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Ko-pick: Korea’s First Academy-Award Winning Performer Youn Yuh-Jung

May 24, 2024
  • Writer by KoBiz
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From May 17-25, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures (AMMP) in California are screening eight films featuring Youn Yuh-jung including Woman of Fire (1971), A Good Lawyer’s Wife (2003) and Canola (2016). This follows a retrospective of Song Kang-ho that took place at the museum between December 2023 and January 2024.

 

Youn made her debut in Kim Ki-young’s Woman of Fire in the early 1970s and featured in several of his films. After immigrating to the US in the 1970s, she would return to Korea where she would face difficulties in making a comeback following her divorce and the stigmatization that would ensue. But in the 2000s and 2010s she would feature in numerous films, often working with directors such as Im Sang-soo and Hong Sangsoo.


Taking on daring roles throughout her career she has long attracted acclaim in Korea, but it was her role in Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari (2020) that took her to new global heights winning multiple awards including the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress making her the first Korean performer to win a coveted Oscar in 2021. This came one year after Parasite won four Academy Awards for writing, directing – as well as Best Film and Best International Feature Film. None of its cast, however, were nominated making Youn’s win historic. 


This week to coincide with the retrospective of Youn’s films at AMMP, which opened in 2021 and are curating several events to showcase Korean cinema with support from the Korea Foundation, we examine some of Youn’s performances during her unparalleled career.



Woman of Fire


Woman of Fire (1971)

In her Oscar acceptance speech, Youn paid tribute to Kim Ki-young as it was through Woman of Fire (1971) that she was able to make a debut. She plays the leading female character in what was Kim’s second film of his Housemaid trilogy (1960-1982). The films center around a story in which a housekeeper becomes pregnant and then takes over the family with the wife fearing a scandal. 


In Woman of Fire, the urban setting of The Housemaid is replaced by a Chicken Farm. Youn’s character called Myeong-ja is a young country girl who upends the household in mesmerizing fashion. In what is, even by today’s standards, a scandalous role exhibiting many of the traits associated with the work of Kim Ki-young (challenging gender norms, eroticism), it illustrates how Youn was unafraid to take on parts that were unconventional.


The film’s color stands in contrast to the black and white original with its vibrant mise-en-scene using the rich and fiery colors of red along with Kim’s innovative lighting that capture the film’s potent themes, which is also reflected in Youn’s charismatic and unforgettable leading performance. 


Youn would work with Kim on his next feature the Insect Woman (1972) that adopts similar thematic concerns with its focus on extramarital affairs using the same leads including Youn. The pair would also collaborate together on Kim’s An Experience to Die For (1995) that wasn’t screened until a retrospective of Kim’s work at the Busan International Film Festival in 1998. It was finally released theatrically in Korea in 2021 following Youn’s Oscar win.



Mother


Mother (1985)

Having moved to the US and then returned to Korea, it was harder for Youn to secure roles further exacerbated by the attention on her private life. But it is telling that the one role she did embrace in the mid-1980s was in Park Chul-soo’s Mother (1985) in which she plays the mother of a young woman who seeks retribution on those responsible for the rape and suicide of her daughter who was kidnapped and sold off to a criminal gang for prostitution. It’s based on the scenario by a renowned writer Kim Soo-hyun that was emphasized in the film’s marketing to help sell the film despite its heavy and dark themes.


The film won the Best Film at the Grand Bell Awards. It also attracted attention for how it tackled the issue of human trafficking that was reportedly a problem facing female students in the 1980s with reports of young women being kidnapped. It was also released at a time when it was easier for filmmakers to approach such themes that would have been more difficult a decade earlier. 


Youn has never been afraid to take on parts that are daring, which on display here and indeed her whole career. She plays a tenacious woman weighed down by despair but remains determined to find her daughter. When she discovers what has happened to her, she uses all her means at her disposal to inflict revenge on the men that caused her daughter immense suffering, which takes place over the final few minutes of the film. 



A Good Lawyer’s Wife


A Good Lawyer’s Wife (2003)

One of Youn’s frequent collaborators was Im Sang-soo, she would appear in all his films made between 2003 to current day – she plays a role in his most recent yet unreleased film Heaven: To the Land of Happiness that opened the Busan International Film Festival in 2021 and was invited to the 2020 Cannes cancelled edition.  


Their first collaboration was A Good Lawyer’s Wife in the early 2000s. It also marked her comeback working in what had become a very different film industry thriving both domestically and internationally. Her previous film was the aforementioned An Experience to Die For (1995).


Taking on more supporting roles in the 2000s but parts that by no means left any less of impression, she plays a woman who is married to a man with terminal liver failure and is having an affair with another man. Im’s film doesn’t reinforce the traditional ideas of a nuclear family instead seeking to undermine them echoing some of the characteristics seen in the work of Kim Ki-young. The film also explores the legacy of division of the Korean peninsula.


