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Oscars

Veteran actress Youn Yuh-jung becomes first Korean to win acting Oscar

By Apr 26, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

Youn Yuh-jung poses with her new Oscar alongside Minari producer Brad Pitt.
Youn Yuh-jung poses with her new Oscar alongside Minari producer Brad Pitt.

Actress Youn Yuh-jung has made history by becoming the first Korean actor to win an Oscar at the Academy Awards, held in Los Angeles Sunday night. 

Youn won for Best Supporting Actress at the 93rd Academy Awards held at Union Station Los Angeles and the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. This, alongside Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, awarded Best Picture at last year's Oscars, are seen as among the greatest international triumphs in Korea's film history.

It has been 55 years since Youn first graced the Korean silver screen. Beginning with her debut film, Kim Ki-Young’s Woman of Fire, to her latest, Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari -- for which she won the Oscar -- Youn’s career encompasses an impressive range of artistic genres and acting styles.

Youn refers to herself as a “survivor,” as she continued her iconic acting career while overcoming steep challenges in her artistic and personal life. In Minari, Yoon embodied the role of the warm-hearted grandmother, Soon-ja, in a departure from standard portrayals of older Asian female characters.

The 73-year-old's Oscar is a landmark win. The last time an Asian actress won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress was 63 years ago, Miyoshi Umeki for her work in Sayonara (1957).

Yoon is also the third oldest actress to win the Best Supporting Actress award in Oscar history, following Peggy Ashcroft and Josephine Hull.

This is also the first time that a Korean has been nominated for an Academy Award in an acting category. Conventionally, first-time Oscar nominations don't lead to first-time wins. However, Yoon was predicted as a frontrunner in her category from the beginning of the awards season.

Youn’s name topped the list on numerous award prediction sites, such as Gold Derby, that vote for likely Oscar winners, with impressive leads over her competitors.

Including the before-mentioned Parasite, numerous Asian films have gained recognition in US-European film markets of late. However, it is rare for individual Asian actors to be recognized. There are multiple hurdles for Asian actors in reaching the hearts of foreign audiences, including cultural, racial and language barriers.

“It is much more difficult for individual actors to garner attention compared to a film,” said film critic Park Hye-eun. “For the audience to appreciate the (foreign) actor, they must fully embrace the cultural differences the actor brings to the screen.” Parasite’s four Oscar wins did not include a single acting award. 


Youn pictured with her Minari co-star Han Ye-ri
Youn pictured with her Minari co-star Han Ye-ri


Prior to the Oscar win, Youn became the first Asian actor to win at the British Academy Film Awards (the BAFTAs) on Apr. 11. Her Oscar nod is just one of Youn’s 39 major film awards this season.

“Youn portrayed a normal Korean grandmother speaking Korean. Yet, she managed to move audiences and film critics from across the globe. This is a great honor and a testament to Youn’s artistry as an actor,” said film critic Kang Yoo-jeong.

Youn at the 93rd Academy Awards Red Carpet
Youn at the 93rd Academy Awards Red Carpet

At times playing the provocative femme fatale roles and at others embodying the warm grandmother, Yuh-jung is a versatile actress who can move across contrasting character archetypes with ease and creativity. At 74, Youn breaks paradigms of how actresses her age are expected to act, surprising and delighting the audience with each role she plays. 

"Whatever the role, I do it in a different way," Youn said. Indeed, Youn's journey to the Oscars has been made possible thanks to her courageous decisions to go the 'different way' throughout her career.

Here is a look at a few roles from her impressive acting career:

The Woman of Fire (1971) - Best Actress award 
Youn as a young actor
Youn as a young actor


Youn's debut role in The Woman of Fire also brought her a Best Actress award in South Korea.

Youn successfully auditioned for TBC channel's third official scouting competition and debuted as an actress. Three years later, Youn moved to MBC where she played Jang Hee-been, an infamous femme fatale inspired by a real-life historical figure. Later, she starred in the film Love, So What? (1991-1992), and in popular TV shows such Men from the Public Sauna (1995~1996) and Lie (1998). While she was more prolific on TV than in the film scene during the early stages of her career, Youn became known as a chameleonic actor capable of a wide variety of roles within Korea.

