Whether you know it already or not, Yuh-Jung Youn is a 2021 trailblazer. She is making history as the first South Korean actress to ever be nominated for an Academy Award for her unforgettably humorous and endearing performance as the grandmother “Soonja” in A24’s Minari. Fresh off of her BAFTA and SAG award wins, the 73-year-old actress is quickly gaining momentum as a frontrunner to take home the prestigious “Best Supporting Actress” Oscar on April 25.
Even with pressures and expectations building around her, Yuh-Jung seems to have no interest in competing with her fellow nominees. “Honestly, I don’t like competition, especially between actors,” Yuh-Jung tells Forbes. “They’re all playing different roles for different movies. There’s no way to compare. Just being nominated, all five of us are winners actually. Society is very funny. People like to compete with each other. I don’t like that. It’s not the Olympics. Every individual has their own role for the different movie. I’m sure they did a brilliant job.”
Minari is the story of a South Korean family in the 1980s that decides to move to rural America, in hopes of creating a better, more prosperous life for themselves. Beyond Yuh-Jung’s nomination, Minari has received a total six Oscar nominations this year, including “Best Picture,” “Best Actor” Steven Yeun and “Best Director” Lee Isaac Chung. Though Yuh-Jung seems like a breakout star to many in the U.S., in reality, Yuh-Jung is a well-known actress in South Korea, with an impressive lifetime of film and television projects that are now expanding across the Pacific. “I’m working five decades in Korea, not including U.S. That’s the first project, Minari is,” Yuh-Jung continues. “I was just speaking Korean in that movie, so to me, it wasn’t a Hollywood movie. I was just playing a role, same as Korea. I didn’t expect to be this much reception from the American people, so that surprised me.”
Yuh-Jung’s journey to this moment did not come without its sacrifices and struggles along the way. In the 1970s, during the height of her career at the time, Yuh-Jung moved to the U.S. to support her new husband, accepting responsibility and tradition over her own passions. “Back in old days in Korea, when you get married, your career is over, especially actress,” Yuh-Jung says. “He was studying in the U.S. I didn’t have a chance coming back to Korea. 50 years ago, it’s not easy to come back and forth like that. I became a housewife. I didn’t mean to quit it. It just happened.”
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When Yuh-Jung’s marriage was not working out and a divorce became imminent, her acting comeback was not immediate. When speaking about her experience returning to South Korea after her marriage, Yuh-Jung recalls, “It was terrible because people all forgot about me and I’m the divorcée in Korea. Back in that time, the divorcée is like the scarlet letter. That woman is strong-headed woman. She should obey to husband and she should promise marriage commitment. She broke the commitment, so I don’t have a chance to come on the television or I don’t have a chance to have a job. I became a single mother. I had to go out and work and nobody gave me the job because I’m the divorcée. It was a terrible time. I tried to get any role, just in order to feed my two boys. I don’t care about the pride of who I was before when I first debuted and I was a star 20 years ago. It was all gone. I became a very mature person from that time, I think.”
Now in 2021, when Yuh-Jung should be able to freely indulge in this exciting moment she has so earned around her Oscar nomination, she still sees challenges in her way with the senseless Asian hate crimes that have been occurring across the U.S. and the world, incidents that have Yuh-Jung’s own sons concerned for her well-being as she plans to return to the U.S. for the upcoming Oscars ceremony. “My two sons are Korean Americans living in the states. My son living in LA, he is worrying about me coming to the states for the Oscars because you might get hurt on the street or something like that. Who knows? You’re an old woman. They’re aiming old woman. Can’t you have security guard or something? That’s terrible. He’s worrying about me just being old woman being attacked.”
Even with the difficult circumstances currently facing our world, Yuh-Jung understands what this historic Minari Oscar nomination truly signifies, not only for herself but for the future of the Oscars and the growing diversity now being seen within the Hollywood film industry. “I’m just grateful for Isaac and Steven and everybody. We made this film together. It’s unreal to me actually because we found out nobody had been nominated for an Oscar in Korea in history. In a way, it’s sad but you know, I’m very grateful. Life is not bad. It’s full of surprises.”