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Long before his Oscar ‘Minari’, Youn Yuh-jung captured the hearts of South Korea

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SEOUL – “Minari,” the critically acclaimed film about an unlucky Korean immigrant family in the United States, wasn’t exactly a commercial blockbuster in South Korea: less than a million people watched it in 54 days of projection across the country.

But when one of its stars, Youn Yuh-jung, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress on Monday, South Koreans rejoiced not only because it was a first for a Korean actor, but also because of the recipient.

On Monday morning, South Korean media ran news flashes when Ms. Youn won her Oscar. Cable channels have announced their intention to screen his previous films. Social media was abuzz with fans congratulating her.

“Her performance brilliantly helped us relive the memories of our own mothers and grandmothers,” President Moon Jae-in said in a statement, referring to Ms. Youn’s character in the film.

Ms. Youn was the first Asian woman to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress since 1957. But it was the story of her life – as well as those of her characters – that made her award resonate so deeply in Korea. of the South, especially among women who have struggled for a long time. under the predominantly male hierarchical order of the country.

Minari is a parsley-like vegetable that is ubiquitous in Korea. It grows anywhere with a little moisture, including swamps and abandoned rice paddies.

If there’s anyone like minari in the South Korean film industry, it’s Ms. Youn.

Long before her Oscar, Ms. Youn’s image as a fiercely independent woman with an often irreverent spirit had won her over to South Koreans. During her 55 years as an actress, she often took on any job she could get, including Korean soap operas, independent films, and reality shows. Her success defied the predictions of male producers who saw her as straightforward and found her voice hoarse and unappealing.

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“The producers said they would eat their hats off if I became an actress,” she once told a South Korean cable channel. “Unfortunately, they’re all dead now.”

For most of her career, Ms. Youn had no choice but to take the job as it came. She had early success in films such as 1971’s “Woman of Fire”, but left the theater to marry Jo Young-nam, one of South Korea’s best-known singers. In the 1970s, she followed him to the United States, where Mr. Jo attempted a career as a gospel singer. The marriage ended in divorce in the 1980s.

Ms. Youn returned to Seoul to resume her profession at 38. South Korean society at the time still had deep prejudices against divorced women, forcing it out. With two sons to raise, she said she “never had the luxury of actresses who have wealthy husbands and can pick and choose movie roles.”

“I did my job to survive and to put food on the table,” she told a South Korean TV station in 2009. “An actress can do her best when she has the most. need money. When you are hungry, you put your best effort into your job. “

Her versatility has earned her roles as femme fatale, loving grandmother, and even prostitute on the hill. When the producers chose “A Good Lawyer’s Wife” (2003), many actresses declined the role of a woman who has sex with another man while her husband is terminally ill. Ms. Youn took on the role, saying she could use the money to redo her salon.

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She played the role of an evil queen in a Korean soap opera so well that people would often curse her when they saw her on the street.

“People love him because they know his life story,” said Huh Eun, retired media professor in Seoul. “When they think of her, they don’t think of the glorious projector usually associated with movie stars, but of a woman who struggled to make a living for all these years like all of us.

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Ms. Youn’s global breakthrough came when she was offered a role in “Minari”.

As news of her award hit Monday morning, other female actresses and fans in South Korea flooded social media with their favorite Ms. Youn dry humor.

“I am 67 years old this year and this is the first time that I am 67 years old,” actress Kim Hye-soo said quoting Ms. Youn. “This is our first time living this life, so we can’t help but feel sorry and hurt.”

Ms. Youn’s Oscar acceptance speech went viral for a characteristic tongue-in-cheek demeanor. The award was presented by Brad Pitt, whose production company funded the film. “Mr. Brad Pitt, well, nice to meet you!” She said to the American superstar. “Where were you when we were filming in Tulsa?”

“Minari” depicts a Korean family struggling to build a farming life in rural Arkansas in the 1980s, when many poor Koreans moved to the United States for a better life. This is the second Korean film to make Oscar history, after “Parasite,” directed by Bong Joon Ho, won four Oscars last year.

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“Parasite” garnered more than 10 million viewers within two months of its release. Part of the reason “Minari” failed to achieve the same commercial success in South Korea is that the 1980s immigrant experience she describes is quickly fading away.

Nowadays, far fewer Koreans migrate to the United States, and those who do are usually children of wealthy families who go there to study. That could change, too, as Koreans watch hate crimes involving Asian-American victims soar in the United States.

But Ms. Youn struck a chord with South Koreans in her role as Soonja, the rude but loving grandmother of “Minari” who moves from South Korea to the United States to care for her grandchildren. . Her grandson does not regard Soonja as a “real grandmother” and complains that she “smells of Korea”. They slowly build a bond by playing cards together and sharing Mountain Dew, which Soonja seems to think is a healthy drink because it’s made from “mountain dew”.

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After “Minari” started racking up awards at film festivals in recent weeks, fans started calling Ms. Youn “the Meryl Streep of Korea”. She did what no other Korean actor or actress did: While “Parasite” won Best Picture and Best Director, none of its actors were nominated for Oscars.

At the awards ceremony on Sunday evening, Ms. Youn said her real inspiration was her two children. “I want to thank my two boys who took me out and work,” she said, holding her statuette.

“This is the result because mom worked so hard.”

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