Youn in The Woman of Fire
Youn in The Woman of Fire

Youn has appeared in a total of 33 films, and she began garnering attention from her very first film: The Woman of Fire, directed by the late Kim Ki-Young. The Woman of Fire was an adaptation of Kim's 1960 film, The Maid,  which also served as a source of inspiration for Bong Joon-ho's Parasite.

Youn portrayed Myeong-ja, a housemaid working in a family-run poultry business who seduces the patriarch of the household. Even as a newcomer in the film world, Youn crafted the character of Myeong-ja to be a disconcertingly cunning and frightening girl capable of exacting revenge on the owners' family by feeding them rat poison. Through her portrayal of the role, Youn won Best Actress at the prestigious Grand Bell Awards and The Blue Dragon Awards.

In 1972, Youn followed her iconic debut role with another Kim Ki-young film, The Insect Woman.

However, following her marriage to Korean singer Cho Young-nam, she disappeared from the Korean film scene by immigrating to the US.

'Youn is an actor who inspires the director to experiment and take bold choices'

Youn's unique filmography took off on her return to Korea and its film scene.

Following a 13-year hiatus from acting, Youn returned to her career following her divorce. Youn collaborated with celebrated directors including Lim Sang-su, Lee Jae-yong, and Hong Sang-su. 

Film critic Youn Sung-eun noted,  "Youn has frequently appeared in strong auteur-driven films and portrayed equally striking characters through her acting."

Poster for The Maid (2010) directed by Lim Sang-su 
Poster for The Maid (2010) directed by Lim Sang-su 


Lim Sang-su's A Good Lawyer's Wife (2003) had Youn play a character who cheats on her impotent husband, and later in A Taste of Money (2012) she played a matriarch of a chaebeol (a big and powerful Korean conglomerate) family who seduces a young male secretary. Youn has also appeared in the remake of The Maid in 2010.

Lee Jae-yong's The Bacchus Lady (2016) is considered by many to be Youn's magnum opus, and it was through this film that she came to be known on the global stage. Youn won the Best Actress award for her role in the film at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal. Youn played So-young, also known as the "Bacchus lady," who sells sex on the streets.

Publicity poster for The Bacchus Lady (2016)
Publicity poster for The Bacchus Lady (2016)


In the film, So-young receives requests to perform euthanasia on some elderly customers. Youn conveyed the often obscured harsh reality of elderly citizens with great sensitivity. 

Film critic Hye-eun Park explains: "Youn Yeo-jeong inspires many directors to create female characters that defy convention. The directors known that Youn is willing to try portraying characters that expand the boundaries of what is thought to be an acceptable character in the public eye."

OFFERED TO WORK WITHOUT PAY

Youn has also portrayed "grandmother" roles where the older woman's nonchalant attitude masks her caring heart. In Canola (2016), Youn played a grandmother who protects her granddaughter's secret, and in Lucky Chan-sil (2020) played a granny whose relationship to her grandchild develops from one of indifference to a loving bond.

Youn's latest role in Minari is the culmination of her previous roles that challenged and redefined the portrayal of on-screen grandmothers.

A scene from Minari (2021)
A scene from Minari (2021)


Youn does not discriminate between blockbusters and low-budget productions -- her career has encompassed highly commercial film and TV work to art house films. 

For Lucky Chan-sil, Youn even offered to work without pay.

Youn explained "Once I reached 60, I decided to only work with the people I want to work with without worrying about the money... I wanted (Lucky Chan-sil) to be an opportunity to make a good indie film with a low budget."

Film critic Yoo-jeong Kang said "Youn's secret is that she does not care about societal expectations placed on women, and against women of her age."

Youn will continue to bring to life underrepresented characters to the screen for audiences across the world.

Youn is next set to star in the AppleTV+ original drama series, Pachinko.

Write to Hee-kyung Kim at hkkim@hankyung.com

Elaine Jiwon Kim edited this article.

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