Youn Yuh-jung is an institution in Korean cinema. Her career spans five decades and includes starring roles in classic Korean films and famous TV dramas. Now, at 73, she has newfound fame in the U.S. for her role in the Oscar-nominated film Minari.
Youn is nominated for Best Supporting Actress, making her the first South Korean woman ever to be nominated for an Academy Award in an acting category.
"This has never happened in Korea, and I feel like I'm an Olympian competing for my country," Youn tells NPR in a call from her home in Seoul. "It's very stressful," she says with a laugh.
The film Minari centers around a Korean-American family that 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 a typical grandmother," Youn says. Soonja is loving and lighthearted, but mischievous, too. She swears, watches pro wrestling, drinks Mountain Dew and shows her grandkids how to gamble.
"She was a widow — a Korean War widow, a single mother and a working mother," Youn says of her character. "She likes to have some fun because she's been through a lot. She tries to comfort [her family]."
Soonja develops a special bond with her young grandson David, played by Alan Kim. But cultivating a relationship with him takes patience. In David's mind, Soonja isn't a "real" grandmother — she shares a room with him and never bakes him cookies. He accuses her of wearing men's underwear. Soonja is unfazed. In one scene, she embraces him and looks into his eyes, saying, "Pretty boy, pretty boy."
David interjects: "I'm not pretty, I'm good looking!" as he storms off into his bedroom. Soonja laughs, then turns back to the TV to watch the wrestling match.
Youn says the character Soonja holds a deeper meaning in her own life. While filming, she often thought about childhood memories of her great-grandmother.
"It's a heartbreaking story," Youn says. "I was born in 1947, so I was maybe 3 when the Korean War started. And after the war, we didn't have enough water, enough rice, nothing. My grandmother passed away during the wartime, and my great-grandmother happened to be alive until I was 9."
Youn says her family had to ration supplies, and her great-grandmother would often re-use the family's water. "To me, she was very dirty, or not hygienic. So, I didn't like her at all. What a stupid thing [to think]," Youn says. "I didn't like her because she's not clean and she'd always say she's not hungry. She would always skip lunch."
As a child, Youn didn't understand that her great-grandmother was skipping meals so her family could have more food. "I didn't know that," Youn says. "She never said, 'I love you,' but I realized, after I become 60 years old, all of a sudden I thought about my great-grandmother. Then I realized, 'Oh, she was saving all the food and all the water for us. Every night, I prayed for her because I felt terrible," she says. "I ask her for forgiveness, I was very ignorant."
Youn says she still lives with that guilt, but says playing the role of Soonja offered a chance to come to terms with her painful memories. "I really understood this script, deeply. It connected me. The script was very authentic and very real to me, and a very genuine story to me. It was very touching. So, I said, 'OK, I'll do it — without any condition.' "
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Actress Youn Yuh-jung is an institution in Korean cinema. Her career spans five decades and includes starring roles in some classic Korean films and TV dramas. Now at the age of 73, she has newfound fame here in the U.S. with the Oscar-nominated film "Minari."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MINARI")
STEVEN YEUN: (As Jacob, speaking Korean).
NOEL KATE CHO: (As Anne, speaking Korean).
YOUN YUH-JUNG: (As Soonja, speaking Korean).
MARTIN: The film centers around a Korean American family trying to make a go of it with a farm in rural Arkansas. Youn plays the grandmother, Soonja. She's traveled from Korea to watch after her grandkids. But her little grandson, David, needs some time to get used to her.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MINARI")
YOUN: (As Soonja, speaking Korean) Pretty boy, pretty boy. Pretty...
ALAN KIM: (As David) I'm not pretty. I'm good-looking.
MARTIN: "Minari" is up for six Academy Awards, including a best supporting actress nomination for Youn, the first for a Korean actress. We asked her about it when we called her at her home in Seoul.
YOUN: Tell you the truth is, it's very stressful because Korean has hope. You know, this has never happened in Korea. And I feel like I'm an Olympian just competing for my country (laughter). So it is terrible feeling, tell you the truth is.
