How ‘Minari’s’ Oscar Nominee Yuh-Jung Youn Built Her ‘Bridge Between Korea and America’

Janet W. Lee
·4-min read

Yuh-Jung Youn is under some serious pressure. At the spry age of 73, the Korean actor is in the middle of a career surge, taking on the role of caring yet foul-mouthed grandmother Soonja in Lee Isaac Chung’s family drama “Minari” — and, with her historic SAG and BAFTA Awards wins, facing new expectations from Korean audiences.

“I didn’t expect the movie to get this much attention from the audience or from critics,” Youn tells Variety from her home in South Korea. “It still doesn’t feel real to me.”

More from Variety

But when it comes to the Oscars on April 25, she isn’t letting that pressure get to her head. “I feel like I’m competing in the Olympics,” she says with a laugh. “But really, I’m not that ambitious. I’ve been slowing down in my career and choosing whatever I want to do for a friend or for a script, so I’m very content, very happy with my old age.”

What brought Youn out of her comfort zone was writer-director Chung, who she was introduced to by a dear friend. “He was honest and genuine so I liked that about him,” she recalls. During their first conversation about a then-English-language draft of “Minari,” she was immediately impressed by his knowledge of Korean cinema and drawn to his “warmth” that was also peppered throughout his script.

“There’s a lot of immigrant stories, but Isaac’s point of view was a ‘level-up’ for me,” she says. “We see immigrants [in other movies] as people who are suffering, discriminated against in America, but ‘Minari’ isn’t just about that. It’s like a bridge between Korea and America. The beauty of this film is that we see how people learn to live with both the American- and Korean-ness.”

With a limited knowledge of American independent filmmaking, Youn didn’t hesitate to sign on to the $2 million budget project from A24. And it wasn’t until the cast moved into a three-bedroom Airbnb in Tulsa, Okla., that she and her Korean co-star Han Ye-ri agreed, “This would never happen in Korea.”

“I was a nobody in Tulsa. I had to prove myself,” she says. “All we’d talk about was the script — how something can be translated in spoken Korean, rather than written Korean — so I’d correct Steven [Yeun] and Isaac, because I could just feel their mistakes [as a native speaker.]”

Her interpretation of Soonja drew inspiration not only from Chung’s Korean grandmother, but the actor’s lived experience as a single mother of Korean American children. During her short-lived marriage with Korean singer Jo Young-nam, the couple settled next to a Baptist church in St. Petersburg, Fla., where Youn birthed and raised two sons. “That was when I didn’t think about what work was good or bad; I just did it to survive.”

Asked about her dynamic with Alan S. Kim, who portrays Soonja’s beloved grandson David, Youn says the “spongy” child actor absorbed Chung’s direction to be himself, a Korean American boy who doesn’t like his Korean grandmother. “And Alan’s 7 years old, so I couldn’t handle him — that was all Isaac’s work,” she quips.

Youn viewed “Minari” for the first time in full at last year’s Sundance, where she was “a little shocked” to see people crying in the audience. The actor says it was difficult to watch her own work without critiquing every scene. “I didn’t cry; I couldn’t enjoy it at all.” But a good cry hit her at a later screening, where Chung received a standing ovation from the audience.

A loyal collaborator to many, the longtime actor has starred in multiple TV dramas penned by Kim Soo-hyun and, more recently, led three iterations of reality series from producer Na Young-seok. In this new renaissance, she has seven consecutive films lined up — including a remake of her 2010 film “The Housemaid” and a project helmed by Hong Sang-soo — and a role in Apple TV Plus’ adaptation of “Pachinko.”

Throughout her 50-year career, Youn says there’s one question that still keeps her up at night. “How will I complete my mission on set?” she asks, then takes a drag from her e-cigarette. “Can I call this loving my work? I’m not sure. But as long as I can memorize my lines, I want to continue living in movies.”

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.