A Profile of Youn Yuh-jung, a South Korean Actress

Youn Yuh-Jung, a South Korean actress, has made history by becoming the first Korean to win an Oscar.

Here is a photograph of Youn Yuh-Jung, taken at the 2016 Women In Film Korea Festival.

MY SWEET PEAR TREE

Here is a photograph of Youn Yuh-Jung, taken at the 2016 ‘Women In Film Korea Festival.’

Sprouting in abundance in the summer months of temperate regions in East Asia, minari is an edible plant with a very distinct, bitter, herbal taste. It is often served in traditional Korean dishes such as pajeon, kimchi, and even fried pork belly. But perhaps more relevant to today’s times, Minari is a 2020 film directed by Lee Isaac Chung that follows the Yi family who immigrated from South Korea, as they attempt to pursue the American Dream and are faced with hardship after hardship, every step of the way. 

The film was a hit with American audiences; people resonated with the characters as well as the overarching values of family and perseverance. Even though the film was critically acclaimed, one actress in particular received immense praise for her role in the movie — and in April of 2021, Youn Yuh-Jung made history by becoming the first South Korean actress to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Her portrayal of Grandmother Soon-ja paved the way for this monumental victory. But while Youn Yuh-jung may have just made headlines in America, her career as an actress in South Korea began many years prior.

Youn Yuh-jung was born in 1947 and grew up in the city of Seoul. She attended Hanyang University before dropping out in favor of pursuing an acting career. While she made appearances in a number of television shows in her early adulthood, it was not until 1971 with her role as femme fatale Myeong-ja in the film Woman of Fire when she first rose to fame. For a period of time, Youn Yuh-jung mainly focused on roles that empowered women, playing characters who went against the gender norms that existed in South Korea during the late twentieth century. 

In 1974, Youn Yuh-jung retired from acting after she married singer and television personality Jo Young-nam. She immigrated to the United States, where she lived for about a decade, before returning to Korea to re-immerse herself in her passion for acting. Shortly after this, she and her husband separated, an event that briefly damaged her reputation, due to the taboo nature of divorce in the South Korean nation at the time.

With her return to the spotlight, Youn Yuh-jung once again played roles that challenged the status quo. As a middle-aged actress in a relatively conservative nation, she was expected to exclusively play the “docile, submissive housewife” stereotype in every movie. Instead, she played characters who were confident, independent, and even outrageous, such as her portrayal of a scandalous character in a corrupt conglomerate family in a 2012 film The Taste of Money

But it was her role in Minari that elevated her status from merely a nationally acclaimed actress to an international acclaimed one. Although the immigrant family of four in the 2020 film mainly speak Korean to each other and are treated as foreigners in places like the church and the workplace, they have still been “Americanized” in a variety of ways – which is why the introduction of Youn Yuh-jung’s character in the middle of the film is so significant. The arrival of Grandmother Soon-ja causes a great deal of cultural contrast in that she brings traditional values and customs of Korean culture with her. Her character highlights not only the importance of preserving culture, but also the importance of family sticking together during times of peril. And it was the combination of all of these values that allowed the film to be such a hit with American film audiences, which subsequently led to her triumph in the Academy Awards in April 2021

While the award that Youn Yuh-jung won exemplified a lifetime of achievement for her, the implications of this victory in regards to the future of film in America go even further. Ever since the 2019 South Korean film Parasite took the world by storm, winning four Academy Awards in early 2020, the horizons of the American film audience have been broadened, as they have become more open-minded to movies that encompass a wide variety of different cultures and lifestyles. And the reception that Minari received this year only further validates the notion that a film does not have to follow the traditional formula of an American film in order to be revolutionary. “There is definitely a diversity issue in the Oscars, but Youn Yuh-Jung’s victory is definitely a step in the right direction,” said Suhani Madan ‘22.

Youn Yuh-jung’s acting career saw many instances where she actively turned stereotypes on their head and challenged the standards that were expected of a woman like her, and the legacy that she will leave behind in the film industry will be unparalleled for the years to come.

While the award that Youn Yuh-jung won exemplified a lifetime of achievement for her, the implications of this victory in regards to the future of film in America go even further. Ever since the 2019 South Korean film Parasite took the world by storm, winning four Academy Awards in early 2020, the horizons of the American film audience have been broadened, as they have become more open-minded to movies that encompass a wide variety of different cultures and lifestyles.

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