What about 'Minari'?
I wouldn’t be the only one who is having the season absorbed in Youn Yuh-jung. Just as I did for months, indulged in Director Bong Joon-ho after he had awarded the Palme d’Or at the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival in 2019. He has become a ‘genre of one’s own.’ By winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress at the 93rd Academy Awards for her play in <Minari>, an American film directed by Korean-American Lee Issac Chung, Youn made the ‘mission impossible’ possible. She has opened a new chapter in the cinematic history of Asia and the world, not to mention of Korea. Her achievement is all the more splendid and meaningful since it was given to an ‘Asian woman’ in ‘her 70s’ who played a ‘supporting’ role.
Right after her winning an Oscar, I wrote about Youn in an article in April, asking the question “What kind of actress Youn Yuh-jung has been? Has she been one of the best actors or actresses in Korea recognized for their outstandingperformance, such as Kim Hey-ja, Jeon Do-yeon, Choi Bool-am, and Song Kang-ho? Or has she been one of Korea’s top stars such as Kim Ji-mee, Jun Ji-hyun, Shin Seong-il, and Lee Byung-hun?” My answer went as follows: “All kinds of acclaim are rushing toward this ‘heroine’ both domestically and internationally, but I wouldn’t join the flow. If we consider her career during the 21st century only, she has never been treated as a star, let alone a top star. She has not been around as a main actress so much but as a veteran supporting actress. However, if we talk about ‘the one who has always challenged oneself and faced new adventures’, my opinion turns different. Youn Yuh-jung’s courage and spirit would be second to none, considering her career interruption for about 10 years due to her marriage in 1974 and living in America until she returned to acting in <Mother>(Park Chul-soo, 1985).”
That was not a simple flatter. Two months later from then, my opinion about Youn has becomemuch more definite. We cannot choose but admire Youn’s persistent vitality if we look into Youn’s acting career in the Korean Movie Database of Korean Film Archive (www.kmdb.or.kr). Let’s focus on her feature films. Youn Yuh-jung’s filmography is filled with just over 30 features, including <Minari> and Im Sang-soo’s <Heaven: To the Land of Happiness> (working title), which was one of the Official Selection of the 73rd Annual Cannes Film Festival last year but has been on hold for premiering due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Given that her screen debut was in 1971, she has been playing in films at rare intervals. Three possible reasons could explain the rarity. She might not have been that popular as an actress. She might have been too picky in selecting films. Or acting in TV dramas might has been more attractive to her.
Unsurprisingly, Youn Yuh-jung has never collaborated with Lee Chang-dong, Park Chanwook, or Bong Joon-ho, the so-called big 3 directors of Korea today. She hasn’t even worked with Im Kwon-taek who is known for his prolific career directing 102 movies so far. Even though she played in three films of Kim Ki-young who has been now one of Korea’s great directors, in <Woman of Fire>(1971), <The Insect Woman>(1972), and his posthumous a <Be a Wicked Woman>(1990), Kim was far from on his heyday when directing the three. Despite the successful comeback in <Mother>, her career had almost been interrupted until she made a unique impression in <A Good Lawyer’s Wife> directed by Im Sang-soo in 2003. Even when she appeared in popular TV series such as <Love and Ambition>(Choi Jong-su, 1987) and <Sand Castle >(Kwak Young-bum, 1988), her roles were not of great importance.
<A Good Lawyer’s Wife> served as a turning point for Youn. Beginning with the film, Youn has performed both leading and supporting roles in one or two films every year, and successfully added her uniqueness to them. Twenty-five of her films are the ones made after that. She collaborated with Im Sang-soo for 7 films, 4 films with Hong Sang-soo, and 3 with E J-yong. All three of them are known for their controversial styles, and Youn’s uniqueness seems to go well with the three. She has worked with a ‘box-office director’ only once. It was in Director Kang Je-gyu’s <Salut d’Amour> in 2015. It is known as one of the best films about seniors in Korea but was not great box-office hit, attracting around 1.2 million audience. She played an elderly woman in her 60s who treasures the feeling of love.
