Korean cinema is on the rise! Aside from dominating in Asia, it is also getting the global recognition it deserves. Remember when Parasite won four Academy Awards, including Best Motion Picture of the Year? Yeah, we’re still not over it! On top of that, Korean veteran actress and Minari star Youn Yuh Jung made history in 2021 by bagging the golden statue at the 93rd Oscars for Best Supporting Actress. Not only is she the first Korean actress to receive an acting Oscar, but she’s also the second Asian actress to do so since 1985.
For Yuh Jung, achieving the accolade was the unthinkable-turned-reality as she grew up watching the ceremony from the other side of the world. Despite being a renowned actress in Korea, she remained humble, stating in her acceptance speech, “All the nominees, we are the winners for different movies. We played different roles, so we cannot compete with each other.”
Before her claim to fame, she overcame great adversity in her life.
Below are 10 things you should know about Youn Yuh Jung that made her the the distinguished thespian she is today:
1. She is a Gemini.
Yuh Jung was born in South Korea on June 19, 1947, making her a fabulous Gemini!
2. She worked at a TV station but did not dream of becoming an actress.
Can you believe that this accomplished veteran didn’t originally plan on becoming an actress? Sometimes things just fall into place! Her entry into showbiz was a complete accident. Throwback to a fortuitous event in the 1960s: While touring a TV station, she was invited to hand out tokens to the audience of a game show. This was followed by other similar jobs until a director from the company encouraged her to audition for dramas. With zero knowledge on the craft, she did her best to memorize the lines and follow directions. Yuh Jung wasn’t sure if she even liked acting in the first place!
3. She successfully debuted in the TV series "Mr. Gong".
Yuh Jung’s performance in the television drama Mr. Gong led her to being hailed as TBC Drama Awards’ Best New Talent in 1969! The series signaled the start of her more than five-decade-long career.
4. At 23 years old, she played a steamy seductress in her first movie.
In her early years, Yuh Jung was best known for her femme fatale role in her first movie, Woman of Fire (1971), which earned her numerous awards. Centering on an affair that results after the wife of a composer hires a young live-in maid, the movie underlyingly comments on social class injustice. Coupled with exaggerated acting and unrealistic events that ultimately defined late Director Kim Ki Young’s eccentric cinematic style, Woman of Fire instantly became a hit!
Working for a freethinking director like Ki Young was not a walk in the park for Yuh Jung who starred in two of his movies—the second was Insect Woman (1972). Despite that, she thanked him in her Oscars acceptance speech, hoping that he would be happy with her achievement.
5. Her blossoming career took a pause after she moved to the United States.
Yuh Jung immigrated to Florida in the 1970s after marrying her now ex-husband, Jo Young Nam. She initially planned to learn English and star in American Christian films, but overcoming the language barrier proved to be too difficult, forcing her to give up on her acting career. During her stay in the U.S., Yuh Jung brought up her two children while her husband sang in church and attended college. Years later in the 1980s, the couple divorced and she took her children with her to back Korea.
6. She returned to the acting industry at 40 years old, taking whatever role was presented to her.
Being a single mom and a divorcee was frowned upon in Korea, a country with strong family values, so Yuh Jung thought she could not return to the acting industry. Despite that, a friend of hers eventually convinced her to have another go at her career.
In her forties, she took whatever role came her way, no matter the scale, to provide for her children. She returned to Korean television in 1987 by playing a manager in the popular series Love and Ambition. The show was written by the same friend that encouraged her to come back—renowned Korean television writer Kim Soo Hyun! In time, she became known for mostly playing mother and grandmother roles. After freely accepting projects for years, come her 60th birthday Yuh Jung promised to only work with creatives she trusted. It’s safe to say, her decision and her hard work are now definitely paying off!
7. She has a reality TV series about travel and food!
Yuh Jung is celebrated for portraying nonconformist and strong female characters, but when she’s not dominating on scripted shows, she spends her spare time hosting Youn’s Kitchen, now titled Youn’s Stay. After airing in 2017, Youn’s Kitchen became a hit with a celebrity cast that included Jung Yu Mi, Lee Seo Jin, Shin Goo, Park Seo Joon, and Yuh Jung herself! As the principal cast members, Yuh Jung and her team traveled to foreign countries to run Korean-style restaurants.
The success of its first two seasons pushed tvN to produce a third, but due to the global pandemic they rebranded the show instead to Youn’s Stay. Instead of travelling abroad, the cast now runs a hanok guesthouse, cooks Korean cuisine, and invites visitors to learn about their culture. Choi Woo Shik, who is known for Train to Busan, Our Beloved Summer, and Parasite, joined the new season as well. Hopefully we can book a visit after the pandemic!
8. She went viral for her BAFTA acceptance speech
Before her historic Oscars win, Yuh Jung first made waves in the U.S. for being the first Korean actor to take home an acting award from The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA). She was, of course, named Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Soon-ja in Minari. Receiving the accolade remotely, her hilarious and charming acceptance speech went viral and instantly won over the internet.
Watch it below! Spoiler alert: She casually and comically calls British people “snobs”.
9. Her Oscar nomination brought her great pressure due to Parasite’s previous success.
Parasite’s success paved the way for more Asian creators to be recognized abroad, and Yuh Jung is not oblivious to this fact. Jokingly, she told director Bong Joon Ho that it was his fault for putting pressure on her when she found out about her nomination since the Korean media would just not stop raving about her accomplishment. “It’s very stressful. They think I’m a soccer player or an Olympian,” she said in an interview with the New York Times. “That pressure is really hard on me. [Because of Bong’s movie] they have hope I can win. I keep telling him, ‘It’s all because of you!’”
10. "Minari" is her first American film
Following decades of experience in the industry, Yuh Jung continues to prove that despite her expertise there is always a first for everything. Minari is her introduction to American cinema which makes it even more impressive that she’s so far garnered more than 30 nominations just for her role in the movie.
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