Youn Yuh-jung aims to prove herself in first role in an American series
After Youn Yuh-jung stole the show at the 93rd Academy Awards on Sunday, expectations are high for her next project.
For the past five decades, Youn has portrayed various characters that refuse to fit into society’s expectations: An eccentric Korean grandmother in “Minari” (2020), which earned her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, a “vicious heiress to an ageing prostitute, challenging social norms in both career and life” according to Agence France-Presse.
The next addition to her extensive 54-year filmography will be “Pachinko,” an eight-episode Apple TV+ series that began filming last October.
The series is based on Korean-American author Min Jin Lee’s 2017 novel “Pachinko,” which tells the story of ethnic Koreans in Japan, known as Zainichi Koreans, who face severe discrimination.
The title “Pachinko,” which is a vertical pinball machine game mostly used for gambling in Japan, symbolizes the struggle of Zainichi Koreans, as owning a pachinko parlor was the only employment they could find in a job market that rejected them. An estimated 80 percent of pachinko parlor owners in Japan are Zainichi Korean.
Youn was on her way back to Korea from filming "Pachinko" in Canada last March when she received news that she was nominated for an Oscar. While she made a cameo appearance in the Netflix series “Sens8” (2015-2018) and starred in Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho’s pilot program “Highland” (2017), “Pachinko” is Youn’s first official role in an American series.
Septuagenarian Youn is constantly challenging herself. In the SBS YouTube series “MMTG” in February, Youn said she chose to star in “Minari” because the role offered her something new.
“If I settle here [in Korea] and take TV and film roles, no Korean director is willing to try something new with someone my age,” said Youn. “So the only way is to go to somewhere new where they don’t know who I am, and prove myself with good acting.”
Youn will play the main protagonist Sunja, a Korean woman born in the mid-1910s in Busan. Sunja follows her Christian minister husband Isak and moves to Osaka, where they settle in a slum of ethnic Koreans. The saga follows Sunja’s two Japan-born sons and her grandson Solomon who studies in the United States.
The plot also shows how the turbulences of modern history — Japan’s colonial rule of Korea, World War II and the division of the two Koreas — directly and indirectly affect the characters’ lives.
Sunja is a quiet yet strong woman. She turns down her wealthy first love Hansu and chooses a life of hardship with Isak, but quietly endures her fate.Even when her husband is taken away by the Japanese police and her brother-in-law falls ill, she finds a way to make ends meet with her sister-in-law Kyunghee. She sells candy at the marketplace, makes kimchi at restaurants, and farms sweet potatoes to put food on the table.
Her strong spirit is reminiscent of Youn, who worked as a supermarket cashier in the United States after her divorce in the 1980s. Youn has said that she desperately took acting roles to make a living and support her two sons, whom she humorously thanked during her acceptance speech at the Oscars.
“I’d like to thank my two boys, who make me go out and work,” said Youn. “This is the result, because mommy worked so hard.”
The role of young Sunja will be played by rookie actor Kim Min-ha, Hansu by K-drama heartthrob Lee Min-ho and Kyunghee by actor Jung Eun-chae. Lee and Jung have previously co-starred in the SBS series “The King: Eternal Monarch” (2020), and the star-studded cast has drawn much attention.
“Pachinko” is filmed in Korea, Japan and Canada. As the series is about ethnic Koreans in Japan, the cast also includes Japanese actors Anna Sawai, Kaho Minami and Zainichi Korean actor Soji Arai.
Korean-American television writer Soo Hugh took charge of the script and is overseeing the production, while Korean American filmmakers Kogonada and Justin Chon are directing. The release date has not been announced.
“Pachinko” resembles Korean-American director Lee Issac Chung’s “Minari” and Chinese-American director Chloé Zhao’s Academy-winning “Nomadland” (2020) in terms of its diasporic themes.
“Minari” is loosely based on Chung’s personal childhood growing up in an immigrant family. “Pachinko” author Min Jin Lee immigrated from Korea to the United States when she was seven years old.Lee studied at Yale University and Georgetown University Law Center to become a corporate lawyer, but quit after two years due to the extreme workload and her dreams of becoming an author.
Lee was inspired to write “Pachinko” when she first heard about Zainichi Koreans in a college lecture in 1989. She learned that even fifth generation ethnic Koreans in Japan were still called Zainichi and were heavily discriminated against.
After living in Japan for four years from 2007 to 2011, while her husband was working in Tokyo, Lee wrote "Pachinko" based on the ample research and interviews she conducted there. The New York Times named the novel one of the 10 Best Books of 2017.
The novel was published in Korean in 2018 and has been printed 17 times in Korea.
BY MIN KYUNG-WON [email@example.com]