MARTIN: Oh, no.
MARTIN: So you feel pressure...
MARTIN: ...Even though the work is done. You've done the work.
MARTIN: But it comes with a sense of responsibility, I guess, is the answer.
MARTIN: Yeah. Can you tell us about the woman you play, your character, Soonja? What did you want to make sure she represented?
YOUN: Love, sacrifice for the grandson and, you know, like second generation - that's just human nature. Love means sacrifice for somebody else.
MARTIN: The grandson is played by this young actor named Alan Kim, who is just marvelous in this movie.
YOUN: Yes, yes (laughter).
MARTIN: He is not - he's not so sure about you. He complains that you are not, in his mind, what a real grandma is, that you you swear too much. You don't know how to cook. You don't make him cookies. You say that the root of that relationship was sacrifice. Can you just describe how it unfolds?
YOUN: The reason she cannot cook or can't, you know, like a typical grandmother because she was a widow - Korean War widow, single mother, and she was working mother. So she doesn't know how to cook because she was working all along for her daughter. Yeah. And she liked to have some fun because she's been through a lot (laughter), you know...
MARTIN: And make life light...
YOUN: Yes, yes, yes.
MARTIN: ...No matter how dark and heavy...
MARTIN: ...Everything else appears to be, focus on the light.
YOUN: Yeah, she's trying to just comfort them.
MARTIN: And David, the grandson, eventually does find comfort in his grandmother. He lives with a life-threatening heart condition, and one night he gets scared.
I love the moment in the film when you're lying with David. You two share a room; you sleep on the floor. And he is trying to pray before he goes to bed, but he's afraid that if he says these prayers that he will slip off to heaven in his sleep. And you're hearing him struggle through this.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MINARI")
KIM: (As David, speaking Korean).
MARTIN: Can you describe what it was like to play that scene? I understand you've said it was one of your favorites in the film.
YOUN: Yes, that was my favorite scene because we just connect - between David and me was connecting each other, I think. I would just grab him. And then I said to him, no, I'm not going to let you die.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MINARI")
YOUN: (As Soonja, speaking Korean). (Singing in Korean).
MARTIN: I read that you thought a lot about your own great-grandmother while playing this role. Can you tell us about her?
YOUN: This is heartbreaking story. Well, I was born in 1947, so I was maybe 3 when Korean War started. And of course, after the war, we don't have enough water. We don't have enough rice. Or nothing is properly done. And my grandmother passed away during the war time, and my great-grandmother happened to be alive until I was 9, and she trying to save the water because we only have city water in certain time for the family. Certain - you will get the...
MARTIN: Right, rations.
YOUN: Yes, ration.
MARTIN: She was only allowed rations of water, right.
YOUN: So she trying to save the water. She - so I saw her when I was 9 or 8, and she used it - reuse it. Then, to me, she was very dirty or not hygienic, so I didn't like her at all. What a stupid thing. I didn't like her because she's not clean. And she always say she's not hungry, and she always skipped lunch. I didn't know at the time. She never said I love you. But I realized that after 60 years old, my great-grandmother sacrificing.
MARTIN: After 60 - is that what you're saying? After the age 60...
YOUN: Yes. After 60 - after I become 60 years old, all of a sudden, I thought about my great-grandmother. Then I realized, oh, she was saving all the food and all the water for us.
YOUN: So it's heartbreaking.
MARTIN: Did playing this role as Soonja, then, offer some sense of coming to terms with your memories of your great-grandmother?
YOUN: Yes. Every night I prayed for her because I felt terrible. I was very ignorant. Then later on, when I got this script, I really understood this script deeply. It connected me. The script was very authentic and very real to me and very genuine story to me. It was very touching. So, OK, I'll do it without any condition (laughter).
MARTIN: Yeah. Well, it's been such a pleasure to talk with you. We so appreciate it. Youn Yuh-jung - she is one of the stars of the Oscar-nominated film "Minari."
Thank you so much.
YOUN: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF EMILE MOSSERI'S "HALMEONI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.