Although there could have been something chaotic about the arrival of Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), her introduction in Minari is almost unassuming. She’s left her home in Korea to come to the aid of her daughter Monica (Han Ye-ri) and her family. They also left their homes in California to move to rural Arkansas, where Jacob (Steven Yeun), her daughter’s husband, hopes to build a better life for them.
We know Soon-ja is coming––her grand-children have heard their parents argue over it. Her youngest grandchild, David (Alan Kim) has started to fear her even. And yet when the door opens and we see Soon-ja for the first time, like David, we become enthralled by her. A pillar emanating love, aware that someday we won’t be unable to accept it. And love it back.
But while she waits, Soon-ja gets acquainted with the lands where she will help her daughter’s family plant eternal roots. Youn Yuh-jung, like her character, has never waited for permission to leave a mark. As a very young actor she broke the mold of what kinds of characters women could play in Korea and in cinema. Her sexy, conniving femmes fatales broke the same grounds that have allowed the actor to be a cinema icon outside of Hollywood.
She never needed America, but when she came she made it better. Youn, too, lived in America as a young woman. She left success in Korea to be with her husband in Indiana. Youn, like her character, has a story to tell about immigration. The wisdom she brings to Lee Issac Chung’s gorgeous lovesong of a film reinforces the central theme of allowing oneself to grow and thrive in lands unknown. We had a conversation with the actress where she looked back at her life to shine new light on her work.
The Film Stage: In a strange coincidence, I ended up watching the film on the anniversary of my grandmother’s passing. I was extremely moved by your performance and the bond it shows between grandchildren and grandparents. I wonder if you can share a memory about your own grandmother. Was she someone that you had in mind when you were playing your character in the film?
Youn Yuh-jung: Of course, my grandmother actually passed away during the war, so I don’t have a big memory of her. Instead of my grandmother, I had a great-grandmother. I’m not using my great-grandmother as a character, but I thought about her a lot during the filming. She passed away when I was 10. And I felt sorry for her still, and very regretful. After the Korean War everything was you know… have you been in the war?
I have not, no.
No, you haven’t. Okay, a pandemic compared to war is nothing. We came back to Seoul, after having moved to a different part of Korea to live and everything was destroyed. Because of the bombing and everything. We had a water shortage because service was available only during certain hours. Water, electricity, everything was wrong.
So my great-grandmother was trying to save water, I think. But at age 9 or 10, I didn’t understand why she used dirty water again and again. So I didn’t like her at all. It’s breaking my heart that stupid me thought “Oh, my grandmother is so dirty, why is she using dirty water.” She tried to save the water. So that memory came back to me while I was in Tulsa, filming. The grandmother in the film has wisdom about planting things. And she could make a lie, but if a plant was dead, she couldn’t make it alive. And that memory came to me while I was filming.
That is so beautiful. Because right now I thought about the fact I had never had a plant in my home. Now I have a lot of plants and I learned that my great-grandmother had a green thumb. I find it really interesting that you mentioned that one of the reasons why you wanted to make the film was because you were so surprised that the director knew your early work, and I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that. What was it that surprised you so much about someone that you thought of so young, knowing your work?
He knew about a film I made 50 years ago, so to have a young man like Isaac know about it surprised me. “Oh, how old is he to know about my first film?” I thought and I found out he was studying film history. So that was a very nice first impression of him. And he knew me––not present time, but back 50 years ago––so I grew to be very fond of him.
When you started acting, did you consciously decide to not play traditional characters of the era?
Not intentionally, I think, but in my genes. I think I usually watched television or somebody else’s work and then sometimes it always seemed overacted to me. So no. I always enjoyed watching documentaries. Like in a Korean documentary, the one the old lady lost three sons, and then they have a very traumatic, tragic life. But I realized it’s very interesting, they are not crying, they are not weeping. They can say all the past things like somebody else’s history.
So I realized what usually happened is we portrayed people with a severe condition, as people who were moaning and weeping and everything. So I was thinking, maybe we’re not doing what we’re supposed to do. That’s what changed my thinking when it came to acting. I can not express that nicely in my English, but it wasn’t intentionally. Maybe it’s something in my genes and heart.
You were studying literature in university, right?
Did anything you learned in literature served you in your career as an actor?
You know, I didn’t finish college. Actually, I just did two years. So I don’t know what I learned. I just liked to read novels, that’s probably why I chose that major. So I don’t know.
That’s more than fair. I hope that those were two fun years, at least, that you had in university. Although I haven’t experienced war, I am a political refugee in the United States. I had to leave my home country in 2009, and I haven’t been able to go back. So it’s not the same in any way, but I understand what it’s like to come to the United States as an adult, and to try to make sense of the culture here. You moved to the US as a young woman and I was hoping we could talk for a bit about what we find odd about culture here, as opposed to explaining to Americans about our own cultures.
I remember the first time when I thought it was more luxurious than Korea. Everything is very mechanical. I think they were starting the microwave oven at that time. So everything was very new and very different. But today to me, because of living in a small country, we have international knowledge about how some people live differently or something like that. But I found out the American thing is they only know about America.
I remember a question an old lady asked me when I came here. Now I became an old lady at the time she was an old lady, and she asked me: do you have the same sky like us? So I said I didn’t get it. She had never been outside in the world. Indiana was her whole her life. She saw someone like me for the first time in her life as the Oriental girl. So I didn’t know what she meant with the sky. And so later on, I thought “the sky is blue, same as America.”
I love the moment where your character becomes obsessed with Mountain Dew. Is that also your soda of choice? Or do you have a soft drink of choice that you prefer?
Isaac had the same exact experience with his grandmother and then I can feel that because at my time, in Korea, we didn’t have Mountain Dew. We had Coca-Cola and the 7 Up thing. Similar ones, but not Mountain Dew. So I can imagine that was very new for her, and since she thought it came from the mountains, she thinks it’s good for her or something. So she kept asking for that.
But, do I like it? Not really, I don’t. [Laughs]
What do you find to be the most overrated and underrated parts of being a working actor?
It can be overrated because there is too much media and then when you have an interview, of course I said this but when you write it, they make it bigger than what I said. Exaggerating is sometimes uncomfortable.
And underrated, people think I’m stupid because I cannot speak English fluently. Of course they think of the acting since it’s very emotional and very temperamental. But they’re all complimentary. It’s all the same I think of myself just as I took my acting. It’s a job to me, not a very special feeling. It just happened to be that I’m an actress. It’s a job.
Minari is now in theaters and available digitally.