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Korea Blog: Kim Ki-young’s The Insect Woman (1972), Featuring the Grandma from Minari as a Grindhouse Femme Fatale

Now that K-pop, K-drama, and K-beauty have been international phenomena for years, Westerners must prepare themselves for the reign of the K-grandma. I’ve heard that label, or rather its more Korean form K-halmeoni, applied to Youn Yuh-jung, a veteran actress famous here in Korea since the 1970s. Much more recently she’s become a star in the United States as well: the anointment occurred last month, in the form of an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress granted for her performance in Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari. Much lauded even before the Oscars, Chung’s film tells of a Korean immigrant family struggling to make a go as farmers in the Arkansas of the 1980s. Youn plays the mother-in-law brought over from the old country to watch the children; at first an alien presence to the American-born young son, this foulmouthed grandmother comes ultimately to provide just the kindness and encouragement he needs.

Though perhaps not a role that will win any awards for originality, as written by Chung (in a “semi-autobiographical” script) and played by Youn it has resonated with viewers Korean and non-Korean alike. Increasingly many of the latter have been moved to watch Minari expressly in order to see Youn’s performance, so endearing a personality has the actress displayed in her post-Oscar interviews. An immigrant to the United States herself during a decade of “retirement” from the mid-1970s through the mid-80s, she’s spoken playfully and often sardonically in English about the rigors of low-budget independent filmmaking, Western mispronunciations of her name, and her desire to meet absentee producer Brad Pitt. As she accepted her Academy Award, she dedicated it to “my first director, Kim Ki-young, who was a very genius director. I made my first movie with him. He would be very happy if he is still alive.”

Released exactly half a century earlier, that first movie Woman of Fire (화녀) features a 23-year-old Youn playing a femme fatale who brings about the destruction of a stolid middle-class household. It shares this basic story with an earlier Kim picture, 1960’s The Housemaid (하녀), which is now regarded, in the company of Yu Hyun-mok’s Aimless Bullet from the following year, as one of the greatest Korean films of all time. Restored by the Korean Film Archive in 2008, it was later granted the supreme cinephile imprimatur of an edition in the Criterion Collection. That the release came endorsed by Parasite director Bong Joon-ho, star of last year’s Academy Awards ceremony, speaks to Kim’s lasting influence on Korean cinema. More than 20 years after his death, he lays fair claim to the title of the most important Korean filmmaker of all time.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.