When Lee Isaac Chung took his contemplative family drama, Minari, to Sundance in January of 2020, he introduced a new group of American and international film audiences to the Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung. A film and television star at home in Korea, Youn has worked on many projects, getting her start in the 1970s before taking a break that lasted into the mid-1980s. Once she returned to the screen, she never looked back.
Accepting the role of Soonja, a grandmother who travels to America to help care for her daughter’s children, gave Youn a wealth of new experiences and opportunities. It is also a role that has been widely praised throughout the awards season as her work has been cited by many critics’ groups, and by the Screen Actors Guild.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Youn Yuh-jung about Minari, working with Lee Isaac Chung, and what makes grandmas so special.
Karen Peterson/We Live Entertainment: Minari premiered last year at Sundance, and has just been such a big hit throughout the film industry this year. How has that been for you?
Youn Yuh-jung: I saw first with the audience at Sundance. That was my first time to watch Minari too. I was with the first audience. And then I was very shocked. Everyone was laughing and crying. They felt the same with us. So I said, “Wow, what happened to this movie?” And then later on, I was very happy for Isaac, because making a movie is not easy job. Especially no luxury. No budget. So I was very moved for Isaac. I feel like he’s my son. And he did a great job. Then I didn’t enjoy my acting. Usually, I don’t like to watch my own acting on the screen, because I always very, “Well, why would I do this in that light?” I could have been better than that or something like that. So I don’t want to watch it in public. I rather watch it myself.
KP: But what was it like the first time you watched it and you heard the audience reacting and you knew that people loved it? How did that feel for you?
YY: Oh, I was shocked. And then people were laughing and crying. My friend who introduced Isaac, she said, “You are the only one you not crying.” So I said, “Were they crying?” Then later on, after the movie’s done, when Isaac was on the stage and everyone was giving him a standing ovation, that time I cried.
KP: How did this role come to you?
YY: My friend Inna, we met about 20 years ago or something. She’s beside me still. And she and I were supposed to do some kind of movie together. She was the producer for that film and it fell apart later. So we still maintain a friendship. Then she introduced Isaac while he was teaching at University of Utah, in Korea. She asked me to go to his class. There was a Q&A… So I said yes. But later on, I found out Isaac was [asking] about my first movie when I was [in my] 20s, you know, back in 1970. So, “oh, my goodness, how would he know at his young age, my first movie?” He was going to talk about the movie, but his students were not interested in that movie, because they never seen that movie. They were all asking him about my reality show Youn’s Kitchen or something like this. So I can see Isaac’s face was very disappointed. That was first meeting between Isaac and me. Later, Inna sent me the script. This is the role written in English. So I read and my English, not, you know, good. But I tried to read it. And then it was very real to me. So I phoned her back right away, maybe hour later or so, and I would do it. That’s the way we started this.
KP: What were your first impressions of your character, Soonja?
YY: While I was in States, I’ve seen many families bring their grandmother to use as a babysitter because both of the [parents are] working. So that was just, it was just, “Oh, this is what happened before? Yes. Well I can do this part. I can express this role easily.” I should say easily. Yeah, I can do that. So that’s what I thought about this, accepting this project.
KP: How did you prepare?
YY: Preparing for after the stroke, that I didn’t know what to do. So I have a good friend, Dr. Kim, a neurologist, and then I asked him to help me. So he brought me a lot of some tapes to watch how I can act. And then he himself was very sweet, he was performing in front of me. So I prepared. And other than that I get along with Steven [Yeun] and Yeri [Han] and then we just playing apart and I thought maybe we can do it together. So we did it together.
KP: Can you talk about getting to know the children and how it was to work with the children in the movie?
YY: First, I heard that [it was] Alan Kim’s first acting. He never had acting experience. I thought, “Wow, it’s going to be terrible.” But that was my stupid worry. First day, he and I supposed to do from the beginning to the end a scene, this massive take together. But he was ready for every single line. So no problem at all. And he’s like a sponge, you know, little children. He observed me like a grandmother. We had no problem. And later, Isaac asked him to do a special expression, just in front of camera. So at that moment, I realized, “Oh, Isaac is the director and he knows how to handle the kids. So we didn’t have any problem at all.
KP: It’s so great to see the way that you interact with them. Did you have a favorite scene?
YY: Favorite scene. When he was saying, “I don’t like grandma’s smell” or something. I asked Isaac, “What is a grandma smell?” Because I’m myself a grandma. So well, I don’t know my smell. And he said something that was very new. Grandmother has some kind of bathroom smell. Then I realized the moth balls! Usually Korean grandmas put moth balls in the closet in order to avoid the moths. So I just said that for him is bathroom smell. That’s why he doesn’t like it. So I learned a new thing.
And when Steven told [Alan] bring the stick and trying to spank him. Then he tried to get a thinner and thinner [stick], and got the real, very waggy thing. Grandma, of course, doesn’t want him to be spanked. And Isaac said he’d like to finish that scene. He wanted to have me just add one word. “What would you say?” So I said, “You are the winner,” because he’s very smart. And you know, grandma always think “my grandson is the smartest one in the world.” I’m sure she was so proud that he got this very tiny stick. So that word. Isaac was happy about that word. I remember that scene.
KP: It was a great scene! What was the hardest part for you?
YY: The weather was hot. Very hot. But Yeri and me and Inna — she came along. She came with me. And then she tried to protect me. So we lived together at one house. That was very great help. We didn’t know at the time and we found that our Inna is a good cook. And she always cooked. So we found that Steven was staying in hotel. Then when he comes to do the laundry, if he smelled the food, of course he cannot go. So we stay together, eat together. And then while we were eating, we discussed the script, trying to polish the dialogue in speaking Korean, and we all talk about the movie. How are we going to do this scene? And so that’s what I think [brought] this movie together. Inna’s food [brought] us together. Food is very important, don’t you think?
KP: It is! Yes, and food is important in the film too.
YY: Yes, food is very important. I still remember my grandma’s cooking. Nobody cooks like grandma.
KP: You mentioned before that you’re not used to the American industry. How has this experience been for you as you’ve become more familiar to American audiences?
YY: I don’t know if American audience know me or not? I don’t know yet. And then to me, I just work with Steven and Yeri and Isaac. And I still don’t know. People say I’ve had award from here and there and it’s not real to me. They really watched my movie? And then, “Did I do that good? I’m not sure about that.” This is my honest feeling.
We would like to thank Youn Yuh-jung for her time and for her incredible performance.
Minari is distributed by A24 and is available wherever you rent movies.