November 17, 2021
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Youn Yuh-Jung Makes History As First Korean Actress To Win Oscar

Actress Youn Yuh-jung made history at the 93rd Academy Awards when she became the first Korean actress to win the Best Supporting Actress award.

Youn was the odds-on favorite to win the award for her role as the unconventional grandmother Soon-ja in the film Minari. On winning the award, Youn thanked her Minari family and Lee Isaac Chung, who wrote and directed the film, describing herself humorously as not necessarily more talented than her Oscar competition, but merely luckier. Chung wrote the story based on his childhood memories, which included memories of his grandmother. Youn was considered likely to win the Oscar after winning the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award at BAFTA and a Best Supporting Actress award from the Screen Actors Guild. Youn has been the recipient of multiple Korean and international awards throughout her 50 year-career in films and TV dramas. 

Youn’s notable films include Woman of Fire, The Housemaid, The Taste of Money and The Bacchus Lady. She is also well known for her roles in such Korean TV dramas as Dear My Friends and Be Strong Geum Soon. Youn is currently filming the Apple TV series Pachinko, based on the Min Jin Lee novel.

Minari, a film about a Korean American immigrant family starting a farm in Arkansas was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Musical Score, but only went home with one award. The Best Picture Award went to Nomadland.

Korean American actor Steven Yeun was nominated in the Best Actor category for his Minari role as Jacob, the uprooted family’s determined father.  Yeun is best known for playing Rhee in the television series The Walking Dead and Ben in Lee Chang-dong’s film Burning. Yeun also appeared in Bong Joon-ho’s Okja. Yeun is the first American actor of Korean descent to be nominated for a Best Actor Award. However, Anthony Hopkins won the award for his role in The Father. 

Lee Isaac Chung, who previously directed the films Munyurangabo, Lucky Life and Abigail Harm, is the first American director of Korean descent to be nominated for Best Director, but this year’s award was presented to Chloé Zhao for Nomadland. Chung was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay but that award went to Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman.

The Best Original Score award went to the animated film Soul.

Among its positive reviews Minari has been praised for dispelling cultural stereotypes associated with Asian Americans and its success may help promote more films that focus on Asian American stories.

“By centering on a struggling family in a rural area, Minari recasts classic Americana tropes with Asian Americans and complicates presumptions of Asian Americans as successful model minorities,” said Donatella Gallela, author and associate professor of theatre, film and digital production at University of California, Riverside.  “Minari resonates with many Asian American narratives that deal with inter-generational conflict, immigration, and assimilation. At the same time, Lee Isaac Chung’s story is specific, as it is inspired by his own life. With Oscars attention, Minari set up possibilities for future Asian American films because the prestige can translate into funding. Like the minari by the stream, Asian American films can multiply when given the resources to flourish.”

As well as Youn and Yeun, Minari stars Will Patton, award-winning Korean actress Han Ye-ri, and Korean American actors Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho. Minari premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival winning the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award. The American Film Institute and the National Board of Review named it one of the ten best films of 2020.