Nonconformist Youn Yuh-jung: South Korea's first Oscar-winning actress
Yuh-Jung Youn, winner of Best Actress in a Supporting Role for "Minari," poses in the press room at the Oscars on Sunday, April 25, 2021, at Union Station in Los Angeles.
Chris Pizzello-Pool/Getty Images/AFP

Nonconformist Youn Yuh-jung: South Korea's first Oscar-winning actress

Claire Lee (Agence France-Presse) - April 26, 2021 - 10:49am

SEOUL, South Korea — Septuagenarian Youn Yuh-jung, South Korea's first Oscar-winning actress, has spent decades portraying nonconformist characters, from a vicious heiress to an ageing prostitute, challenging social norms in both career and life.

Her best supporting actress turn in "Minari", a family drama about Korean immigrants in the US, is relatively more conventional: she portrays a playful grandmother to a mischievous young boy trying to adapt to life in rural Arkansas.

The film, written and directed by Korean-American Lee Issac Chung, earned six nominations overall including for best picture, best actor and a nod for Chung.

Youn's win is the second Oscars success for a Korean-language film in as many years, after "Parasite" became the first non-English language best picture winner in 2020. 

Youn, whose two grown sons are Asian-Americans, had played down excitement over her chance to make history, telling reporters last month: "This is not a playoff game of actors, placing them in order".

And in her acceptance speech on Sunday, she honored her fellow nominees, exclaiming: "How can I win over Glenn Close?"

She had already collected a best supporting actress Screen Actors Guild award — the first South Korean actress to do so — and a Bafta for her performance, along with a string of prizes on the festival circuit.

Based on Chung's own experiences growing up in America in the 1980s, "Minari" follows a Korean-born father who moves his family to a mainly white town in rural Arkansas in pursuit of a better life.

It is the latest of several grandmotherly castings for Youn, and "Parasite" director Bong Joon-ho said the role was "the loveliest character Youn has ever played".

The award honours not just "her performance in 'Minari', but the culmination of an illustrious career working with many of the prominent directors in Korea", said Brian Hu, a film professor at San Diego State University.

"The win should be above all a testament to a career honing her craft."

'Scarlet letter'

Over more than 50 years, Youn has often played provocative and atypical characters who do not conform to the rules of socially conservative Korean society.

Born in 1947 in Kaesong — now in North Korea — she made her film debut in groundbreaking director Kim Ki-young's "Woman of Fire" (1971), as the live-in maid to a middle-class household who becomes impregnated by the father of the family.

The thriller was a critical and commercial hit — it remains a classic of the South's modern cinema — and Youn paid tribute to the late Kim in her speech on Sunday, saying: "I think he would be very happy if he was still alive."

Despite the success of "Woman of Fire," Youn's first heyday came to an abrupt end in 1975, when she married singer Jo Young-nam and the couple moved to the United States.

Youn returned to South Korea in 1984, divorced Jo three years later, and struggled to resume her acting career to support her two children, at a time when divorce carried heavy stigma for Korean women.

"To be divorced was like having the scarlet letter at the time," Youn told a local magazine in 2009.

"There was this thing that dictated women shouldn't make TV appearances so soon after their divorce." 

She countered by accepting every role she was offered, however small. 

"I worked very hard. I had this mission of somehow feeding my children. I'd say yes even when I was asked to climb 100 stairs," she said.

'Fiercely competitive waters'

By the 1990s, Youn was a regular in television dramas, often portraying mothers, and later grandmothers.  

In 2003, Youn made her film comeback in director Im Sang-soo's "A Good Lawyer's Wife", as an unconventional mother-in-law in a dysfunctional family.

She played a cruel and rich heiress betrayed by her husband in Im's 2012 thriller "Taste of Money", and an ageing haenyeo — the women of Jeju island who free-dive to collect shellfish — reunited with her long-lost granddaughter in 2016 drama "Canola".

Also in 2016, she was praised for her role in E J-yong's drama "The Bacchus Lady" as an elderly prostitute — a veteran of the brothels set up for US soldiers in South Korea — who becomes involved in the deaths of former clients.

Throughout her career, Youn had to navigate the "fiercely competitive waters" of a film industry "largely focused on young and often male talent" for leading roles, explained Jason Bechervaise, a professor at Korea Soongsil Cyber University in Seoul. 

Her Oscar win comes at a fraught time for Asian communities in the United States.

Anti-Asian violence has surged in America this year and four of the eight victims of last month's Atlanta spa shootings were women of Korean descent, three of them in their 60s or 70s. 

Film professor Hu told AFP that Youn's award was also a "validation for so many grandmothers in Korean-American households, especially at a time when Asian-American elders are seen as victims rather than victors".

As It Happens
LATEST UPDATE: April 27, 2021 - 7:17am

A unique pandemic-era Oscars kicked off in Los Angeles on Sunday with a movie-style opening credits sequence as actor-director Regina King walked into the ceremony's train station venue clutching a gold statuette.

The Academy Awards are being held in-person — shifted to a glammed-up Union Station to enable strict Covid-19 protocols — at a ceremony that reunites Hollywood A-listers for the first time in over a year.

"Live TV, here we go. Welcome to the 93rd Oscars!" said King. —  AFP

April 27, 2021 - 7:17am

This year's Oscars audience plummeted by more than half to a record low 9.85 million viewers, broadcaster ABC says Monday — a staggering if widely expected drop for a ceremony that many viewers found short on humor and star power.

The whopping 58% tumble from last year's previous 23.6 million nadir had been anticipated for Hollywood's biggest night, after other award shows held during the pandemic also suffered precipitous declines.

With movie theaters shut for most of the year, many viewers had not seen or even heard of nominees such as Chloe Zhao's "Nomadland," which was the night's big winner with three prizes but which has taken just over $2 million at the domestic box office. —  AFP

April 26, 2021 - 11:38am

Anthony Hopkins wins the Oscar for best actor for his acclaimed role as a dementia patient in the film "The Father."

Hopkins, who at 83 is the oldest actor to win a competitive Oscar, bested the late Chadwick Boseman, whose poignant role in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" had won him praise and a Golden Globe just months after he died of cancer at age 43.

Other nominees included Riz Ahmed ("Sound of Metal"), Gary Oldman ("Mank") and Steven Yeun ("Minari"). —  AFP

April 26, 2021 - 11:22am

Frances McDormand joins an elite Hollywood club with her third acting Oscar, for her wrenching role as Fern in the acclaimed film "Nomadland."

Her best actress win came over fellow nominees Viola Davis ("Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"), Vanessa Kirby ("Pieces of a Woman"), Andra Day ("The United States vs Billie Holiday") and Carey Mulligan ("Promising Young Woman"). —  AFP

April 26, 2021 - 11:14am

The critically acclaimed "Nomadland" — about a marginalized, older generation of Americans roaming the West in rundown vans — wins the coveted Oscar for best picture.

The much-celebrated film from Beijing-born director Chloe Zhao bested "The Father," "Judas and the Black Messiah," "Mank," "Minari," "Promising Young Woman," "Sound of Metal" and "The Trial of the Chicago 7." —  AFP

April 26, 2021 - 10:02am

Youn Yuh-jung wins the Oscar for best supporting actress for her role as feisty grandmother Soonja in the family drama "Minari."

The veteran South Korean actress bested a pack of nominees including Maria Bakalova ("Borat Subsequent Moviefilm"), Glenn Close ("Hillbilly Elegy"), Olivia Colman ("The Father") and Amanda Seyfried ("Mank"). —  AFP

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