Photo: Youn Yuh-jung in The Bacchus Lady (2016). Credit: Korean Film Council.
Youn Yuh-jung 윤여정 made history on April 25, becoming the first Korean actor to win an Oscar with her Supporting Actress award for her scene-stealing depiction of an unconventional immigrant grandmother in Lee Issac Chung’s Minari 미나리. True to form, she stole the show again as she received the Oscar, razzing the presenter Brad Pitt (who was Minari’s executive producer): “Mr. Brad Pitt, finally. Nice to meet you. Where were you when we were filming in Tulsa?”
Youn Yuh-jung began her career as a bombshell seductress, first gaining fame in her leading role as Jang Heebin 장희빈 in the eponymous TV series in 1971 about the notorious 17th century Joseon Dynasty 조선왕조 queen consort who rose to power with scheming machinations. So convincing was the 24-year-old Youn’s depiction of the wicked queen that she would have rocks thrown at her as she walked the streets. Youn further gained stardom with her film debut in Woman of Fire 화녀, a 1971 film by Kim Ki-yeong 김기영 in which she played a domestic helper who destroys the family she worked for by seducing the husband.
Then she threw it all away for love. At age 27, Youn married pop singer Jo Yeong-nam 조영남 and moved Florida, where she lived for 13 years until her husband’s relentless womanizing led to a divorce. Returning to Korea to Korea in 1987 at age forty, Youn took on every small part to make ends meet. Eventually, her talent shone through: Youn once again became a household name by starring in several 90s hit dramas like What is Love 사랑이 뭐길래 and Men of the Bathhouse 목욕탕집 남자들. In the 2000s Youn Yuh-jung began focusing more on film roles, rising once again to superstardom. With her role in Im Sang-su 임상수’s The Housemaid 하녀 - a 2010 remake of Kim Ki-yeong’s 1960 classic - Youn Yuh-jeong swept every South Korean movie award for supporting actress role that year.
By persevering through a long and winding career, Youn Yuh-jeong became the rarest of sights in South Korea’s entertainment scene: an older actress who refused to be pigeonholed into the typical motherly and grandmotherly roles, but instead projected charisma through emotional intensity, surprising sensuality and irreverent humor. This persona connected seamlessly into her unconventional grandmother character in Minari, catapulting her into becoming the first Korean actor with an Academy Award.