After a career that has spanned five decades across film and television, Korean screen legend Youn Yuh-Jung is about to enter uncharted territory with the theatrical release of Minari—the Oscar contender that also marks her American feature film debut.
A tender and moving story that explores the complicated truth about the American Dream, the new film follows the journey of a Korean-American family that moves to Arkansas in the 1980s to fulfill patriarch Jacob Yi (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun)’s dream of growing Korean vegetables on an American farm.
With Jacob and his wife, Monica (Han Yeri), being forced to work as chicken sexers to make ends meet, the couple decides to invite Monica’s mother, Soon-ja (Youn), from Korea to take care of their children, David and Anne (newcomers Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho, respectively). A card-loving, hard-talking but incredibly loving elderly woman, Soon-ja immediately alters the dynamics of the family home upon arrival, as she does not conform to David’s expectations of a “real” grandmother.
In an extended Zoom interview, Youn talks to Observer about her own immigrant experience in the United States, her working relationship with Korean-American director Lee Isaac Chung, and the controversy that has surrounded the film during the extended awards season.
Observer: You’ve had such an extraordinary career in South Korea. What was your first experience with acting and why did you want to become an actress?
Youn Yuh-Jung: It’s embarrassing. It started as a part-time job, actually, in my freshman year [at Hanyang University in Seoul], trying to get some money. (Laughs.) At the time in Korea, I think television was a new thing for us back in the ’60s. I was touring, I think, a television station and some guy, a famous emcee, asked me to stand beside [him] on the stage and said, “If I give you a sign, bring the gift for the audience.” So, I did and then they gave me this check, and it was pretty good money. And I was like, “Wow, that’s nice.” So, I started working at the station [called the Tongyang Broadcasting Company].
After a while, a television station director asked me to do some auditions, and I said, “No, no, no. I can’t do that.” Then, he said, “Okay, you will pass, I promise. You will pass. Just get the audition, read this line [in] front of the camera.” So, I did and, of course, I passed. I didn’t bribe anyone or anything, but he promised. I started as “talent,” which is what we call the TV actress [in Korea]. I don’t even know why they call it talent. (Laughs.)
The award doesn’t mean nothing to me. My reward is getting new jobs, new projects—that’s my reward.
Just like the fictional family in Minari, you and your former husband immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s and lived in St. Petersburg, Florida, for almost 10 years, where your two sons were also born, before moving back to South Korea. What do you remember from your early years in America?
Actually, [my ex-husband] was [on] a student visa, and I was his wife. It was a brand new experience. I’d never been in the States at all; it was my first time. I still cannot speak English well, but at the time, of course, I cannot speak English at all. So, [I was] trying to learn how to speak English, and people say just to watch the soap opera, and you will pick up some words. It didn’t help. (Laughs.)
Actually, [my ex-husband] had a scholarship from church—Northside Baptist Church in 38th Avenue—so I attended the Northside Baptist Church. I met friends there. For them, there were no Asian people over there and I’m the only one in that congregation [out] of 2000 people, so they were very curious about me. (Laughs.) So, I learned a lot of things from them and we became good friends. That was my experience.
How did you first meet Lee Isaac Chung? When did you first hear about this project and what made you want to do it?
Okay, so through my producer friend. She introduced me and she had a Korean friend who’s teaching in the University of Utah. (That friend was Chung.) He’s the professor for that film class, and during the Busan International Film Festival [in 2018], there were students [who] wanted to meet some actress [that could also speak English]. She asked me, “Could you meet them?” And she’s my good friend, so [I said], “Okay, I’ll go do that.”
So, I went to meet with Isaac and his students, and Isaac was kind of the moderator between his students and me. And then, the first question was about my first debut movie, Woman of Fire. I looked at him [surprised] because, to me, he was such a young man and he remembered my first movie back more than 50 years ago. [I thought], How did he know about this movie?! I was very impressed.
Then, he liked to talk about that movie, but his students were not interested in that old-time actress. (Laughs.) They wanted to know about my reality show [in Korea]—we call it Youn’s Kitchen—and they all talked about Youn’s Kitchen. I could see that Isaac was very disappointed, and the time was only one hour and it’d just gone by.
Then, later on, my friend sent or brought me the script, and [she told me], “This is [what] Isaac wrote” and to read it. It was written in English, so I really had a hard time to translate. After 30 or 40 pages later, I phoned back to her [and asked], “Is it the real story of him [and his family]?” She said, “Yes.” So, to me, it was very authentic, really. I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”
What were your impressions of working with Isaac as your director? What are some of the biggest differences that you have noticed between working on sets in America compared to Korea?
The problem, I think, is I cannot compare the Korean and the American [because] I only know one American director—Isaac. I know many of them from Korea, but luckily and fortunately, Isaac was very open-minded about my acting and he trusted me. He has a faith on me, so I could play with my freedom. I was very grateful.
You worked with an incredibly talented cast for Minari, who all brought something different to the table. Can you talk about your initial impressions of working with actors like Steven and Alan?
[I had my] first meeting with Steven after he arrived in Tulsa [where the film was shot]. I think he arrived before I did. We were smoking outside and he said to me, “선생님 (seon-saeng-nim).” [Seon-saeng-nim] 선생님 means teacher in Korean—it’s more like a master because it’s [for] senior people. He was very nervous and afraid of playing this role. So, my reaction—as an elderly actor—was that it was a good sign because he was nervous facing this role. I thought, Oh, he will do good. I’m not a fortune teller, but I could say, “He will do good.” (Laughs.) I was right.
