THIS WOULDN’T HAVE happened in Korea, she thought. For one, she wouldn’t have been scheduled at 10 a.m. on the first day of a movie shoot only to be kept waiting. Imagine keeping Meryl Streep baking in the Oklahoma heat for four-to-five hours in the middle of July. But the force field of celebrity was gone. Here in the Ozarks, she wasn’t Youn Yuh-jung, the 73-year-old actress with a career that spans over half a century. On the set of Minari, she was an old Korean lady. “A Far East nobody,” she tells me, taking a long drag from a slim white e-cigarette. As in a classic American tale, she would have to start from scratch.
“I kept thinking about her as my grandma who has come to America to take care of me,” says Lee Isaac Chung, the writer and director, who drew from his childhood memories for the film. “She [left] a good life in Korea. It felt like it was happening all over again.” In Minari, the four-member Yi family—the father, Jacob (Steven Yeun); the mother, Monica (Han Yeri); and their kids, David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho)—leaves California for the hill country of Arkansas in pursuit of Jacob’s dream of building his own farm. It’s all exposition until the arrival of Monica’s mother, Soonja, played by Youn, who comes bearing gifts from the homeland: gochugaru, hwatu cards, an envelope of cash.
During that first week on set, Youn observed independent American filmmaking at work. Minari was made on a scrappy $2 million budget. The actors worked on a lower pay scale and an ever-evolving ad hoc script (Chung first wrote it in English and then had it translated into Korean). They had little time for preproduction, which meant everything had to happen yesterday. On the first day, they had nine scenes to shoot when the AC unit proved useless in the trailer home where the domestic drama unfolds. The heat was unforgiving, the pace unrelenting. They worried about Youn’s health. Chung felt the pangs of filial guilt and went to her trailer and apologized. “My first mistake in this whole situation is that I met you,” she told him. “My second mistake is that I liked you.” Later, as a joke (mostly), he knelt on the ground the way little David does in the film when he’s being punished. “She’s on her e-cig and just starts laughing,” he remembers.
The thing about reverence is it makes you soft. In Korea, everyone calls Youn sunsaengnim, which translates to “teacher” or “master.” “In Korea, nobody will correct me. If I want to settle and do the same thing over and over, I’ll become a monster,” she says. Minari provided the tonic of unfamiliarity. “In Tulsa, I’m nobody to them. A newcomer. I need to prove myself with my acting.”
During a winding, covid-racked Oscars season, Minari has quietly become an underdog contender for Best Picture, with Youn poised to become the first Korean actor ever nominated. Critics have consistently singled her out as “a scene stealer,” and much of the emotional weight of the film comes from the turns within her performance. Meanwhile, the Korean press is vibrating at the prospect of another historic Oscar. Youn blames Bong Joon Ho for all the commotion. “If Bong Joon Ho hadn’t won, then Korean people wouldn’t be all that interested,” she says.
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