SEOUL • Youn Yuh-jung is a film icon in South Korea, having starred in more than 100 movies and TV series.
But the 73-year-old said she never expected to be the first South Korean nominated at the Academy Awards for best supporting actress, for her role in Minari as a spirited grandmother who travels from South Korea to the United States to care for her grandchildren.
“I don’t know how to describe it. I never even dreamed about being nominated for an Oscar,” she told the media last week.
She said she was in South Korea’s mandatory two-week coronavirus quarantine, after a job in Canada, when she heard the news from a friend, who broke out in tears after telling her of the nomination.
“She cried, I didn’t cry,” said Youn with a chuckle. “I was just lying on my couch and I was half asleep.”
Youn shared the historic first with Minari co-star Steven Yeun, 37, the first Asian-American to be nominated for a best actor Oscar.
Born in Seoul, Yeun and his family moved to Canada and then the United States when he was a child.
Since her acting debut in 1966, Youn has been playing witty, thought-provoking characters, including a senior prostitute in 2016’s The Bacchus Lady.
She has already won 32 awards for her role in Minari, a tender, quintessential American story about a Korean immigrant family in the 1980s trying to better themselves by starting a farm in Arkansas.
Minari is intensely personal for director Lee Isaac Chung, based partly on his own life growing up in Arkansas.
The film is nominated for six Academy Awards and has already garnered others, including this year’s best foreign language film at the Golden Globes.
The movie insightfully uses minari, a leafy green with interconnected roots that takes at least a year to grow, as a metaphor for the immigrant experience, said pop culture critic Kim Hern-sik, who praised Youn’s portrayal of an unconventional Korean grandmother.
“The public sympathises with the sincerity of her performance,” said Mr Kim. “She acts as if she owns the story and is this senior character full of wisdom from her life experience.”