With Alan and Noel, Noel was old enough, but Alan was a 7-year-old boy, and I was shivering because [I was working with] a child actor, a 7-year-old boy [who] never had experience acting. I said, “Wow, I’m gonna die.” (Laughs.) [But] I was wrong.
The first day was him and me, I think, and he memorized all of the lines between him and me. With Isaac’s brilliant directing, we took a massive first take between him and me, and we shared the lines together. Then, if Isaac needed some special expression from [Alan’s] face, he asked him to smile at me or smile in front of the camera or do something like that because he would do the magic in editing to make it look real. So, I didn’t have any problem with Alan.
Soon-ja is such a wonderful character because she reminds me so much of my own grandparents and the sacrifices they had to make when they came to live with my family when I was younger. How did you prepare for this role?
So, first, I asked Isaac since it was a bit of a personal story. I asked, “Should I imitate your grandmother? Is there any specific gesture or something?” And then he said, “No, you don’t have to. You just have to play yourself. You do whatever you want to do.” So, he allowed me to have this freedom [which] is a relief because I didn’t have to try to imitate his own grandmother. He has strong faith on me that I [was] really grateful [for]. I could act whatever I feel like to do.
The difficult scene, physically, was the fire scene…. Isaac actually forgot to say, “Cut,” and me being an old-time actress, I was trying to just act.
What personal experiences did you use to build her character?
I’m sure it just comes from the heart with my experience, but I was not thinking I’m a grandmother or something like that. I thought about my great-grandmother. She passed away when I was 9 or 10, I’m not sure, and I didn’t like her like [David] didn’t like [his] grandmother. So, I really thought about her during that time. I felt really guilty and [thought], Stupid me. I didn’t like her because she wasn’t hygienic. If I’m talking about my great-grandmother, it’s breaking my heart.
Minari is a small film in a lot of ways, but it has such a big heart. Was there a scene that was particularly difficult to shoot?
The difficult scene, physically, was the fire scene. You know, you cannot control fire. We cannot calculate that the flame goes this way or that way. So, it was on my face. I tried to put off the fire and then the flame was [coming] towards my face. (Laughs.) That was dangerous and everybody was nervous. Isaac actually forgot to say, “Cut,” and me being an old-time actress, I was trying to just act. (Laughs.)
He forgot to cut?!
He was far away and he was trying to look at the monitor. (Laughs.)
Oh no, I’m sure he must have felt terrible after that. But on a slightly lighter note: Do you have a favorite scene from the film as well?
My favorite scene was [David’s] mother asking him to pray before he went to bed, and his prayer was according to his mother’s information. [He said], “I’d like to see heaven” or something like that. [His] grandma was shocked [and said], “What does that mean?” And then grandma said, “I will never let you die” or something like that. That’s really touching to myself. Only grandmas can do that; only they can give you this strong hope that they will never let you die.
When I watch the movie, I don’t want to learn anything. I just enjoy it. So whatever they see, they can see [from] a different angle.
You have received some well-deserved recognition for this film already, but there has been a little bit of controversy because Minari was put in the foreign film category at the Golden Globes instead of the main one. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Actually, you see, I’m very Korean. This is my first experience and I only watch the Golden Globes thing on the television, so it’s not affecting me. I can’t feel anything, so controversy, I cannot talk about it. I don’t know the detail or the system. I was just trying to learn what happened because [I have] no knowledge. (Laughs.) I’m not a Hollywood person. Hollywood, for us as Korean, that’s another part of the world.
At this stage of your career, do those prestigious awards still mean a lot to you or are you more focused on the work itself?
The award doesn’t mean nothing to me. My reward is getting new jobs, new projects—that’s my reward. Of course, that moment when you receive the award, you’ll be very happy. You could be very happy in the moment. But I’m a very practical person and a very realistic person. If I get a new job, that’s my reward. (Laughs.)
Why do you think it’s so important to tell the stories of the immigrant experience and the difficulties that so many people have to face?
Because everybody is different and this world is getting smaller and smaller. After all, we are the same human beings. You do it this way, [and] I’ll do it this way. People think, If I do it that way and you do it this way, then you are wrong. There’s nothing wrong with doing it one way or another. That’s not the way to treat [each other], I think. I think having a lot of variety and understanding each other means good.
We are all human beings—the same human beings. Don’t categorize that you are yellow, you are white, you are Black, and white is better than yellow or Black or any other skin color. That’s stupid things to compare. We are all different and beautiful.
What kinds of projects would you like to do next? Would you like to do more feature films in America?
I don’t know because with my lack of English, I’m not sure if I can accept a role who speaks [fluent] English. But if there’s a role that cannot speak English very well, I would be suitable for that role. (Laughs.)
What do you want people to learn or take away from this film?
When I watch the movie, I don’t want to learn anything. I just enjoy it. So whatever they see, they can see [from] a different angle. Some people could understand the mother’s part, or the father’s part, or the grandma’s part—it’s a free country. You can feel whatever you feel like to do.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Minari is now available in theaters and will be available on demand starting February 26.