A while ago, I had an opportunity to talk about ‘Why Hollywood is paying attention to Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung’ at a breakfast gathering of some companies. I pointed out several characteristics of Youn’s that companies could be interested in benchmarking. One of them was her being adventurous. Youn has been proving the saying ‘No risk, no reward,’ and ‘high risk, high return’ by going adventurous in her life. She has once stressed that she had no choice but to act to feed her two sons. And that explains her being ‘desperate’ in acting. Then the desperateness has led to the diversity of her roles. She has performed quite a variety of roles ranging from a housemaid, a wife taking revenge on her unfaithful husband, a middle-aged cheating wife, a nun, actress Youn Yuh-jung herself, an aged housemaid, a greedy chaebol heiress, an aged prostitute and a mother to a grandmother. Without the words ‘adventurousness,’ ‘desperateness,’ and ‘diversity,’ we can hardly understand how she has sometimes appeared in poor films such as <A Tale of Legendary Libido>.
Yet such characteristics are not enough to explain the current Youn Syndrome since there have been many more actresses with those characteristics. Youn is distinguished from others in the field because she has pursued certain values looking beyond making money. She has earned vitality through her consistent and personalized acting. She has been confident, forthright and passionate for her age. I wonder if Korea had, have or could have many such actors or actresses in its cinematic history.
Based on such opinions, I would like to selectYoun Yuh-jung’s 11 best films. Starting from the last for fun, I would put <Keys to the Heart>(Choi Seonghyun, 2018) on eleventh. Her play as a mother of two sons was touching enough. Tenth goes to <Minari>, the crucial motive for the Youn Syndrome. Hope the readers are not too shocked. I know I am being too harsh. But I would like to stress that the historical achievement of <Minari>, including the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and other 40 or so awards could be attributed more to the eccentric character of grandmother 'Soon-ja', rather than to Youn’s acting itself. Well, that is simply my personal opinion.
I would put <Salut d’Amour> on ninth and <The Housemaid> on eighth. The latter could even be picked the best in terms of awards record. It was recognized at almost every domestic Awards such as the Blue Dragon Film Awards, the Buil Film Awards, and the Grand Bell Awards. <The Taste of Money> which drew wild attention when invited to the Cannes Competition is not on the list because of its similarity to <The Housemaid>. I would say the two films are like fraternal twins.
Seventh is taken by another Im Sang-su’s film, <A Good Lawyer’s Wife>. It has already proved its significance and no need for another critique. <Springtime> directed by late Ryu Jang-ha goes to sixth. I think this film, along with <Salut d’Amour>, has not been recognized enough. Youn played an ideal mother in this masterpiece, leaving me an impressive aftertaste. Fifth goes to <The Insect Woman> and the fourth to <Mother>. I found <Mother> was of high quality in both directing and screenplay, which is not surprising given that it was written by Kim Soo-hyun. Though she was only in her 30s back then, Youn showed mature and powerful acting. Another point worthy of recognition in this film is that a female protagonist alone carried out a personal revenge, which had been regarded mainly as males’ job. Comparing it with Bong Joon-ho’s <Mother> (2008) would provide another fun, especially when focusing on her facial expressions.
I would give third and second to <Canola>(2016) and <The Bacchus Lady>(2016) respectively. In the former, Youn’s acting of a grandmother couldn’t be better. As for the latter, it would not fall behind others to be chosen the best in Youn’s filmography. In this film about seniors, her character So-young would not have been created if it had not been performed by Youn. Soon-ja in <Minari> cannot compete So-young in <The Bacchus Lady> when we focus only on acting. The honorable best film is <Woman of Fire>, as readers might have expected. It is a remake of Kim Ki-young’s <The Housemaid> \(1960), the masterpiece never to be challenged.Youn Yuh-jung in Woman of Fire might overwhelm Lee Eun-sim in The Housemaid in terms of acting. I put the similar one, <The Insect Woman> on 5th for the same reason.
I remember watching this provocative film <Woman of Fire> as an elementary school kid in a movie theater located in a bustling area of Seoul. I had to stay quiet holding my breath not to be caught by the police. Youn Yuh-jung on the signboard couldn’t look more risqué. I used to choose <Heavenly Homecoming to Stars>(Lee Chang-ho, 1974) as my life-changing film that would lead me to the career of film critic. Come to think of it now, it might have been this <Woman of Fire> since it has been in my mind for over 50 years. It was, of course, thanks to Youn Yuh-jung. She swept awards for that movie in many film awards or festivals including the Best Supporting Actress at the Sitges Film Festival. Just as she did with <The Housemaid>(2010) years later. We could say Youn’s monumental achievement was already announced in a sense. Like Youn once said, we could see how things turn living long.
Jeon Chanil(Film critic, Chairperson of Korea Cultural Contents Critic Association) / Translated by Ok Eurom