Youn Yuh-Jung Makes The West See Itself

The legendary ‘minari’ actor's appreciative but unbothered response to her string of recent awards can teach us some important lessons. If only we were willing to hear them.

I think we can all agree that Youn Yuh-Jung has been the highlight of 2021's awards season. Youn, who turns 74 next month, is a veteran actor in her native Korea; having shot to fame for her portrayal of a femme fatale in the 1971 film, Woman Of Fire. And while she initially retired from acting a few years later – to get married, immigrate to the US and have children – she later divorced, returning to Korea in 1984 to resume her acting career once again. Despite the stigma of being a divorced woman in '80s Korea, she went on to showcase her range in a swathe of complex and multidimensional roles, winning awards and accolades that cemented her status as one of the country's most celebrated thespians.

But it was Youn's performance in 2020's Minari, Lee Isaac Chung's film about a Korean-American family setting up shop on an Arkansas farm in the '80s, that found her caught in the West's gaze. The actor, who played the role of Soonja, won way too many Best Supporting Actress awards to list here to list here, including a Golden Globe, BAFTA and of course, an Academy Award.

But perhaps what makes Youn Yuh-Jung's awards run most compelling is the way her acceptance speeches quietly expose the particularity of our strange, Western world. "I don't know how to describe my feelings," she said upon being declared Best Supporting Actress at the SAG awards in April. "I'm being recognised by Westerners." It seems like an unremarkable sentence at first, but it's actually steeped in subversiveness. Youn is already a highly decorated and successful actor in her native Korea. Her mention of being "recognised by Westerners" suggests that while she appreciates the shout-out, she's not exactly gunning for Western approval. I think we can admit that those of us in Western countries, especially the US, often believe ourselves to be at the forefront of culture. But implicit in Youn's acceptance was an awareness that the West is just that. A small, incidental part of a much wider world.

Yuh-Jung brought that same disruptive energy to her speeches as her winning streak continued. When Minari again earned her a A British Film Award or BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress days later, her acceptance again included a tip of the hat to the specificity of the country that awarded it. "Every award is meaningful, but this one – especially recognised by British people, known as very snobbish people – and they approve [of] me as a good actor." And while Youn later apologised, explaining her words got lost in translation, she nevertheless offered an opportunity for the British to catch a glance of how much of the world sees them; to see themselves in the way they're seen. As writer Ruby Hamad has remarked, "[The West] is used to othering, not being othered." In 'othering' the Brits, Youn Yuh-Jung reminds us that for the vast majority of the world, our awards shows are kind of irrelevant.

But it was Youn winning Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars last week when we saw the West try it's darndest to fight back. In last week's strange, in-person ceremony, she was awarded by last year's Best Supporting Actor winner Brad Pitt. "Mr. Brad Pitt! Finally. Nice to meet you", she exclaimed, turning to a sheepish-looking Pitt standing a comically long distance away. "Where were you when we were filming in Tulsa?" She queried, to Pitt's bemused stillness. It was a great moment, to which the majority of Western media did it's best to completely misconstrue; spinning a patronising (maybe snobbish?) narrative about the actor 'flirting' with the 57-year-old actor.

Lost among the pablum of the headlines is what was really being directed at the actor: a good-natured admonishment that Brad Pitt never actually turned up on set. (Minari was produced by Brad Pitt's company, Plan B Entertainment, with Pitt listed as the film's executive producer.) And while the Western media was almost unanimous that Youn was flirting with Pitt backstage, what was actually happening was a confrontation about Minari's tiny $2 million USD budget. "I told him to provide more money to the movie," she told NBC News last week.

Perhaps the reason the Western media's 'flirting' story so eclipsed the truth of the moment is that seeing Brad Pitt get taken to task – an actor so evocative of the Hollywood glitz and glamour that the Oscars appear so desperate to cultivate (no casual attire this year, they commanded) – let alone by a 70-something Korean woman, seemed beyond the pale. So much of this year's Oscars' ceremony seemed to be about fashioning a semblance of normalcy. No track pants. No Zoom. If you want an Oscar, you'd better roll up to LA in Givenchy.

But things are decidedly not normal. We're more than a year out from the outset of the pandemic, with India suffering such horrific consequences that its crematoriums are overflowing with bodies. The country is suffering a serious shortage of oxygen containers. The poor are being hit devastatingly hard. People can't breathe. And for some reason, The Academy still decided plough forward with their annual ritual of getting rich people to hand out trophies to other rich people.

I'm sure the Academy was aware of the dissonance. Why else would they go out of their way to build a simulation of a normal Oscars ceremony? "Forget about what's going on," they seem desperate to say. "Look, it's Brad Pitt!" And it was perhaps this artifice that Youn Yuh-Jung threatened to expose. The actor's no-bullshit approach to telling Pitt exactly how she felt, live on stage for the whole world to see, was likely seen as a threat. From showing up the meaninglessness of fancy 'executive producer' titles, to pointing out how little sense it makes to compare a bunch of different actors playing different roles, to asking a Hollywood darling why Minari didn't have enough funding – it's no wonder a savvy PR team probably scrambled to invoke the 'older woman flirts' trope, sanitising what really went on.

Because the truth is that none of these Hollywood stars are even half as wonderful or woke as they're made out to be. Not a day seems to pass when we're not reminded of another breach of trust, another abuse of power, another fucked-up scandal. #MeToo, #TimesUp, #OscarsSoWhite. If there's anything we've learnt about Hollywood in the last five years, it's that it's hardly the promised land. And Youn Juh-Jung knows it.

"I don't admire Hollywood," Youn matter-of-factly told NBC News last week. "The reason I keep coming is because if I come to the States and work, maybe I'm able to see my son one more time. That's from the bottom of my heart." Unable to reckon with a star who couldn't give less of a fuck about them, The Academy's solution to dealing with the force of nature that is Youn Yuh-Jung was to shove her into a photo with Brad Pitt and paint her as the starstruck, fawning foreigner – rather than the wilful, no-holds-barred, wildly accomplished actor she is in her own right.

Again and again, Youn Yuh-Jung offered the West a chance to see themselves. But as we've seen, it's often more comfortable to look away.

This is an opinion piece, written by Reena Gupta; a Melbourne-based writer for MTV Australia. Follow her on Twitter @purpletank.

The header image was produced by Peter Ash Lee for the New York Times. Read the NYT profile on Youn Yuh-Jung here.

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