“Yes, she was a little different from the rest of us. I think she was kind of magnanimous for a kid at our age, and was quite cheerful, positive and smart. I can see she hasn’t changed since.”
That’s how my friend recalls Youn Yuh-jung, who won the Academy Award for best supporting actress. My friend, a retiree in the US state of Maryland, was one of Youn’s classmates toward the end of the 1950s. The scars of the Korean War at the onset of the decade were still deep. Poverty was endemic and a shortage of schools meant overflowing classrooms. My friend said she often spent after-class hours with Yuh-jung, studying together to prepare for the middle school entrance exam.
These days, Youn is ubiquitous. Newspapers splash stories about the 74-year-old actress, often peppered with her witty zingers; YouTube channels overflow with footage from her old movies, TV shows and interviews from years ago as well as her recent awards ceremonies and speeches; social media is a cacophony of cheers from her fans and colleagues in the entertainment industry; and publishing houses are planning books about her, even collections of quotations. Some beer and fashion brand ads, normally reserved for young female stars, feature her now.
This is truly an unexpected phenomenon. In South Korea, the majority of veteran actresses over a certain age recede from the spotlight. There are fewer and fewer roles available, and many of those that arise do not complement their talent and experience.
Youn has famously defied the odds to become the first Asian woman to win an Oscar since Japanese-born American Miyoshi Umeki of “Sayonara” in 1958. Her life story, unassuming personality and relatable demeanor make her especially likable. And her incredibly long list of colorful movie characters deepens appreciation of her relentless efforts across generations of moviegoers. It is fortuitous that, whether by chance or fate, minari, the iconic, resilient plant in the namesake movie, is often identified with her.
In her much-talked-about Oscar acceptance speech on April 25, Youn mentioned two directors. First, she thanked Lee Isaac Chung, the Korean American writer and director of “Minari.” She said, “Without Isaac, our captain and my director, I couldn’t be here tonight.” She closed her remarks by saying, “I’d like to dedicate this award to my first director, Kim Ki-young, who was a genius director. I made my first movie with him. I think he would be very happy if he was still alive.”
Youn’s first movie, “Woman of Fire,” directed by legendary maverick filmmaker Kim Ki-young (1919-1998), was an instant sensation when it was released in 1971. The domestic thriller depicted a family’s destruction after the composer husband’s rape of his housemaid, a stark deviation from Korean movies at the time. Youn in the lead role as the housemaid, turning from an innocent country girl to a vengeful femme fatale, startled audiences. Her performance, uniquely feisty and weird, completely veered from the conventional acting style and helped create a different genre in Korean filmmaking.
Decades before Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” and Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting” popularized cult film, critics were sharply divided over “Woman of Fire.” But the film catapulted a fledgling actress into overnight stardom. Youn captured three best actress awards, including one from the Sitges Film Festival in Spain, which specializes in fantasy and horror films.
“Woman of Fire” was a remake of Kim’s own earlier work, “The Housemaid,” produced in 1960. These movies are recognized as great classics of Korean cinema, influencing generations of young filmmakers. Bong Joon-ho, the Oscar-winning director of “Parasite,” has most often mentioned Kim as a source of inspiration. Actually, “Parasite” has scenes reminiscent of these two films.
Explaining many years later why he had picked Youn, then a nearly anonymous TV actress, for the critical character, Kim said, “I liked her eyes. I mean the way she looked at things. She never saw anything straight, but askew from a rakish angle. Her big black eyes, with the whites half-exposed, indicated inherent innocence with a tinge of fear.”
Youn herself recalls the harsh hours she spent making the film, so intolerable that she says she even hated the director. “Before the filming began, the contract required me to meet the director every day for a couple of hours over a month or so. I visited him every day. What did we do? We would just talk, or watch films together and discuss them. I didn’t understand why I had to do it for so long.”
But once the filming started, Kim would ask her to “laugh in the way you did on that day” or “move as you reacted to that particular situation.” Many years later, after she turned 60, Youn says it dawned on her that it was Kim’s way of training her, a novice actress. “I was too young to see how lucky I was. To this day I feel deeply sorry about it.”
Probably, her age or the rough course of her life has deepened her perspective of the world and people. In her own words, she “tried to repay her debt to Kim” while filming “Minari” with Chung. “He’s younger than my own son, but I respect him. On the set, especially the first day is always terrible. But he was so calm, never losing control of himself. He never made anyone feel ignored or humiliated. I saw hope in this young director.”
Maybe, owing to the director’s mature leadership, the “Minari family” -- from Youn as the atypical but loving grandmother to Alan Kim, who played her little grandson, David -- demonstrated a wonderful spirit of solidarity and cooperation throughout the run-up to the Academy Awards. Not only their beautiful movie but watching the crew members in press interviews and TV shows doubled the enjoyment. And capping it all, there was Youn’s pleasant honesty, spiced with impious wit at times, and lifelong devotion to her profession.
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. She is currently editor-in-chief of Koreana, a quarterly magazine of Korean culture and arts published by the Korea Foundation. -- Ed.