In her Oscar-winning flip in final 12 months’s Minari, Youn Yuh-jung performed the mischievous granny you wished you’d had: the one who ignores your fun-sucking dad and mom, takes you on wild adventures and teaches you to do your individual factor. “You’re not an actual grandma,” her Americanised grandson tells her. “They bake cookies! They don’t swear! They don’t put on males’s underwear!” In actual life, Youn is fairly related: full of life, humorous, unpretentious, and, she admits, not all that good at cooking. The 74-year-old actor has had an unconventional life and profession, and most of us within the west know solely a tiny fraction of it.
“My downside is, I don’t plan something!” Youn laughs over Zoom from Los Angeles. Not like her character in Minari, she speaks fluent English, though she apologises for it not being ok.
Youn didn’t even plan on being an actor. “It was an accident,” she says. As a literature scholar in Seoul within the late Nineteen Sixties, she visited a tv studio the place they had been filming a kids’s present. A presenter on the present requested her to face beside him and obtain a gift from the viewers. “So I did, after which they gave me a giant cheque.” She was invited again the next week to do an audition, which she handed. Inside a few months she had the lead position within the kids’s programme. Did she benefit from the expertise? “Truthfully, I loved the cheque.”
Her profession path from there was not totally unintended. She grew to become a rising star due to her TV portrayal of Jang Hui-bin, a Seventeenth-century royal concubine. That led to provides from film studios, however she turned most of them down. “Normally it was, like: ‘Poor woman meets wealthy boy after which the household denies her and so they can’t get married.’ It’s all the identical story. To me it was very boring.”
Then alongside got here Kim Ki-young, to whom Youn devoted her finest supporting actor Oscar (after flirting with Brad Pitt). The movie was 1971’s Lady of Hearth, a melodrama that’s excessive even by right now’s requirements. Youn performs a rural peasant working as a maid for a well-to-do composer and his pregnant spouse. Earlier than lengthy she is having an affair with the weak-willed maestro, and in addition turns into pregnant. All hell breaks unfastened: the story takes in adultery, rape, abortion, homicide, suicide and even rat-stomping. However Lady of Hearth additionally highlights Korea’s class divides and patriarchal traditions.
Kim was the nice provocateur of Korean cinema, who has been in contrast with Luis Buñuel, Samuel Fuller, Nagisa Oshima and Roger Corman. His work tended in direction of the erotic, the lurid and the horrific, however usually with a sociological chunk. Lady of Hearth was a remake of Kim’s landmark 1960 movie The Housemaid, an affect on the work of contemporary auteurs corresponding to Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho (Parasite is actually a variation on the identical theme: lower-class interlopers upsetting privileged domesticity). Kim would remake The Housemaid once more in 1982, after transforming related themes in his equally weird 1972 movie Insect Lady, by which Youn once more performs the femme fatale. This time she’s a schoolgirl compelled to develop into mistress to a rich man, however turns the scenario to her personal twisted ends.
Uninhibited, passionate and forthright, Youn got here to embody a brand new kind of unbiased Korean girl. Korean society actually was male-dominated on the time, not least the movie business. “I’m not the Korean magnificence customary,” Youn laughs. “To be an actress you needed to be fairly, very fairly. They didn’t care about performing. So to them I’m very strange-looking, and in a great way. Very fashionable. Not obedient to anyone.” Youn credit her liberal-minded mom for that. She and her two sisters had been born in Kaesong, in what’s now North Korea. The Korean warfare started in 1950, when she was two years outdated. She remembers being evacuated to the south, travelling in a freight prepare carriage with no seats. Her father died when she was 9. Her mom skilled as a nurse and raised the youngsters single-handedly.
Youn would quickly come to expertise simply how patriarchal Korea nonetheless was. In 1974 she married Jo Younger-nam, a well-liked singer. “He was rather more well-known than me.” They moved to Florida, the place Jo studied theology, and, as custom dictated, deserted her performing profession to develop into a full-time mom, elevating their two sons. In some methods, her American expertise mirrored that of the household in Minari. “The church congregation was 2,000 individuals. Me and my husband had been the one Asians.” She didn’t communicate a phrase of English, however the neighborhood was welcoming and useful, and she or he by no means skilled discrimination, she says.
