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South Korean doyen thrilled, not overawed by Hollywood fame

By Phuc Nguyen   March 10, 2021 | 12:54 am PT
Actress Youn Yuh-jung, 74, is thrilled with the international acclaim for 'Minari' and her performance in the film, but personal awards are no big deal.

Speaking to VnExpress after "Minari" won the best foreign-language film prize at the 2021 Golden Globes Award ceremony on February 28, she said she agreed to act in the film because the script reminded her of her childhood and youth.

Soon after the awards, international media turned the spotlight on Youn’s performance as the sprightly grandma in the movie.

The Los Angeles Times called her "a revelation," and film industry and review website Indie Wire commented: "She is nothing short of extraordinary."

In the movie, directed by Lee Isaac Chung, the four-member Yi family, father Jacob (Steven Yeun), mother Monica (Han Yeri) and their children David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho), leaves California for Arkansas so Jacob can pursue his dream of building his own farm. The arrival of Monica’s mother, Soon-ja, played by Youn, to take care of the kids is pivotal to the movie’s plot.

Youn first met Lee at the Busan International Film Festival in 2018, and learned that he was writing a script for a movie about South Korean migrants in America.

"He invited me to play the grandma, saying my personality was similar to the character," Youn told VnExpress.

In late 2019, she read the script, which was written in English. It did not take her a long time to agree to become Soon-ja in "Minari," as the movie reminded the senior actress of her childhood and youth.

Youn Yuh-jung makes her Hollywood debut at 74. Photo by Instagram/minarimovie.

Youn Yuh-jung makes her Hollywood debut at 74. Photo by Instagram/minarimovie.

A real move

Youn was born in 1947 and started her acting career in 1967. A few years later, she gained attention for her roles in several TV serials including "Woman on Fire", "Insect Woman", "Be a Wicked Woman."

When she was 28, she left her career and home to move to America with her husband.

"My ex-husband and I came to America in the 1980s. We spent around 10 years in St. Petersburg, Florida."

Like the Yi family in "Minari," Youn’s family faced many difficulties when they first arrived, especially because of the language barrier.

After a decade in the States and a divorce, Youn moved back to South Korea, where she returned to acting once again.

Lee’s movie also reminded Youn of her childhood in South Korea, where she lived with her great-grandmother.

"When she was alive, I did not like her personality... just like David, who at first does not like Soon-ja in the movie," Youn said, adding that the older she gets, the more she understands how much her great-grandmother had sacrificed for her sake and how stupid she was in hating her.

She was thrilled and excited that her character helps her daughter and son-in-law grow vegetables and take care of their children in "Minari."

"When I was younger, I played rich characters. But at this age, farming and being a grandma is my happiness," she said.

Thanks to a healthy diet and lifestyle, Youn faced no problem in joining the crew to film the movie in the U.S. The challenge came from her character, who suffers from a stroke with a lot of aftermath, so Youn spent weeks learning from her acquaintances and doctors about stroke victims.

MInari poster. Photo by Facebook/Minari.

"MInari" poster. Photo by Facebook/Minari.

Impressive co-stars

Youn said she was very impressed with her co-stars.

"Initially, Steven seemed worried about his role, but I believe that artists who are not overconfident will do their best," she said, adding she always felt Steven, who calls her "seon-saeng-nim" (teacher), would put in a great performance.

The actor she interacted with the most in the movie is 7-year-old Alan, who played her grandson. Alan memorized the script on the very first day, before all the grownups, Youn said.

She was also impressed by Noel, who played her granddaughter, and Yeri, her daughter in the movie.

"Sometimes I thought Ye Ri was my true daughter, I was surprised and impressed by Han Ye Ri."

"Minari" is about the life of migrants and this resonated with Youn’s memory of moving to America decades earlier.

"I can see my younger days, see the American dream that many people yearn for; but not all of them can achieve it," she said, adding that she has always sympathized with the plight of migrants. "Minari" has further reinforced this, she said

She felt that the message of the movie was basically about family love. "No matter where we stand in society, we are always a member of our families. In order to understand each other and overcome challenges, family members must be patient.

"Just like minari (water dropwort), going through difficulties to grow."

After watching Youn’s performance in "Minari," critics have consistently singled her out as "a scene-stealer" and the Korean press is hoping for another historic Oscar for the South Korean screen legend.

But Youn said does not care much about awards, attributing the movie’s achievements to its touching story and Lee’s vision and talent.

About getting several nominations for international awards, Youn said she was thrilled, "but not too emotional."

"I am not a Hollywood star. I do not know much about the procedure to join those awards; that is a strange world to me."

Youn recalled that when she became the first South Korean to be nominated for a best supporting role at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards 2021, she asked her friends about the awards because she had no idea.

The doyen said her greatest achievement is that she can work and join many projects at the age of 74. When she was young, she used to play characters who were femme fatales, she remembered.

Now, "after Minari, I want to play more diverse and nuanced roles."

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