Also starring Hwang Jung-min, Moon So-ri and Bong Tae-gyu it screened in competition at the Venice Film Festival where it was vying for the Golden Lion just a few months before Oldboy would win the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. Akin to Youn’s other roles, it’s yet another committed performance that again illustrates her unflinching persona.



The Actresses


The Actresses (2009)

Youn would work with several directors more than once. This was also true with E J-yong. The pair collaborated together on three projects beginning with The Actresses (2009) that focuses on a group of female performers playing themselves for a Vogue Korea Magazine shoot that takes place on Christmas Eve. The group consists of Lee Mi-sook, Go Hyun-jung, Choi Ji-woo, Kim Min-hee, Kim Ok-vin while Youn is the most senior of all the actors being in her sixties at the time. 


With no script, E J-yong sought to capture some of the dynamics and tension that exist amongst actors when placed in a room together. As such it was improvised giving viewers a taste of the competitive environment the industry can be for performers. For an actor like Youn, she has successfully managed to navigate her way through it spanning decades. 


The film was invited to a number of festivals including the Berlin International Film Festival where it would screen in Panorama. Youn would feature in Youn’s Behind the Camera (2013) that also secured an invitation to Berlinale and adopts a similar theme with 14 of Korea’s performers left to act in a film with the director calling the shots in Hollywood via Skype.



The Housemaid


The Housemaid (2010)

After starring in Im Sang-soo’s The President’s Last Bang (2005) and then The Old Garden (2006), which both followed A Good Lawyer’s Wife, she would also appear in Im’s The Housemaid (2010), the remake of Kim Ki-young’s 1960s classic of the same name. It premiered in the Cannes main competition, the first time Im and a film starring Youn was invited to compete for the Cannes Palme d’Or in 2010. She also starred in Hong Sangsoo’s Hahaha (2010) that won the Prix Un Certain Regard in Cannes the same year.


The film is quite different compared to Kim Ki-young’s film. It centers on an affluent household as opposed to one that is middle-class reflecting how Korea has changed since the 1960s. Youn plays the character Byeong-sik who’s not in the original film replacing the factory worker (though is also called Miss Cho) who introduces the maid to the family.


 

Byeong-sik is an older live-in maid and approaches the younger maid played by Jeon Do-yeon to take on the job. After starting her new job, she develops a relationship with the rich husband (Lee Jung-jae) leaving her pregnant. The revenge-driven spiral of events manifests differently in the remake with Youn’s character playing an integral role in what happens during the narrative as the older housekeeper.



The Taste of Money


The Taste of Money (2012)

Youn would play a prominent role in Im Sang-soo’s next film The Taste of Money (2012) that played in Cannes Main Competition in 2012. Like The Housemaid, it would center on affluence, excess and lust with Youn playing Madame Baek who controls a Korean conglomerate. When she discovers that her husband (Baek Yoon-sik) is having an affair, she seduces the family’s private secretary (Kim Kang-woo). 


It attracted notice for its portrayal of the upper echelons of Korean society with Youn again embracing a role that other performers perhaps would be hesitant to take on given the film’s themes and explicit scenes. Youn though has consistently accepted difficult roles as this performance underscores. 


 

The film was released to coincide with its Cannes premiere selling 1.16 million tickets. It also hit screens in other territories including North America.



The Bacchus Lady


The Bacchus Lady (2016)

Youn’s third role in a E J-yong film was in his acclaimed The Bacchus Lady (2016), an independent film about an elderly woman who is a Bacchus Lady – a term to refer to women in their 50s, 60s or older who work as prostitutes soliciting men for sex in Seoul’s central parks. Bacchus is a famous energy drink that they sell to the men. 


Korea’s independent films often shed light on the difficulties facing young people but there have been an increasing number of features that focus on how older generations are also neglected. This film does so delving into a subject that is rarely tackled in Korean cinema or indeed elsewhere making it an unconventional film and role for Youn, yet this has very much characterized her career delivering a wide range of challenging performances. 


While Youn has appeared in many commercial films like the recent Dog Days (2024) and the drama Keys to the Heart (2018) Youn is notable for choosing parts in an array of independent titles often working with Hong Sangsoo but also featuring in projects by other directors including E J-Yong and others. 


Akin to The Actresses and Behind the Camera, the film was invited to the Berlin International Film Festival where it also screened in Panorama in 2016 as well as festivals across the globe such as the London Film Festival, Fantasia International Film Festival and the Hong Kong International Film Festival.


Edited by Shim Eunha

Written by Jason Bechervaise 

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