Youn Yuh-jung may not be your typical K-drama, K-movie, or K-show star.
Born in 1947, she’s the same age as veteran actors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Glenn Close, and with a career that spans just as long and wide – well beyond ‘Minari,’ the 2020 film she’s winning global awards and getting international attention for.
Here, we unpack the details about the versatile actor’s life and career leading up to her US film debut.
Debut and acclaim
Youn Yuh-jung’s career started all the way back in 1966 when she got into TBC, a channel launched in 1965 and the genesis of the broadcasting company now known as JTBC.
After moving to MBC in 1969, she took on the leading role in the 1971 period drama ‘Jang Hui-bin’ (장희빈) and rose to instant fame.
She debuted on the big screen in the same year with director Kim Ki-young’s ‘Hwanyeo’ (화녀) to another critical acclaim, playing the role of a young housemaid who disrupts the life of a married couple living on a chicken farm. In addition to awards racked up by the film, Youn personally won Best New Actress in the Grand Bell Awards and Best Leading Actress in the Blue Dragon Film Awards for her role.
She was still in her twenties and on the way to a shining career in acting. But instead of riding on the successes of her early career, Youn Yuh-jung decides to leave all of her new-found fame behind.
Marriage and the US
Youn Yuh-jung’s life took a turn when she met and married singer Cho Young-nam, the South Korean singer that continues to be a controversial figure in his late years.
But back in the 1970’s, she left her life as an actress behind when the pair set off to the US for Cho to pursue his studies. Youn dedicated her life to being a wife and mother of two sons but more than 10 years of marriage later, she returned to Korea with her children and divorced Cho Young-nam.
Cho admitted to cheating on Youn in his autobiography (link in Korean) and continued to talk publicly about his personal life even after their breakup; in contrast, Youn has mainly abstained from talking about the details of her private life and Cho.
When Youn Yuh-jung’s marriage ended and she finally returned to the acting scene after a decade away, things weren’t quite the same as before she left Korea in the 70’s.
Return after hiatus
Youn Yuh-jung revealed in numerous public appearances about her return to acting after the hiatus.
She mentions how she took on any role she could, no matter how small, so that she could afford to raise her two children on her own.
But even those roles became valuable experiences in acting. She credits those years to honing her acting skills and helping her to gradually rise to more prominent roles even in her sixties and seventies.
And just a few years later, she would step beyond Korea’s TV and film industry.
Starring in Wachowski’s ‘Sense8’
Youn Yuh-jung was cast in the Netflix series ‘Sense8’ created by the Wachowskis and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski. She played the role of one of the female inmates sharing the cell with Korean actress Bae Du-na, one of the eight main characters in the series.
Although her scenes were in a Korean prison, the script was completely in English. This was the moment when those years Youn spent in the US aligned perfectly with her career. When the show was on the search for Korean actors who could play an English-speaking role, she was an obvious choice to land on the casting list.
Her role in Season 1 was relatively small but expanded in Season 2. Youn’s character ends up playing a pivotal role in helping the lead Korean character escape from prison.
Youn’s experience on her first English series was rather a short, although impactful, one. But her language skills played another important role in her career – this time on reality TV.
Reality TV Show fame
It started with the 2013 TV show ‘Sisters over flowers’ (꽃보다 누나), where 4 veteran actresses travelled across Turkey and Croatia with the help of a more youthful singer, actor, all-rounded entertainer Lee Seung-gi.
Then came the show that has become her most famous project yet, as Youn joked in an interview.
K-food, K-stars and a picturesque location was a winning combination for Youn’s Kitchen.
The reality show centered on Youn Yuh-jung as the head chef running a pop-up restaurant in remote islands in Indonesia in season one and in Spain in season two.
The appeal of the show was in the beauty of the locations they were shot at but also the reactions and stories of the restaurant’s customers – many who were eating Korean food for the first time. Also, Youn and her celebrity team of four grind through the hardships of running a restaurant with bright ideas and great teamwork that you start rooting for them as they solve one problem after another and serve one table after the next.
(English subtitles available below)
The popularity of Youn’s Kitchen was evident in the domestic TV ratings but also in how the show boosted popularity of other things that came out of it. Youn Yuh-jung’s version of the Korean beef dish ‘bulgogi’ was bought by a local delivery app and sold there, bringing in twice as many customers to the service as a result. Then there’s the tote bag Youn Yuh-jung owned and carried on the show which sold more than 30 times compared to the previous year.
Two seasons of Youn’s Kitchen later, the third season of the show was re-envisioned due to the coronavirus pandemic and returned as Youn’s Stay in January of 2021.
Instead of shooting the show in a picturesque restaurant abroad, Youn’s Stay keeps the experience local and traditional in Korea. The patrons are people who moved to Korea in the midst of the pandemic and didn’t get a chance to properly get acquainted with living in the country.
With Youn interacting more with the patrons than in the Youn’s Kitchen seasons, her wit and light humour in both Korean and English are front and centre. Watch clips from Youn’s Stay below where she speaks and even jokes in English:
She’s joined again by Park Seo-joon (of Itaewon Class fame among many other K-dramas) and Jung Yu-mi (of Train to Busan fame) from the previous seasons as well as Choi Woo-sik (of none other than Oscar-winning film Parasite).
Even among these actors with massive K-fandom though, Youn might now be the most famous out of them all with her successful and very public American film debut ‘Minari.’
Minari and beyond
Youn’s personality continues to shine as she tours with the cast and crew of the 2020 film ‘Minari’ that’s raking up international awards and getting the Oscar buzz, including for Youn’s performance.
She’s also set to star in the Apple TV+ adaptation of the 2017 novel ‘Pachinko’ which was written by Korean-American author Min-jin Lee and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction.
As Youn Yuh-jung continues her thriving career into her seventies, one can only have anticipation for the projects that the actor will take on in the future. She’s yet to work with Parasite director Bong Joon-ho and fans might be pining for them to shoot something together after seeing this rare conversation Youn and Bong had discussing Minari.