Yuh-Jung Youn is a legendary Korean actor whose film and television work spans over 55 years. In the new A24 film, Minari, she stars alongside Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho, and Will Patton as the grandmother of an immigrant family trying to achieve the American Dream in 1980s rural Arkansas. The film was directed and written by Lee Isaac Chung, and Yuh-Jung is now the first Korean actress to ever be nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role. I spoke with Yuh-Jung about Minari, the current state of the entertainment industry, and why this film will hopefully resonate with people of all backgrounds.
In the film, you play Soonja, the grandmother who comes to stay with the Yi family in Arkansas. And at several points during the film, young David (Alan Kim) accuses of you not being a “real grandma.” But what do you think makes someone a real grandma, especially in this kind of story?
Well, [he says that] I don’t cook, I don’t bake, but I found Soonja’s character [to be a] real character. She was a working woman in Korea. She was running a business, maybe a small store, and she sold every property from Korea trying to make money for David’s surgery. She is a loving grandmother. That’s a sacrifice. That’s the loving. She doesn’t care about cooking or acting like a grandmother. But for a seven-year-old boy, he has some kind of image or picture of grandmas. So that was the difference between generations, but as a grandmother, I didn’t care. I don’t care! You look at her, she didn’t care! [Laughs].
Minari is a film about this immigrant family struggling to achieve the American dream and in some ways figure out what their dream really is. How does your character fit into that part of the story?
I think she probably herself didn’t have [an] American Dream at all. She just came here to help her daughter, [and to try and] save her grandson. That’s all she wanted to do, not [the] American Dream. Maybe Jacob (Yeun) and Monica (Han Ye-Ri) had [an] American Dream. They’d like to have a better future and give the second generation a better future. Because back in that time, Korea had some kind of dictatorship. And of course most people have [an] American Dream, from all over the world.
Let’s talk about the director, Lee Isaac Chung. What do you think he brought to this movie that was unique to his talents as a filmmaker?
Well, I really appreciate his view of looking at the American people. Some people will think of discrimination with the young boy at the church when he saw them and just [said] “Your face is so flat.” But most directors would twist from there and [say] “this is the discrimination.” But Isaac doesn’t. That’s the beauty of Isaac, his eye is so honest and pure. Usually, when you’re a young kid, you don’t take this as discrimination, where you become good friends, John (Jacob Wade) and David. So let’s learn from them. [Laughs].
Something I really love about Minari is how you have a lot of scenes out in this big, expansive farm, but then all of these other scenes happen in this tight, enclosed trailer of a home. What was it like filming in between these locations?
It was just 25 days [of] work. So mostly we were staying in [the] trailer, but Yeri and Steven went to some big city, I think, to visit…And me, I went [to the] creek with my grandson and granddaughter. And that, I think, [was the] first time I went out [to the] yard, the field. Mostly, I was staying in [the] trailer.
What stuck out to you about the way they were shooting this film that was maybe different from what you’ve experienced before, or maybe similar?
[Laughs]. In Korea, I’ve been in this business such a long time, but [to] tell you the truth, being an old actress in Asia, usually they respect the senior, so usually they don’t ask me to [the] first day of filming. First day of filming means it’s going to be chaos, it’s not perfectly ready. So me, myself, I’m not going. “You do first” and things like that. I mean here, there’s no choice, nobody knows me, so…I had to…they put me in the first day of filming. So that kind of thing was different. Other than that, everything is very [similar] almost, technic-wise and everything.
You’ve been in dozens of movies and TV shows over the last 55 years, and I’m sure you have countless stories that could fill a whole day of conversation. But I really want to know what you think is different about movies and entertainment today?
Oh, it’s [a] big difference because time changes. I started [in the] 60s. In Korea, television was very new at the time, so most people liked to work for the television instead of a movie. Because, main reason is they paid more. Very important [Laughs], so I started to work from the station. Then later on, they got sick of that television thing, it’s a very hectic schedule, you have to memorize big lines, you have to shoot, right there, how many scenes, I don’t know. Sometimes, we had to shoot like a hundred scenes a day or something like that. So people got sick of it, and then we went back to the movies. And nowadays, they are on Netflix, now, so me, myself, is watching Netflix, so it’s just changing.
What is the one thing you hope audiences will get out of Minari when they do see it?
Just, we are all the same! Because whether your face is flat or round, it doesn’t matter. And [when you first] see them and then “oh, they are very different,” but after all, to me, living in this long period of time, we are all the same. We have the same feelings and same discrimination and same different, judgmental things…try to embrace each other. And then try to understand. Not saying “this is the difference between you and I” or something like that. Let’s not point [that] out. Just, we are all [the] same. That’s what I think.