MINARI Interview: Korean Cinema Legend Youn Yuh-jung on the Art of Being Fearless

Screen Anarchy

MINARI Interview: Korean Cinema Legend Youn Yuh-jung on the Art of Being Fearless

One of the Grande Dames of Korean cinema, Youn Yuh-jung has never been afraid of taking a chance.  Her 1971 feature debut in Director Kim Ki-young’s psychosexual thriller, Woman of Fire,  sealed Youn’s reputation as a bold maverick amongst actresses.  Nearly fifty years later, Youn makes her US feature debut as the matriarch of Minari, Director Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical opus; a role which has already won Ms. Youn many awards and new fans around the world.

Zooming in from Vancouver, Ms. Youn spoke of her long connection with Director Chung, the importance of supporting roles, and revealed the secret of being fearless.

The Lady Miz Diva:  First, I’d like to say congratulations, Ms. Youn, MINARI was awarded Best Picture by my writing group, New York Film Critics Online, and I’m especially thrilled that we also awarded you Best Supporting Actress. 

Youn Yuh-jung:  Oh, thank you.  Thank you very much.  I’m grateful.

LMD:  You are not new to working on US projects {SENSE 8}, but this is your first full-on feature.  What made you trust Director Lee Isaac Chung with this big step? 

YYj:  Well, he, himself was first trusting me.  My dear friend introduced him to me during the Busan Film Festival.  He was teaching, he was on the faculty at the University of Utah.  He was a friend of my friend, and he asked her if he could have a Q&A with me and his students.  I said yes.  He was the moderator for me and the students, and his first question to me was about my first movie, which I made when I was 22 or 23, and I was very impressed that this young man remembered my old time movie. {Laughs} How could he remember or watch that movie?  So, he already impressed me from the moment I saw him. 

So, he was going to talk about the movie, but none of the students were interested in my old movies, or my career.  I have a reality show in Korea that they named after me, Youn’s Kitchen, it’s called.  They all talked about Youn’s Kitchen.  So, I could see that Isaac was very disappointed, but he was nice enough to not interrupt them, or say ‘Please don’t ask that.’   

Time passed by, and later, my friend, Ina {sp?} sent me a script, she said, “Isaac wrote this script.”  So, I was reading it — at the time I got the script, it was written in English, so I really had a hard time.  After 30 or 40 pages on, then I called Ina back and asked, “Is it the real story of him?”  She said, “Yes.”  So, I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”  That’s where we started.

LMD:  Having watched too many Korean dramas, I’m familiar with the trope of the spiteful, overbearing mother-in-law.  With Soon-ja, as brash as she is, she really doesn’t interfere, or tell the children what to do.  There is a fragility in her presence, because we don’t know why she was left in Korea, and if it’s possible that she could she be sent back.  I view Soon-ja as someone walking on eggshells a bit, trying not to be in the way, while being herself.

Tell us how you struck that balance between her liveliness and exuberance and this delicate way she manoeuvres in the family. 

YYj:  It’s all Isaac’s script.  It’s all Isaac’s work. 

LMD:  Really?  Are you sure?

YYj:  Yes.  He did it all.  That’s why I liked that script, because he’s very honest and genuine.  Because it’s all done through the perspective of David’s eyes, the seven-year-old boy’s eyes; that’s what I liked about this movie very much.  It’s Isaac’s view of humanity and love that I was very impressed by.

LMD:  In the last film I saw you in, BEASTS CLAWING AT STRAWS, you played an elderly mother called Soon-ja, who had Alzheimers.  Now in MINARI, you play an elderly mother called Soon-ja, who has a stroke.  

YYj:  Soon-ja is a very common name in Korea, especially at her age.

LMD:  Playing any character with a critical illness is a challenge for any actor.  How did you research how to play MINARI’s Soon-ja’s stroke?

