ST. PETERSBURG — To prepare for her role in the movie Minari, South Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung, 73, harkened back to her own nine years of adjusting to life in the United States.
“I actually experienced a little of everything,” she told the Hollywood Reporter.
Her performance as Soonja, the foul-mouthed grandmother of a Korean American family that moves to an Arkansas farm in search of their “American Dream,” earned Youn, known as “South Korea’s Meryl Streep,” an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, the first time a thespian from her nation is up for that award.
Her real life experiences as a South Korean immigrant occurred in St. Petersburg, where she lived from 1975 - 1984 in support of her then-husband’s dream of singing for American churches.
“I love her to death,” said Linda Allen, 80, a former St. Petersburg resident now residing in North Carolina who described herself as Youn’s close friend during those nine years. “We did lots of fun things together. We cooked, had dinners, went shopping.”
Youn broke into South Korean cinema in 1966 and, according to the Hollywood Reporter, “shot to fame” in the early 1970s, but gave up acting “at the peak of her career” after marrying South Korean singing sensation Jo Young-nam.
A 1978 St. Petersburg Times profile of Jo reported that in South Korea he was a best-selling recording artist and television personality who converted to Christianity with the intent of becoming his nation’s “first gospel singer.”
That dream led him to St. Petersburg where Northside Baptist Church provided him a scholarship to study at Dunedin’s Trinity College.
Youn and Jo initially rented a home across the street from the church, Allen said, but later purchased their own house. The Pinellas County Clerk of Court’s online records say the residence was in Largo’s Lake Park Estates.
Jo became a local celebrity through his performances at the church, the Times reported.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” current Northside pastor Daryn Mullholand said. “We had a thriving musical ministry in the 1970s. We were a booming church with respect to music.”
But Youn shunned the spotlight for a role as a stay-at-home mother of two sons, both born in St. Petersburg.
“She mentioned she did some television,” Allen said, “but it wasn’t brought up a lot. She never said she was a celebrity.”
Youn told Britain’s Observer entertainment publication that she tried to learn English by watching soap operas. She told Bustle.com that mothering her first baby was difficult because she couldn’t read parenting manuals.
“She lived next door to the church when she had her first baby,” Allen said. “So, some of the gals from church got together and gave her a baby shower. I helped take care of the baby when she went out.”
Their children grew up together, Allen said, “playing games and learning to swim. We had a normal family relationship.”
Youn credits the church with providing stability, telling TheFederalist.com that, despite being the only Asian family in the congregation of 2,000, “I didn’t feel any discrimination.”
Church members were quick to defend Youn if they thought someone was rude, Allen said. “I would be very protective if a salesperson was short with her because she had broken English.”
Church members also taught Youn how to drive.
“We had an area in a neighborhood where there were roads, but the houses hadn’t been built yet,” Allen said “So that is where we taught her. We set up two garbage cans for parallel parking. It didn’t go well. When she had to go take the test, there was a lot of prayer and a lot of laughter with tears, but she got it done.”
Three years after returning to South Korea, Youn and her husband divorced. She told Bustle that she considered returning to St. Petersburg, possibly to work as a cashier in a grocery store, but a friend in South Korea convinced her to give acting there a second chance.
“We would talk on the phone and both wind up in tears,” Allen said. “We missed each other terribly. She had some thoughts of coming back but there was no future for her here. She made the right choice to stay in Korea.”
Allen said they keep in touch. “She’s a great lady, and I’m just so very proud of her.”