When Youn Yuh-Jung first received the script for Pachinko, the story struck the veteran actor as achingly familiar. In the show, which was adapted from the best-selling novel of the same name, Youn plays protagonist Sunja, a Korean woman who immigrates to Japan in the early 1900s.
Quickly, Youn realised she didn’t need to do much research in preparation for the role. “My mother was born in 1924, and lived in Korea under Japanese rule. I overheard her, as a child, speaking of many different occasions of how they were treated by Japanese colonisers,” Youn shares.
Both versions of Pachinko—the 2017 book by Min Jin Lee and the newly-renewed Apple TV+ drama—have become critically acclaimed hits. While the book follows a chronological format, tracing 80 years and generation upon generation of Sunja’s family, the show jumps back and forth in time. Both iterations feature a laudably rich ensemble of characters and riveting arcs, and are united in the element of grim discovery resonating with readers and viewers alike. As the first story of its kind to trace the politically-scarred 20th century Korean experience in Japan, Pachinko unveils the heart-wrenching discrimination, poverty and pain Korean immigrants of the time went through.
As such, there was a lot that attracted Youn to the role. The gripping, historic plot was one factor, but even more electric was the instant connection she felt with Sunja. “I read both the script and the novel, of course, but I can’t quite recall which I did first,” she says. “But I do remember that Sunja gave me a very rare feeling. I had an immediate connection with her—her character, strength, honesty and resilience. I knew, right away, that I had to play her role.”
With an illustrious career spanning over 50 years, the 75-year-old Youn may only have recently come into the international spotlight for her Oscar-winning turn in Minari, but she has been a long-time legend in South Korea. Here, the distinguished actor chats to Vogue Singapore about what the future holds, her journey with Pachinko, and that special moment with CODA’s Troy Kotsur at this year’s Oscars.
How do you understand Sunja as a character? Do you relate to certain parts of her?
I admire Sunja, and am so inspired by her strength and honesty. She has an incredible determination to survive, even during the difficult time she was born in. And she could have chosen a different, more comfortable way with Hansu, who turned out to be married when she thought he was not. He would have given her everything if she agreed to be his concubine or mistress. But she didn’t want that, and she went with the generous pastor Isak instead. Because of her choice, she faced so much struggle being an immigrant in Japan—but ultimately, survived and lived an honest life. She worked so hard to raise her two boys and did everything for them. As a mother myself, of course I can relate to those feelings.
“If somebody wants to be an actor or work in the film industry, the most important thing to know is that it is not glamorous”
Did you spend much time during filming with your castmates like Lee Min Ho, Kim Minha and Jin Ha?
I worked mainly with Jin Ha, who played the role of my grandson. Before we met, I had already heard that he was a good actor through my younger son. We had dinner, talked about the script and had a great time together. Soji Arai, who plays my son, is actually Zainichi himself, so I got to learn his insider experience. Kim Minha plays the younger version of Sunja while Lee Min Ho plays Hansu. So, unfortunately, we were all playing characters in different times of history and I didn’t get to encounter them on set. But it was a very memorable experience with the younger generation of Korean actors.
In Pachinko, Sunja has to face many painful situations. What was the most emotionally complex and difficult scene for you to perform?
Definitely the scene when she came back to Korea after 50 years in Japan and visited her hometown of Busan, trying to locate her father’s graveyard. She felt the ocean she used to dive into when she was a child of nine or 10. It was an incredibly emotional scene. I remember clearly—with the rain and everything in the background, I had to focus on trying to express all the different emotions she was feeling.
It has been over a year since your historic win at the 2021 Oscars for your role in Minari. How do you feel about the award you received and what do you think it meant for equality and representation?
The award I received hasn’t changed me—I’m still myself, living in the same house with the same friends. But my hope is that my win makes the current equality gap that exists in the acting industry smaller. My son says that equality exists only in mathematics and I think that’s true. Balance may be the right word, and that’s all I hope for in the future.
You presented CODA’s Troy Kotsur his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor at the 2022 Academy Awards, and he was the first deaf man in history to win an acting Oscar. On stage, you signed his name in American Sign Language (ASL). Why was this an important gesture for you to do and did you practise beforehand?
Actually, friends of mine had asked me the night before: “Who do you wish to be the winner?” I told them that I wanted Troy Kotsur to be the winner—he was on my mind and that was my guess. So, my friends suggested, why don’t you practise how to say “Congratulations” and “I love you” in ASL? They were trying to teach me through the internet. When he turned out to be the winner, I was so incredibly happy for him. I had wanted him to be the winner, and he so deserved it. So I really wanted to congratulate him from the bottom of my heart. But I think I made a mistake with one finger when I signed “I love you.”
What advice do you have for newcomers who look up to you and wish to enter the film or television industry?
If somebody wants to be an actor or work in the film industry, the most important thing to know is that it is not glamorous. Like what you see from the outside? Trust me, on the inside, it is very difficult and requires a lot of labour. If you are prepared to be a hard worker and not chase the fame or glamour—then yes, you should try it.
What do you hope viewers will take away from watching Pachinko?
We have many documents about this part of Korean history, so I am more interested in conveying the human story. I hope the audience will connect with the feelings and emotions of the characters who lives during the time—what they endured to survive and exist. I’m really glad this story is being told, and I hope we can honour their lives with this show.
What is next for you and what are you most looking forward to?
Well, I’m an old lady. At my age, I’m just trying to slow everything down. I’ve lived long enough and nothing excites me much nowadays. All I want is rest and a peaceful life.
Watch ‘Pachinko’ on Apple TV+
Creative director and stylist: Alvin Goh
Photographer: Dennis Leupold
Make-up artist: Jenny Oh
First assistant: Charles Brown
Digital technical producer: Kevin Leupold
Producer: Sacha de Bona
Tailor: Martin Zepeda
Assistants: Michelle Goh and Jinn Ong