YYj:  My first question to Isaac was, “Should I just imitate your grandmother?” because he remembers exactly what she did.  So, I asked him, and he said, “No.  No, don’t.  Just do it your own way.”  So, he gave me the freedom, so I was very grateful.  

Then I researched it, actually, I studied with one of my neurologists about strokes, ‘How should I act?’  I was sure I wasn’t going to have a lot of help from the studio, because it was an indie movie.  I prepared. {Laughs} Indie movie means you’re not going to have luxuries.  So, I practiced, and the doctor was kindly enough that he came to my house and brought all the YouTube things for me.  Then he, himself, would perform in front of me, “If you get a stroke on this side, then don’t use this side,” so he gave me the details.  I researched this character that far.

LMD:  While MINARI is about an immigrant family making their home in the US, it has universal qualities that anyone can appreciate.  Could you please talk about some of the aspects that anyone around the world can enjoy about this story?

YYj:  During the interviews, I found out that we are all the same people.  I thought that maybe there were some scenes between the grandson and Soon-ja, like when she tries to feed him the chestnuts {chewing for the child} — that scene, I’ve actually seen many Korean grandmothers do that when they visit the US — so, I was not sure if it was okay with somebody else.  But I found out today, one of the Spanish interviewers said she had the same experience where the grandma chews the walnut and gave it to them.  But I’m sure that the grandmother’s love is universal.

Sacrifice; that they think love is sacrifice.  That’s true love.  And they think that they’re doing their duty, but it’s more than duty.  She sacrificed, and of course, all parents, they sacrifice to give their children a better future.  So, it’s all universal, I think, all of it.

LMD:  One motif that’s really beautiful is when Soon-ja introduces the minari seeds into that marshy area, and basically says, ‘This is the right place, it’s just going to grow.’ and the plants eventually flourish.  It feels like a theme of the movie, to not try so hard, just find some good ground and let nature happen.  Is that what Soon-ja was saying when she brought her grandson, David there?

YYj:  Of course, it’s the grandma with experience, living that long period of time, she failed and she succeeded, I’m sure, in her life, maybe, but she gained wisdom.  She probably learned from the generation before, and then she knows how to plant the minari; which place is a suitable place for the minari.  That’s a grandma’s wisdom, I think.

What I learned about minari while we were shooting, which was we were just eating it; we just thought maybe it’s like a water celery, or watercress, but it has a special, particular fragrance, minari, that usually when you are young, when you are a child, you don’t eat it, but when you get older, we eat it often.  Not every time, like kimchi, but we eat it very often. 

I didn’t think about that vegetable until I made this film, and then I learned that and a lot of things from Isaac about this minari.  It will clear the soil, and it will clear the water, and if you plant it, after the first year, it’s not coming back, but from the next year, it’s coming back as a vegetable, and then it grows forever.  So, that I learned. {Laughs}

LMD:  Kim Ki-young, Im Sang-soo, Hong Sang-soo, your wonderful work with Kang Je-gyu and E J-yong, you’ve worked with some of Korea’s greatest directors, and now, young American Director Chung.  Is there a similar quality, or creative line that runs through those directors that you are drawn to? 

YYj:  I don’t think they have a connection, or a similarity together.  All of them are all different.  But, when I choose my script, maybe, there is some similarity because of the script, but their personalities are all different.

LMD:  Despite working with legendary filmmakers, you still appear in projects by newcomers.  Is it important to you to encourage new talent?  What is the motivating factor in what you will appear in?

YYj:  During these interviews, I discovered that maybe it’s in my genes?  I like to try out new things.  I don’t want to just do the same thing over and over, because it makes me bored.  I liked trying new things, that’s what happened to me.

LMD:  In light of being one who likes to try new things…  Your first two features, WOMAN OF FIRE and INSECT WOMAN; are still pretty shocking.  Who was playing roles like this in South Korea in 1971?  What gave you the courage at age 23 to play a character in such a daring film, so early on?

How have you kept that fearlessness all through your career, even now when taking a big chance by making this overseas film?

