The Triumph of Youn Yuh-jung

South Korea’s most independent actress wins an Oscar

On April 25th Youn Yuh-jung made history by becoming the first Korean woman to win an Academy Award for her performance in Minari. Youn Yuh-jung is a little late to being the first Korean hitmaker at the Academy, thanks to the surprise win of Parasite and its director Bong Joon-ho at last year’s Academy Awards. But her win is the more significant in that at seventy-three years of age, she has long been a major presence in the South Korean Entertainment industry. With her penchant for offbeat supporting roles, Youn Yuh-jung has appeared in a large number of trends even if internationally only projects aimed at film festivals garner her notice.

But that wasn’t how Youn Yuh-jung started out. The best known movie of Youn Yuh-jung’s early career, Woman of Fire (1971), stars her in the leading role as a sinister adultress. Youn Yuh-jung is only barely recognizable as an attractive servant who becomes enraged as the family of the farm where she works gradually wrongs her. A remake of The Housemaid (1960) by the same director, the legendary eccentric Kim Ki-young, Woman of Fire is a weird oddity of an era where South Korean green-lit films to make production quotas more than because they were obviously marketable.

Youn Yuh-Jung
A young Youn Yuh-Jung in ‘Woman of Fire.’

As with most actresses, Youn Yuh-jung couldn’t rely on talent and name recognition alone. Most of her other work in the twentieth century isn’t well-known, simply because South Korean media itself isn’t well-known from this time period. This changed with the Korean New Wave in the late nineties, but by then Youn Yuh-jung was in her fifties and not exactly in a strong position to capitalize on her sex appeal. So she started to rebrand as playing parental figures to lead characters in television shows and movies.

The irony of Youn Yuh-jung being brought to this point in her career despite her reputation wasn’t lost on the actress herself nor those familiar with her ouvre. This led to the most metatextual film of her career with Actresses (2009) which featured Youn Yuh-jung playing herself, alongside five other well-known actress playing themselves, in an improvised script where they just talk about being actresses in the context of a photo shoot. Youn Yuh-jung’s presence is critical because of its sheer mortality. She’s a living reminder that all actresses inevitably get old, yet are still actresses, and still have to work in order to make ends meet.

The weekend hourlong TV drama My Husband Got a Family (2012), however, was what crystallized her reputation into its present form. Youn Yuh-jung’s role as a mother-in-law to a TV drama writer who’s terrified of mother-in-laws relied heavily on the subtext of Youn Yuh-jung basically being the national mother-in-law to really sell the premise. Despite not quite being the main character, Youn Yuh-jung still features on the promotional poster and anchors the entire production, which had record-breaking ratings.

While this cemented Youn Yuh-jung’s status as a national name, her acting chops were still considered top notch as she appeared in, among other prestige films, a full four Hong Sang-soo movies. Despite her age Youn Yuh-jung has proven a natural fit for the modern-day streaming-oriented marketplace of South Korean media. The sheer breadth of projects she’s willing to take on guarantees that nearly everyone has seen her somewhere.

Youn Yuh-jung’s face and even her name is so distinctive that seeing her just once is often all you need to be able to recognize the actress and associate her with quality. Her easygoing manner underscores a full lifetime of being used to the cameras and any possible question. The only film of her career where Youn Yuh-jung qualifies as the sole headliner, The Bacchus Lady (2016), stars her as an aging prostitute who services similarly elderly men. That she could do this movie at all despite having a relatively wholesome image says quite a bit about what Youn Yuh-jung can get away with. In many ways her independence is her brand.

This trend is quickly becoming an increasingly common one with South Korean actors and actresses. For fans of South Korean stars, playing against type can serve as a proof of raw talent- or at least a sincere dedication to the craft of acting as opposed to mere self-promotion. Nevertheless, as of this moment the only way to get an ongoing Youn Yuh-jung fix is via her variety show Youn’s Stay, the effective third season of Youn’s Restaurant, where she leads a group of celebrities in trying to maintain a traditional Korean guest house. It would take me another entirely new article to explain where that trend even came from, but then that’s the magic of Youn Yuh-jung right there. She’s always showing up when you least expect her.

Youn wins an Oscar!


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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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