‘Minari’ breakout Yuh-Jung Youn makes Oscars history as first ever Korean acting winner

Alan Kim as David and Yuh-Jung Youn as his grandmother Soonja sit in a car.
Alan Kim, left, as David and Yuh-Jung Youn as his grandmother Soonja in “Minari.”

Break out the Mountain Dew and raise a glass: South Korea’s Yuh-Jung Youn made history Sunday night, winning the supporting actress Academy Award for her role as the mischievous but wise grandmother Soonja in Lee Isaac Chung’s family drama “Minari,” her American film debut.

She delivered one of the wittiest speeches of the night, greeting presenter Brad Pitt with excitement. “Mr. Brad Pitt, finally. Nice to meet you. Where were you when we were filming in person?” (Pitt’s production company, Plan B, produced “Minari” and the Oscar-winning actor is credited as an executive producer.)


Youn is the first South Korean performer to be nominated for an Oscar for acting in the 92-year history of the Academy Awards, and is now also the first to win. She is the second actress of Asian descent to win in the supporting category, more than six decades after Miyoshi Umeki won in 1958 for “Sayonara.”

The versatile Youn, 73, is a household name in her native country, where her celebrated film and television career began 50 years ago with daring roles for the director Kim Ki-young (“Woman of Fire”). Her screen work made fans of filmmakers like Oscar winner Bong Joon Ho, whose “Parasite” took home four Academy Awards last year including best picture.

But decades ago, with her career on the rise, Youn gave up acting to move to America to raise a young family. After a divorce she contemplated working at a supermarket in Florida. At 38, she told The Times, she decided to come out of retirement and went on to stardom in the South Korean entertainment industry.

Onstage, Youn dedicated her Oscar to the late Kim, who cast her in her first film role, 1971’s “Woman of Fire.” “He was a genius director,” she said. “I think he would be very happy if he were still alive.”

She also thanked her two adult sons, who were children when she found herself a single mother and made the choice to return to acting. “This is the result, because Mommy worked so hard.”

Sunday night, Youn beat out newcomer Maria Bakalova (“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”), Amanda Seyfried (“Mank”), two-time nominee Olivia Colman (“The Father”) and eight-time nominee Glenn Close (“Hillbilly Elegy”) to win her first Oscar.

In her acceptance speech, Youn downplayed the competitive nature of the awards with such wit and grace she had her fellow nominees smiling. “I don’t believe in competition. How can I win over Glenn Close? I’ve been watching her in so many performances,” she said. “So this is just all the nominees, five nominees … we play different roles, so we cannot compete [with] each other.”

Perhaps it was luck, Youn joked. “Maybe I’m luckier than you,” she quipped. “And maybe [it’s] American hospitality for the Korean actor? I’m not sure. But anyway, thank you so much.”

Emerging as an awards season powerhouse, Youn won over Oscar watchers with her irreverence in acceptance speeches and in the press (“I am way over 70, so I can do whatever I want in my house,” she told The Times while vaping and sipping celebratory champagne the day of her Oscar nomination) and collected BAFTA, SAG and Spirit Award supporting actress wins as well as dozens of critics awards and nominations.

‘Minari’ actress Yuh-Jung Youn on the critically acclaimed family drama from Lee Isaac Chung and her legendary acting career.

Youn was relatively unknown to U.S. audiences until her finely tuned performance in Chung’s acclaimed semi-autobiographical tale about a Korean American family trying to establish a farm in 1980s Arkansas.

Inspired by Chung’s childhood, “Minari” follows immigrant couple Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han), who move to an Arkansas farm with their young children David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Cho). While Jacob sets out to make his American dream flourish with the help of a local eccentric (Will Patton), the arrival of Monica’s unconventional mother Soonja (Youn) throws David’s world into turmoil.

The film and its performances drew instant acclaim at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where it won both the grand jury and audience awards in the U.S. dramatic competition. “Minari” picked up a total of six Oscar nominations including best picture, director, original screenplay, score and an acting nod for Yeun, his first, marking the first time an Asian American has been nominated for best actor.

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