Yuh-jung Youn interview: Minari

Threatening It explores the bonds of family and the comfort of culture in the face of terrifying new circumstances. The Oscar contender, which opens in theaters on February 12 and will be available on demand starting February 26, follows the Yi family after Patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun, The Walking Dead) moves them to Arkansas to pursue their dream of growing Korean vegetables on an American farm.

Due to financial stress, Jacob and his wife Monica (Yeri Han) have to work, so Grandma Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn) is brought in from Korea to take care of the children. The heart of the film is based in many respects on the delicate dynamic between Soonja and her grandson David (newcomer Alan S. Kim), who doesn’t understand why she isn’t like a “real grandmother” at first.

Related: Minari Review: Steven Yeun Leads This Wonderfully Authentic Family Drama

Youn, who is an icon in Korea with decades of award-winning films under his belt, spoke with Screen Rant about crossing over to the American film industry and weaving a realistic family history with director Lee Isaac Chung.

Steven Yeun, Yuh-jung Youn, Yeri Han and Noel Cho in Minari

Steven Yeun, Yuh-jung Youn, Yeri Han and Noel Cho in Minari

You did an amazing job on this movie and you are getting recognized internationally for it. Obviously, you are no stranger to awards and accolades in Korea, but what has the reception of a wider platform been like for you?

Yuh-jung Youn: Because this is my first experience being nominated for a SAG award, it is not real to me. Because I never dreamed of this kind of situation. People say, “Wow, congratulations,” and I say, “Well, I’m not the winner. I’m just being nominated.”

They say it’s a great thing. Because I am very ignorant about this situation, if they say so, then I am honored.

What was it that attracted you to the project and made you want to participate?

Yuh-jung Youn: In Korea, I have been working for a long period of time, like five decades; I’m not bragging, I’m just talking about my age. But after 60, I thought of myself. There are not many roles for older actresses, so I decided to focus on people; If I like the director as a person, I will.

This project, my dear friend brought me this script. I trust her, so I started reading it and found that the story was very real to me. Right away, I called her and said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”

I know you have lived in both the United States and Korea. Did that help you better understand the Yi family’s situation?

Yuh-jung Youn: I think so. The story seemed real to me because I’ve been seeing so many friends in the United States as immigrants, and they were suffering and struggling with English and everything. I’ve been watching so many friends in that situation, so it’s not strange to me. Maybe that’s why I immediately decided: “I will. I can be part of this movie.”

It is very interesting to see Korean actors and Korean-American actors come together in a movie, since the approaches to acting can differ depending on the location. What was it like to step into that melting pot and create a unified vision for Threatening?

Yuh-jung Youn: The crucible was eating together. Food is very important to Yeri and me. My friend in-ah [Lee], who introduced me to Isaac and gave me the script, felt very sorry for me because we were going to be in the middle of somewhere in Tulsa. So, he took a vacation, trying to protect me; He came with me and used his entire vacation, almost two months. Then she ended up being the cook.

She turned out to be a very, very good cook. So people got together and we discussed the script and how to translate from English to Korean. She always cooked for us and Steven stayed there for the smell of the food. You can not go away. So we started eating together and arguing more and more. That food brings us together.

Speaking of food, what is the title of Threatening represent you?

Yuh-jung Youn: Before we make this movie, we usually eat it in Korea. But when you are a child, you don’t like the smell. It is not a strong smell, like coriander, but a child does not like to eat minari. But I am a grown woman and we eat it all the time; They put it in the soup or somewhere we can eat as a vegetable.

I didn’t think about minari at all before starting this movie, and then I found out from Isaac. That was a very memorable moment. Minari really cleans the soil if you plant the seed. The first year is not growing. But starting next year, it begins to grow and will never die. As they grow, if you put that seed in the ground, it will clean the soil. I didn’t know that minari was so important, and it is significant.

minari - yuhjung young and alan kim

Soonja’s relationship with her grandson David is similar to that of the children and minari. At first he doesn’t like you, then he realizes how important you are. What was it like building that dynamic with Alan, given his youth and inexperience?

Yuh-jung Youn: First, I was scared because I heard that he has no acting experience. I thought, “Oh my God. I’m going to spend a whole day with him.” That was my concern, but Isaac handled it in a smart way.

He memorized the entire line, so he had no trouble forgetting the lines. He was better than some adult actors, who don’t memorize lines. It was ready all the time. We were doing it together, then later Isaac asked her to make a special expression in front of the camera. I thought, “Okay, Isaac will add them up.” So the scenes remain like this. We had no problem between him and me.

One moment that I found really powerful was when Soonja tells David that nothing will happen to him. It seems like that really changes the course of both characters. Can you talk about how that shapes your family bond and what’s behind it?

Yuh-jung Youn: I also thought of myself. Because when you raise your own child, being a parent is your first job. You try to always make them correct; saying, “Don’t do this and do it like this.” But when you become a grandmother, she has the wisdom of life and living, so she can be nice to them. I think it is part of his wisdom.

Of course, she wishes it is okay. She is trying to reassure and comfort him, and make sure that she is telling him too. “You will be fine. You will not die.” I’m sure all grandmothers would do that. In that scene, I think Isaac did a beautiful job.

At the beginning of the movie, Soonja hasn’t even met David because she hasn’t seen the family since they left for America. Can you talk about any backstories you spoke for her and how she feels about Jacob as her daughter’s husband?

Yuh-jung Youn: I’m sure behind the scenes, they write to each other and [Monica] wrote about his situation. She knew they were not doing well; that’s why he came to take care of the children. You know you both have to go out to work.

But the interesting thing is that, due to old age, he could accept things like that. Monica says she is sorry that we are not living properly; that we are living in this motorhome. But Grandma didn’t care. For her, it is fun and very nice to have a house on wheels. I guess you know, even though you don’t have any American life experience in the script. But he likes to comfort his daughter. “It’s nothing. It’s quite nice, we’ve never had wheels in the house in Korea. This is a new experience for me.”

Comforting my daughter is the reason I received that story.

I loved that she was such a warm person despite her bad mouth and lack of filter. How did you open up his character in your performance?

Yuh-jung Youn: First I asked Isaac, “Should I imitate your grandmother? Is there a specific gesture or something?” And Isaac just said, “No, you don’t have to do that. Do it your way.”

It gave me freedom. I just enjoyed playing that role and I really appreciated it.

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