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Oscar Winner YOUN Yuh-jung Continues to Lay New Roots

Apr 28, 2021
  • Writer by Pierce Conran
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MINARI Star Has Reinvented Herself Throughout 50 Year Screen Career 


Last Sunday, a Korean actor won an Academy Award for the very first time. YOUN Yuh-jung, who was also the first Korean performer to ever be nominated for an Oscar, earned the Best Supporting Actress Award for her role in the American indie film Minari, from Korean-American filmmaker Lee Isaac CHUNG.


Just like her character Soon-ja has, YOUN herself has captured the hearts of viewers around the world for her grace and talent, her ease in the limelight and her self-effacing humor. Ever since Minari bowed at the Sundance Film Festival last year, where it earned the Grand Prize, YOUN’s performance has been at the center of the buzz surrounding the beloved picture, which tells a classic American dream story through the eyes of a young Korean couple and their children, who move to Arkansas to start a farm in the 1980s. 




YOUN plays Soon-ja, the mother of Monica (HAN Ye-ri), who comes to stay with the family and help the parents with the children while they work to keep their dream alive. Her performance, a mixture of hardy charm and wit, prompted the American press to call her a revelation. While it is true that many international viewers saw her for the first time in the award-winning film, YOUN has been a major figure in the Korean film scene for decades.



Born in 1947, YOUN attended Hanyang University in Seoul and by 1967 had debuted on TV. Her film career kicked off in memorable fashion a few years later, when she played Myeong-ja, the lead character in KIM Ki-young’s Woman of Fire (1971), which was released 50 years ago this month. 

The film, a remake of KIM’s earlier work The Housemaid (1960), is built around YOUN’s fearless first silver screen role and would go on to become the most successful film of that year. The role earned YOUN her first major accolades, including the Best Actress prize at the Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival in Catalonia, Spain, Best Actress at the Blue Dragon Film Awards and Best New Actress at the Grand Bell Awards.

She teamed up with KIM again the following year for Insect Woman(1972), which would also go on to top the yearly local box office. YOUN once again plays a character named Myeong-ja in a bold work that pushes boundaries and was far ahead of its time.

YOUN was active in other films and TV shows in this period but after she married singer-songwriter JO Young-nam in 1974, she put her career on hold and emigrated to the United States.

A decade later she returned both to Korea and the film industry and her first film was the acclaimed early PARK Chul-soo film Mother (1985). During this part of her career, she teamed up with KIM Ki-young once more on his last film Angel, Become An Evil Woman (1990).

Though YOUN had achieved popularity in the early 1970s, in many ways she had to start all over again when she resumed her career, and for actresses considered middle-aged (though she was only in her mid to late 30s) the range of roles being offered to her may have been limited.

Over the years that followed YOUN was steadily active on the small screen but seldom appeared in films. Yet that would change in 2003, when she forged a crucial new relationship that reshaped her image in Korean film.

A Good Lawyer’s Wife (2003) was the first of seven films she’s made to date with director IM Sang-soo. In it she plays Hong Byung-han, a grandmother who carries on an affair due to the lack of intimacy in her own marriage and comes clean about it and doesn’t break it off, even after her husband’s death. Byung-han is a character who lives for herself with her own set of values, which don’t conform with traditional patriarchal ones.

Breaking the mould for what kinds of characters senior actresses could play in Korean cinema, YOUN embarked on a colorful new stage of her film career, appending memorable roles to modern Korean classics such as IM’s next film The President’s Last Bang (2005) and in SONG hae-sung’s death row drama Maundy Thursday (2006) as the spirited Sister Monica. She teamed up with SONG once more in 2013 for the family drama Boomerang Family, but before that, she forged two new relationships that further solidified her unique image in the Korean film industry.

In 2009, she nominally played herself, a veteran screen doyenne in E J-yong’s terrific Actresses. She took a similar part in E’s next film Behind the Camera (2013), also a mockumentary, and then teamed up with him again in 2016 for perhaps the most daring role of her career, as the elderly prostitute cum euthanasia enabler So-young in The Bacchus Lady.

The following year, she appeared in Hahaha (2010), her first film with HONG Sang-soo. Her signature mordant wit was on full display as the owner of a blowfish soup restaurant on the southern coast. She has to date appeared in four of HONG’s features.

In 2010 she also appeared in IM Sang-soo’s The Housemaid, a remake of KIM’s film of the same name and thus a spin on her own film debut. Her role of Miss Cho, an older maid in the home, earned her all the major Best Supporting Actress prizes in Korea that year. She attended the Cannes Film Festival for the first time for both Hahaha and The Housemaid. She would then return with IM two years later for The Taste of Money (2012).


Minari may have been her American film debut, but YOUN embarked on her Hollywood career back in 2015, when she appeared on in a supporting role in the Netflix series Sense8

Among her most recent credits were the acclaimed indie film Lucky Chan-sil (2019) and last year’s Beasts Clawing at Straws, in which she teamed up with her The Housemaid co-star JEON Do-yeon once more and also played a character called Soon-ja.

Yet the Soon-ja that YOUN will be most remembered for is the one who sows minari seeds in river bed within an Arkansas forest, a role that her saw her blaze through the western awards season. Establishing herself as a favorite early on, she won some three dozen prizes, including the first ever acting awards for a Korean performer at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards, the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTAs) and the Film Independent Spirit Awards, before claiming the Best Supporting Actress prize at the 93rd Academy Awards.

YOUN recently completely another IM Sang-soo film, Heaven: To the Land of Happiness - which was selected for Cannes last year and is currently awaiting release, and she will soon meet global audiences again as she is currently filming her second American show, the Apple TV+ series Pachinko, based on the best-selling novel of the same name.

Just like minari, a hardy Korean vegetable that can thrive in many places, YOUN has weathered every challenge thrown at her throughout her career and laid new roots again and again, no matter where she’s gone.

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