Actress Youn Yuh-jung has recently risen to the forefront of the public eye after a groundbreaking win in the Best Supporting Actress category at this year’s Academy Awards. Youn is not only the first South Korean actress to win an Oscar, but the second Asian actress in Academy Awards history to win an acting award! However, this is only her latest achievement in a long and illustrious career. To celebrate her momentous win, we’ve compiled a brief history of her life for those new to her work.
Youn was born on June 19, 1947 in Kaesong, Gyeonggi Province, Korea. While she was young, her father passed away, leaving behind Youn, her two sisters, and her mother. She majored in Korean Language and Literature at Hanyang University, but eventually dropped out of college after passing the open auditions held by television network TBC in 1966.
Youn made her acting debut in the television drama “Mister Gong” in 1967, but she truly reached stardom in 1971 with two iconic portrayals of femme fatale characters - the royal concubine Jang Hui-bin in the historical drama of the same name, and Myeong-ja, in the film “Woman of Fire.”
The actress became further known by audiences for her diverse performances over the course of her career as she did not shy away from more risque roles, such as the role she played in the 1972 film “The Insect Woman,” which was about a professor who experienced a mental breakdown due to the stress brought on by an extramarital affair. Youn later developed an image as a modern woman of a new generation, helped by roles such as that of Eunhye in Stepmother (1972). In the drama, Eunhye (played by Youn) marries into a family who is initially resistant to her presence; however, they eventually grow together as a family because of Eunhye’s beautiful and understanding heart.
Youn’s decision to portray characters like Eunhye was especially important during this time as it provided visibility for women who experienced prejudice in Korean society, such as stepmothers, single mothers, and divorced women. Audiences during this time developed a love of Youn’s rapid way of speaking and her refreshing appearance, leading her to grow in popularity.
Youn briefly retired from acting in 1974 after marrying singer Jo Young-nam and immigrating to the United States. She returned to Korea ten years later in 1984, however, where she permanently resumed her acting career and divorced Jo. Though it was uncommon for a middle-aged actress at the time to make a comeback after a long career break, Youn returned in full force with her acting range allowing her to take on more strong, complex, and independent roles.
Beyond attaining many supporting roles, Youn continued acting in films such as “The Housemaid” (2010) and “The Taste of Money” (2012).
Youn then took on a variety of roles, such as a loving mother in the film “Boomerang Family” (2013), “Salut d’Amour” (2015), and Canola (2015). However, Youn reached a level of global fame thanks to her role in the film “Minari” (2020) as the elderly grandmother Soon-ja. The film became known worldwide for its portrayal of the Korean-American experience, and Youn herself was recognized by over forty American regional critics awards.
At seventy-three years old, Youn is still making incredible strides as an actress, and with upcoming roles in television series such as Pachinko (2021) and her variety show Youn’s Stay (2021), we can’t wait to see what's next.