YYj:  Yes, I am fearless, I think.  Come to think of it, I am fearless.  But at that time, a long time ago, when I was a beginner, I started to have a career as a TV actress, and the scripts were coming to me, but to me, they were all the same boring stories.  Back in the 70s, it was the poor girl meets the rich boy, and then the rich boy’s family denied the poor girl’s family, blah, blah – that kind of thing.  It was all similar. 

Then one day, I read the scenario from Kim Ki-young, and the script was very different.  So, I said, “Okay, I’ll do this one.  I like this one better than the same old story.”  That’s why I started like that.  So, maybe I’m very stupid, or very fearless, or something. {Laughs} Yes!  Because if you are ignorant, then you can be fearless!  {Laughs}

LMD:  If you don’t know to be afraid, then you’re not afraid.

YYj:  Yes.  Yeah, right, if you know everything, then you’re not going to do that.  But I’m very fearless, because I’m ignorant. {Laughs}

LMD:  Your career runs through modern Korean cinema of the past 50 years.  Did you ever think before 2019 that a fully Korean film {PARASITE} would win an Oscar?

YYj:  {Shakes head} I never even dreamed it.  I’m not a “beautiful dreamer.”  I’m not a dreamer; I’m a very realistic person, and very practical.  When I decided to do this MINARI, it was just because of my friend.  I trust her.  She said I should do it, so, okay, I’ll do it.  And she sacrificed her whole vacation for me; that was her devoted love for me.  So, I was with her the whole time.  She was supporting me behind the scenes, so I had to do it because of her. {Laughs}

Of course, I finished the mission, and okay; then I never think about what’s going to happen to this movie, or something.  And then at Sundance, I saw this movie for the first time, and while it was very beautifully done, so, I was so proud of him, but me, I was not enjoying watching my movie, because I always don’t want to watch myself.  It’s like looking at the mirror.  I always say, “Ahh, I shouldn’t have done it like that.  I could have done better than that.”  

So, I was watching me, and then I was the coach for Steven Yeun’s Korean language — we were all coaching each other — and Steven, I noticed in one scene that he didn’t lose his accent, so after we finished watching the movie, I said, “You still used that English accent in Korean.”  He would say, “Oh, I know.”  We were sharing like this, and the people were laughing and crying, so I said to Ina, my friend, “Why they crying?”  She said, “You are the only one not crying.”  So I said, “Huh?” {Laughs}  I was just examining all the scenes, so I’m not the audience, actually.  

Then later on, they called Isaac’s name after the movie stopped, and Isaac was on the stage, and the whole audience was giving him a standing ovation like a classical concert.  Then I cried. {Laughs}

LMD:  You have been working since you were a young girl.  I’m sure if you wanted, you could live on a tropical island and never have to see another camera.  What motivates you to work as hard as you do? 

YYj:  If I retired and went to a tropical island, I’d get bored! {Laughs} I don’t want to get bored.  As long as I can remember the lines, I like to do the part of the movie, or the part of the drama.  Even if it’s a small part; I don’t care if it’s small or big.  I thought when I was young, I was always supposed to have the leading role, but at this time, I enjoy being a supporting actress.  Being a supporting actress is a very, very honourable thing, come to think of it, because I’m supporting, I’m supporting everybody before that movie.

I’m still learning.  First, I could’ve been a leading actress, and then I found out, oh, no, no, no, this is very honorable, for my age; a supporter.  I support Steven, I support {Han} Ye-ri, I support Alan {Kim}, I support Isaac, I support everybody.  If you are supporting for somebody that is very, very cool. {Laughs} Very cool.

LMD:  What is your next project? 

YYj:  Actually, I am here in Vancouver, right now.  I am in quarantine.  I need to shoot Apple TV’s PACHINKO.

This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.

ScreenAnarchy – MINARI Interview: Korean Cinema Legend Youn Yuh-jung on the Art of Being Fearless
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February 22, 2021

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