Year 2021 is the year for Youn Yuh-jung. She has become a global actress, being the first Korean ever to win an acting Oscar at the Academy Awards. But in <Minari> that has brought her such a huge glory, she is not even a protagonist. She is a ‘supporting character’ the mother of the main character Monica. The award she accepted was also for the best ‘supporting’ actress. It can be said that the supporting star inside the movie shines brighter than the main star outside the movie.
Youn Yuh-jung has been under a spotlight as an actress beginning with <Woman of Fire>, <The Housemaid>, <The Taste of Money>, <In Another Country> to her latest <Minari>. Her splendid time is all decorated with her movies, but critical moments of her life have always been with TV dramas. After her debut as an actress on TV in 1966, she was first recognized in the TV show <Jang Heebin> in 1971. Then she made a successful return from a long break in <Love and Ambition> in 1987. Above all, it was all through TV dramas that enabled Youn to hold her life not as an actress but simply as one human.
Youn Yuh-jung’s drama
In her movies, Youn is an impressive character performing problematic figures and confronting the common sense of the time. Youn in TV dramas, however, is quite different. People remember Youn in dramas as a mother, a wife, and sometimes a grandmother, all of whom can be easily found in our daily lives. If someone says movies in Youn’s life have been a midsummer night’s dream full of challenges and adventure, her dramas have been the field where she has to spend a long day. Even after attending the Cannes Film Festival for <The Housemaid> in 2010, she appeared as Kyongsan’s wife in TV series <Golden Fish> and as Young-gu’s mother in <Listen to My Heart>. Winning the first ever acting Oscar as a Korean does not seem to have changed her a bit. She is now playing another mother and grandmother in the Apple TV+series <Pachinko> that tells a story about the 4 generations of a family during the Japanese colonial period. Once the curtain of a movie goes down with a standing ovation, she walks out with an indifferent look to return to the ordinary figures’ daily lives in dramas.
A character in a movie stays with us for a short but intense period of 2 hours whereas a character in a drama shows a slow and long life experiencing all kinds of emotions for dozens or hundreds of hours. Youn once said, “whenever I seized an opportunity to act, I did my best whether it was a leading or a supporting role.” As she said, it is her dramas that have helped her hold her life. They are not fancy but have always been with her. Dramas are the most important ‘supporting role’ in Youn’s life.
Youn Yuh-jung’s acting in dramas
Youn does not have a great personal theory on acting. She is not one of those who say that art is their savior or they were born to act. “I acted risking my life only to survive.” Just like TV dramas have been her life and her reality, her acting is also like a documentary without exaggeration. Youn has drawn great attention to herself through perfect performing of unique and unconventional roles in movies. On the other hand, the wife, the mother or the grandmother she acted in dramas make pleasant harmony with other characters.
She has been taking various roles with all different importance in over 100 drama series so far, but there is one thing shared in common among them. That she does not stand out. She permeates her role in a very natural way just like breathing. For an ironing scene, she repeats rehearsing her lines 100 times or so holding an iron in her hand until it feels natural.
Youn Yuh-jung creates a likely figure with her own realistic acting. In the series <Ruler of Your Own World>, she is a middle-aged woman who fled from domestic violence leaving her young son, only to return for money later. She whines to her grown-up son saying that not a single man has ever cared for her in her life. That’s when she sheds a drop of tear. Instead of deploring her life with a wail, she chooses to keep back her tears with a nonchalant attitude in order to maximize her sadness. And that way, Youn creates an ordinary woman longing for love, not a cold-hearted mom who left her own son. To Youn Yuh-jung, dramas are her life and her life is a drama. An actress performing one’s life, that is Youn Yuh-jung.
Youn Yuh-jung’s drama writers
Youn has created her own original dramas with two drama writers, Kim Soo-hyun and Noh Heekyung. Actress Youn Yuh-jung has always been with writer Kim Soo-hyun on crucial points of her roller-coaster life. Thanks to her role in Kim Soohyun’s series <Stepmother> in 1972, then-25-yearold rookie Youn became a star. When in critical situations returning to acting after a long break, she was able to gain popularity again through Kim Soohyun’s series <Love and Ambition>. Later, in the 90s, Youn made steady appearances in hot drama series such as <What is Love> and <Men of the Bath House (all written by Kim) consolidating her spot in the acting field.
Writer Noh Hee-kyung has brought to her drama series Youn who had been through winds and waves of life in person. In <The Reason I Live>(1997), Youn attracted viewers playing a bar hostess who spoke in a picky tone delivering wisdom of life. In <Worlds Within>(2008), Youn appeared as Oh Min-sook, a veteran supporting actress respected by many younger actresses. Oh was Youn’s ‘old future’ of 2021, and that brings the character all the more realistic. That way, Youn has built her originality with the help of writers Kim Soo-hyun and Noh Heekyung, and now stands as a ‘special’ actress who sells her own brand.
Youn Yuh-jung’s Youn Yuh-jung
Youn says she just wants to be ‘Youn Yuh-jung’ instead of being called the new somebody. The only one she competes against is herself. “If an actor or actress finds acting easy, then it means he or she is going downhill.” Youn competes against future Youn, not Youn of the past making constant efforts. Even at the moment she catches the star above the sky, she does not stop working. Sometimes she could take a break to enjoy the sweet and shiny outcomes that movies present her. But she never stops because she knows well how she has come along. Now we can say that Youn Yuh-jung of ‘this moment’ is the second best actress in her world. She yields the best title to future Youn and goes on as she has been. Youn Yuh-jung, the shiniest supporting star in the world is still on her journey.
Kim Min-jung (Media critic) / Translated by Ok Eurom