The wedding didn’t final, although, and the couple divorced in 1987 (in latest interviews Jo has stated he regrets having cheated on Youn). Youn had little selection however to return to Korea and resume her performing profession. “Any individual needed to put meals on the desk,” she says. The couple’s divorce was a nationwide scandal. (She not engages with the Korean media, she says. Even since her Oscar win she has performed no interviews with them.) The stigma of being a divorced girl meant producers hesitated to offer her work. She would get small roles right here and there, the place no one would discover her. “I didn’t care about what sort of position. I didn’t have any selection. I simply labored.”
On digicam as in life, although, Youn’s spirit appears to be irrepressible. The work steadily improved. In 2003 she started a fruitful partnership with Im Sang-soo, a film-maker very a lot within the Kim Ki-young vein. In A Good Lawyer’s Wife – an infidelity drama not dissimilar to The Ice Storm – she performs a grandmother who’s having an affair with a youthful man whereas her husband is dying. “I’m lastly having an orgasm,” she tells her gobsmacked son. She has labored with Im three extra instances, together with on his own modern-day spin on The Housemaid, which was an enormous home hit and performed in competitors at Cannes in 2010. This time, Youn performed the wily senior maid who by no means misses a trick. Lee Jung-jae, star of Netflix’s Squid Sport, performs the person of the home. Elsewhere, she has continued to gravitate to the much less well mannered roles: in 2016’s The Bacchus Lady she was a aged prostitute servicing Seoul’s lonely seniors (“Don’t name me granny. My vagina continues to be younger!”). She’s not afraid to take these roles, she says. “It’s not my life however it’s someone’s life.”
In recent times, Youn has developed a brand new profession as a actuality TV star. Most younger Koreans would recognise her right now from her hit present Youn’s Kitchen. The concept is genius: benefiting from well-known Koreans’ relative anonymity overseas, a bunch of celebrities run a pop-up Korean restaurant in overseas places. Thus, unsuspecting punters in Spain is perhaps served by Parasite actor Park Seo-joon (who has 20 million Instagram followers) or Practice to Busan star Jung Yu-mi. In the meantime, chef Youn is toiling away again within the kitchen. “Oh I used to be very drained,” she laughs. “My legs had been swollen and I complained, ‘That is harassment of aged individuals!’” Initially she refused to do it: “I don’t cook dinner! If my maid shouldn’t be coming to the home that day, I’ll simply go hungry. However [producer Na Young-seok] saved coming to my home and making an attempt to persuade me.” Finally she gave in, and the present has been a smash hit. In a single episode, a visitor invitations Youn to come back and cook dinner at his lodge in Switzerland.
The present won’t run for much longer: the anonymity of Korean stars is fading by the day. Korean tradition is now a world drive, in cinema, in pop music and in tv. Youn hasn’t watched Squid Sport but, she says. “I’m right here in LA. If I begin watching it, I’m afraid I received’t have the ability to cease, so I’ll wait until I get dwelling.”
Does she have an evidence for why there’s a lot nice cinema coming overseas lately? “There has at all times been nice cinema in Korea,” she says. “Nevertheless it’s solely now the remainder of the world is paying consideration.” She says when she met film-maker Park Chan-wook after the Oscars, “he stated, ‘I’m questioning, why did you get the award? As a result of you may act that in your sleep. It’s nothing particular to you.’ He meant, I feel, no one noticed me whereas I used to be performing in Korea.”
Youn now has work on either side of the Pacific. Simply earlier than the Oscar nominations she shot Pachinko, a miniseries for Apple TV tailored from the bestselling Korean-Japanese-American immigrant story. She will get provides from the US, however “nothing appropriate”, although she would like to do one other film with Minari director Lee Isaac Chung. She’s at all times up for one thing new. “I like journey. I’m both very courageous or very ignorant. However when you already know all the things you can not do something.”