• February 8, 2023

‘I Feel Like I’m An Olympian’ : NPR

Youn Yuh-jung plays a grandmother in the Oscar-nominated film Minari. She is the first Korean actress to be nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Hide caption courtesy of A24

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Courtesy of A24

Youn Yuh-jung plays a grandmother in the Oscar-nominated film Minari. She is the first Korean actress to be nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

Courtesy of A24

Youn Yuh-jung is an institution in Korean cinema. Her career spans five decades and includes starring roles in classic Korean films and famous television dramas. Now at the age of 73, she has a new fame in the United States for her role in the Oscar-nominated film Minari.

Youn is nominated for Best Supporting Actress. This makes her the first South Korean woman to ever be nominated for an Oscar in an acting category.

“That has never happened in Korea and I feel like an Olympic champion for my country,” said Youn NPR in a phone call from her home in Seoul. “It’s very stressful,” she says with a laugh.

Lee Isaac Chung jotted down some family memories - they became 'Minari'

Minari is about a Korean-American family who moves to rural Arkansas to start a new life on a farm. Youn plays Soonja, the grandmother who travels from South Korea to watch over her two young grandchildren.

“That character Soonja – she’s not your typical grandmother,” says Youn. Soonja is loving and carefree, but also malicious. She swears to watch pro wrestling, drink Mountain Dew, and show her grandchildren how to play.

“She was a widow – a Korean War widow, a single mother, and a working mother,” says Youn of her character. “She likes to have fun because she’s been through a lot. She tries to comfort [her family]. “

Soonja develops a special relationship with her young grandson David, played by Alan Kim. But maintaining a relationship with him takes patience. Soonja is not a “real” grandmother in David’s head – she shares a room with him and never bakes him biscuits. He accuses her of wearing men’s underwear. Soonja is unimpressed. In one scene she hugs him, looks him in the eye and says, “Pretty boy, pretty boy.”

In the film Minari, Soonja develops a special relationship with her grandson David, played by Alan Kim. Josh Ethan Johnson / Courtesy of A24 Hide caption

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Josh Ethan Johnson / Courtesy of A24

In the film Minari, Soonja develops a special relationship with her grandson David, played by Alan Kim.

Josh Ethan Johnson / Courtesy of A24

David interjects: “I’m not pretty, I look good!” as he storms into his bedroom. Soonja laughs and then turns back to the TV to watch the wrestling match.

Youn says that the character Soonja has a deeper meaning in her own life. During filming, she often thought of childhood memories of her great-grandmother.

“It’s a heartbreaking story,” says Youn. “I was born in 1947, so I was maybe three years old when the Korean War started. And after the war we didn’t have enough water, enough rice, nothing. My grandmother died during the war, and my great-grandmother happened to be alive until I was 9. “

Youn says her family had to ration supplies and her great-grandmother reused the family’s water many times. “To me it was very dirty or not hygienic. So I didn’t like it at all. What a stupid thing [to think]”Says Youn.” I didn’t like her because she’s not clean and she would always say that she is not hungry. She would always skip lunch. “

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As a child, Youn did not understand that her great-grandmother skipped meals so her family could eat more. “I didn’t know that,” says Youn. “She never said, ‘I love you,’ but when I turned 60 I suddenly realized I was thinking of my great grandmother. Then I realized, ‘Oh, she saved all the food and all the water for us. I prayed for her every night because I felt terrible, “she says. “I beg your forgiveness, I was very ignorant.”

Youn says she still lives with that guilt, but that the role of Soonja was a chance to come to terms with her painful memories. “I got this script really deeply. It connected me. The script was very authentic and very real to me and a very real story for me. It was very touching. So I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it – without it any condition. ‘””

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