung Breaks Down Her Freshest and Defining Roles

The Oscar nominee talks through a career that started by accident, proceeded unplanned, but which is so rich with memorable work and highlights she's been dubbed the Meryl Streep of Korea.

by | March 29, 2021 | Comments

Minari
(Photo by Courtesy of A24)

Rotten Tomatoes’ “Essentials” series will provide an in-depth look at one nominee or potential nominee from each of the major awards categories – the four acting categories, and directing – diving into their highest-rated work from both fans and critics, essential titles from their filmography, and featuring thoughts on their nominated film drawn from an extended interview. 


THE ACTOR: YOUN YUH-JUNG

“Unbothered” might be the best word to describe Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung‘s attitude towards her first major American awards campaign. When we chatted with the veteran star, who is Oscar-nominated for her turn as an unconventional and hilarious grandmother in writer/director Lee Issac Chung’s Minari, she seemed pleased but mostly unaffected by the Hollywood hype around the film her recent accolades, which total more than 50 awards for her supporting performance. “To tell you the truth, it’s not that [different],” she said during an extended Zoom chat, periodically pulling on an electric vape pen that would put Leonardo DiCaprio’s to shame. “I approached it simply, I am myself a grandmother. It’s nothing special.”

She certainly never saw the awards-season hoopla coming when she signed on to the film. “One of my dearest friends brought me the script – it was so very touching and authentic. After I read it, I called her back and asked, ‘Is this based on a real-life story?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.'”

And so it was that she joined the quiet immigrant tale, loosely based on Chung’s formative years growing up on a farm in rural Arkansas, about the Yi family, led by father Jacob (Steven Yeun), which journeys from California to the South to pursue the dream of building their own farm. Of her decision to play Soonja – who is not the type of grandma the family’s young son (Alan Kim) was expecting – Youn says, “The people are what is important to me, not the script, not the fame, and not the money.”

Then she adds with a laugh: “Well, not anymore.”


THE YOUN YUH-JUNG ESSENTIALS: HOW A CHANCE ENCOUNTER MADE A KOREAN MEGA STAR

(Photo by Courtesy of IFC Films)

If you’ve seen her work in Minari, it’s hard to believe that Youn never intended to act; her career began out of a chance encounter. Searching for a part-time job at a train station while studying at Seoul’s Hanyang University, she was approached and asked to stand beside someone. “He was a famous MC,” Youn recalls. “He asked if I could sit by him and hand presents to the audience. I did, and then they gave me a check for it! So that was great!”

She was surprised to learn how much could be made as a performer, and the next thing she knew she was going out for auditions. Then, in 1971, she was approached by director Kim Ki-young to star in what would become the second feature of his Housemaid trilogy, which had begun with 1960’s The Housemaid. The film, Woman of Fire, was, like its predecessor, a hit at home and abroad and catapulted Youn into stardom. “We never expected anything like what happened. We never expected to have this world reception from the audience. When I took the job, I didn’t even know he was a famous director in Korea.”   

She quickly followed up Woman of Fire with the title role in Jang Hui-bin, playing the infamous concubine for a Korean television mini-series that became a national phenomenon.

With such a debut and streak of stellar work over 50 years, she’s been dubbed “The Korean Meryl Streep,” a comparison she humbly rejects as unworthy praise. “I wouldn’t dare,” Youn says. “No, no, no. I mean, she’s everything! Her art? Her work? No, no, no.” But like the chameleon Streep, Youn has also found ways to re-invent herself over several decades, even while revisiting her older work, as she did in the 2010 Housemaid remake, a feat she quickly brushed aside with another joke: “I thought that’s very nice, me being in [the reboot] – and still being alive.”


THE COMEBACK: RECORD-BREAKING SERIES AND A DARING FILM ROLE

There was a period when Youn could not be seen on screens – when she immigrated to America in 1975, she took a 10-year hiatus from filmmaking. When she returned to full-time acting in 1985, she quickly racked up an impressive streak of television work, including Hur Jun, about 15th-century royal physician that broke viewership records with nearly 65% of the nation tuning in.

Later, in 2002, she got the script for the film that would restart her silver screen work. Her role in Im Sang-soo’s award-winning A Good Lawyer’s Wife – full of sex and affairs and dysfunction – is the type of part actor’s dream to play. Still, the then 50-ish mother of two hesitated at the time because, “I wouldn’t be dressed most of the film, I thought, I don’t want to be half-naked with a bra.” She added: “But that’s why most of the Korean actresses of that age turned down the role. But, to tell you the truth, I was remodeling my house, and I needed to work.”

Pragmatic and plain-spoken, Youn is practical about her career and its progression. “I don’t [map it out] ahead of time because planning things is when you know it’s not going to be like that. So now I don’t plan anything. If something happens, it happens, I will enjoy it; or, if I fail, that’s my fault.”

(Photo by Courtesy of GEM Entertainment)

By the time she starred in Actresses in 2009, Youn was once again one of the most recognizable faces in Korean entertainment, and the unscripted dramedy teamed her up with other premiere names of Korean stage and screen, including Kim Min-hee, who starred in Oldboy director Park Chan-wook Park’s period romantic thriller The Handmaiden.

In the primarily improvised Actresses, each of the six actresses plays a fictionalized version of themselves as they prepare for a Korean Vogue photo shoot at a studio on Christmas Eve. Despite the pedigree and talent surrounding her, Youn says many of the actors felt uncomfortable with that level of improvisation and self-revelation. “That was the first time we’d done something like that in Korea, because we were all very famous. Some didn’t want to talk about their private life but, as the oldest one, [I have] nothing to lose – so, I talked about my divorce and my private life.”

