SEOUL ⸺ While accepting her award for best supporting actress at Sunday’s Academy Awards, South Korean film icon Youn Yuh-jung joked that her win may have been the result of American hospitality for a Korean actor.
If so, it was hospitality that had never been extended before. Youn’s Oscar win for her role in “Minari” was a historic first for any Korean performer, a year after the South Korean-produced “Parasite” was lauded for “breaking the language barrier” when it became the first non-English language film to win Best Picture.
In her acceptance speech, Youn noted the challenges Korean actors have faced, joking about the different ways her name has been mispronounced.
“Tonight, you are all forgiven,” she said with a smile.
Youn’s witty speech and dryly humorous exchanges with reporters went viral as she joked about finally getting to meet presenter Brad Pitt, whose Plan B Entertainment Inc. produced “Minari.”
“Finally, nice to meet you, where were you when we were filming?” she asked the actor to laughs from the audience. Asked by an entertainment reporter later what Pitt smelled like, Youn didn’t bite.
“I didn’t smell him. I’m not dog,” she said, laughing.
Youn, 73, has been a fixture of Korean cinema for decades.
Amid the glitz and flashiness of South Korean icons such as K-pop global superstars BTS, Youn is perhaps an unlikely ambassador for an entertainment industry that is making ever greater strides on the world stage.
Youn downplayed competition with the other nominees, attributing her win to luck. And she acknowledged her roots in Korean cinema, dedicating her victory to the late Kim Ki-young, a legendary director who cast her in key roles in the 1970s and 1980s.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Youn’s win rewrote the 102-year history of Korean film, and he praised her acting career as one that “gave sympathy to those who have lived in other cultures.”
Moon also noted the Korean heritage of others involved in “Minari”, including director Lee Isaac Chung and Steven Yeun, the first Asian-American to be nominated for a best actor Oscar.
Since her acting debut in 1966, Youn has been a sensation on Korean screens for playing witty, thought-provoking characters.
Before Sunday she had already won more than 30 awards for her role in “Minari” as a grandmother who travels to the United States to watch her grandchildren as their immigrant family tries to start a farm in 1980s Arkansas.
The film resonated widely in the United States at a time when reports of violence against Asian Americans have spiked since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Congrats to Yuh-Jung Youn and thanks to @MinariMovie for bringing to life a beautiful character that embodies the love and care and strength of Korean American families,” U.S. congressman Andy Kim, who was born in Boston to Korean immigrant parents, said on Twitter.
When asked at a backstage news conference about more diverse films and actors being recognised, Youn said it was “about time” and that people should understand and embrace each other, rather than divide themselves by race or gender.
“I think if we put our colours together, make it more prettier, even a rainbow has a seven colours,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for us to share in the story together.”
Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Sangmi Cha. Editing by Gerry Doyle; Reuters