It is no wonder she felt okay with the mockumentary premise: A gathering over cocktails between director E J-yong, Youn, and actress Go Hyun-jung – the two actors have been friends for years – had inspired the idea for the movie, with the director wanting to show the public how charming the actresses were in real life. Spending an hour with Youn – even over Zoom and with not a cocktail in sight – we can see where the filmmaker was coming from.


FAN FAVORITES: SENSE8, REALITY SHOW YOUN’S KITCHEN, AND A SEXY THRILLER

The role that American audiences were most likely to know Youn for, pre-Minari, was in the Netflix series Sense8, which marked her first foray into American television. In the show, created by the Wachowski siblings, Youn played an inmate who helps one of the telepathic “sensates” escape from prison. She told us she was surprised to learn about the series’ global cult-like status and the massive internet fan campaign that prompted the streaming giant to approve one final episode to tie up loose ends when it was canceled after just two seasons. “I didn’t know that it was such a [big deal] until you mentioned it,” Youn says. “I’m not good at the internet, as you could guess.”

It was a small part with some big challenges: the very conceit of the show – where certain people on screen are seen in the minds of some characters, but are invisible to others – made the acting very difficult. “They were supposed to be invisible to me. It was very distracting while also trying to concentrate on my lines.” You wouldn’t know that to watch her in the series; Youn’s performance as the wise prisoner made a significant impression on fans, even within her limited screen time.

Scripted television is not the only place that Youn has made an impression on the small screen; she is also somewhat of a reality TV star with two shows under her belt. A chance meeting with a famed reality show producer allowed her to join the travel show Sisters Over Flowers before she later did Youn’s Kitchen, which featured different twists on traditional Korean dishes.

(Photo by Courtesy of IFC films. )

“The producer very sincerely chased me, but I told him I’m not the right person to be in a reality show,” Youn says. “I’m a very frank person. I would be terrible.” However, recognizing that the actress’s undeniable charisma is the stuff reality shows are made of, he did not take no for an answer. “We kept meeting each other, and then he kept saying ‘You’re going to do the show.’ I didn’t realize that at the time, but if he wanted somebody, he could get them – and that’s a skill.” Youn’s Kitchen was another success, with the cinema icon peeling back the layers of her life a bit to celebrate with friends and good food.

2012’s The Taste of Money, in which she gives a deliciously evil performance as the matriarch of an über-rich family, peeled back the layers even further. A gender-bent twist on the Housemaid story, Money placed Youn’s Baek Geum-ok as the domineering leader of the house and the usual female servant character reset as a handsome young male secretary. Dismissed by critics after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, the steamy thriller raised more than a few eyebrows with its depictions of sex, greed, and corruption, and has gone on to enjoy a cult-like status.

Regardless of how critics judged Money, Youn marks it as another memorable moment for different reasons – it again allowed her to be very vulnerable on screen while playing a part typically given to male characters. “Yeah, I was getting naked over 60, my goodness,” she says. “Usually, it is the men who get power and use that for sex, but this time it was me, a woman, and I have to say I liked that.”


FRESHEST WORK: STEALING SCENES IN CELEBRATED IMMIGRANT TALE, MINARI

(Photo by Courtesy of a24)

How does Youn feel about the current spotlight on Korean cinema, Korean stories, and – during this awards season – her work and Oscar chances? “It’s all Bong Joon-ho’s fault!” she says, laughing as she casts the Oscar-winning Parasite director as the villain who has brought global attention to Korean cinema. “I am glad I’m not in Korea talking to reporters there, [they] like to count the chickens before they’ve hatched. There’s pressure on me because people are expecting me to win something. We used to watch the Oscars like they were in another world, but because of him everyone in Korea thinks they are in Hollywood now.”

“I know things have happened,” she went on to say, “but this [holding up her Rotten Tomatoes Certified Fresh trophy with a sly smile] is the only actor award that came to me in the mail.” (We’re glad to know our shipping folks are on it.) When we point out that more hardware is likely coming, she gives a slight shoulder shrug and explains that nothing could ever diminish or amplify her love and connection to the film and those that collaborated with her make it.

Minari
(Photo by Courtesy of a24)

This bond and family-like dynamic carried over to everyone on the Minari crew, but particularly the main cast who, due to the sweltering heat, would often congregate in the set that stood in for the interior of the characters’ trailer home. “The conditions of the shoot were a crucible – this is not a cushy trailer shoot,” she says, laughing. “You’re in the middle of Oklahoma heat. And after one day, I thought I need to go back home. I don’t think I should be shooting in America.”

Luckily, she stayed, in part due to an extended visit from the very friend who handed her the script in the first place – a visit that was something of a mea culpa.

When Youn learned Plan B, a company co-founded by Brad Pitt, was producing the project, she figured it could be a lucrative role and inquired about the budget. Her friend relayed the rate in Korean currency, quickly calculating 200 million South Korean won (roughly $175,000), but when she learned her fee would be nowhere near that, she briefly had second thoughts. However, after the friend promised to come visit the set for an extended period of time, the idea of suffering through it seemed more palatable.

In thinking back on the shoot now, she is reverential about the experience. “I think of my friend sacrificing her vacation to come along with me, about hiding out in the ‘set trailer’ with Alan, Steven, and Yeri [Han, who plays her daughter] – one of the few locations with ample AC. My friend is an exceptional cook, so every night we gathered at my Airbnb – everyone did – because the food was incredible, and that’s how we became a family.”

With such a foundation behind it, it’s no wonder the world – and awards voters – fallen a little bit in love with film and everyone involved, especially the unconventional grandmother at its center.


Minari is in theaters and available On Demand now.

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