2019 Film Essays

A Man with No Country: A Conversation with ‘Burning’ Star Steven Yeun

People may know Steven Yeun best for his role as the loveable pizza boy Glenn in The Walking Dead, but it’s his transformative turn in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning that has propelled him into movie star status. We met in a hotel conference room ahead of the film’s UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, one stop out of many in a lengthy promotional tour leading up to awards season. Yeun appears completely at ease, speaking with a sincerity that is worlds away from his Burning character.

Burning is a difficult film to summarise in a neat soundbite. It’s a tricky labyrinth, slow in pace but always surprising at every turn. Yeun plays the enigmatic Ben, an upper-class bachelor fighting for the affections of Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) while keeping an eye on aspiring writer Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in). But it’s reductive to describe Burning simply as a love triangle film. There’s something much darker and alluring that lurks underneath its prolonged mystery. Within its complex narrative, the film covers class divisions, toxic masculinity and psychopaths, among other things.

While viewing Burning, it’s easy to see why the director recruited Yeun for the film. He describes his casting as an “independent freak accident,” but the role is so perfectly suited to him that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in Ben’s shoes. Burning weaponises Yeun’s nice guy persona to the highest degree. Ben is courteous to Jong-su to a fault; his pleasantries seem like part of a facade. That wall breaks down, for just a moment, when he divulges that he has the peculiar hobby of burning down greenhouses. At that moment, one may suspect that there is something else, something more disturbing, that he is hiding. Those suspicions never get resolved, however. The joy of Burning is that it forces the viewer to fill in the blanks.

Ben is an opaque character shrouded in mystery, always keeping the audience at arm’s length. Yeun admitted that there are things about Ben that only he knows, and that’s no accident. The way Yeun describes the script suggests a stripped-back mode of storytelling that puts faith in the actors to interpret their characters for themselves. “The script and the story are more actions and descriptors, as opposed to natural philosophies of how someone is,” Yeun said. “But that’s what’s fun about character-building, and that’s what was really fun about working with director Lee.”

Yeun’s place as an immigrant informs the character greatly, and the film takes advantage of that. The many details of Yeun’s layered performance might be lost on the anglophone viewer: Ben’s Korean is textbook accurate, creating an uncomfortable contrast with the colloquial language of Hae-mi and Jong-su. It’s Yeun’s Americanisms that make Ben such an unsettling character — in Jong-su’s eyes, Ben is otherworldly. 

It’s this aspect of Yeun’s performance that I was most interested in understanding. I told him about my own experiences as an immigrant: I’m British-Asian, but I have always felt like an outsider when I return to the Philippines — a place I have zero ties to apart from genetics. Yeun had a similar feeling about working in Korea. “When I was filming Okja, I was very much made aware of that double-consciousness aspect of things,” Yeun said. “You are a man with no country, ultimately, and I think that’s true of everybody. I know we want to lay claim to countries or borders, but those aren’t necessarily real things, we’ve just made them for ourselves.”

To Yeun, filming Burning in Korea was an isolating experience, because his identity, as a Korean but also an American, was impossible to ignore. Suddenly, he was more aware of the cultural disparities between him and everyone else. It was when he returned home that he realised he didn’t know what it means to be Korean — a fact which he admits he was “pretty bummed” about. “When I was shooting this film, I was very much immersed in feeling Korean and being Korean, and I am Korean — I was born there — but I’ve been gone for so long that I can’t really claim to know the real, true feeling of what it’s like to be there and be that person,” he said. He has a “never say never” mentality when it comes to working in Korean cinema again, but he also doesn’t believe he can do it. “I feel more natural in America,” he said. “I feel like my skill-set is more geared towards there.”

Despite all this, Yeun has reconciled with this feeling of loneliness, accepting that his unique cultural identity is what makes him who he is: “I found a sense of strength in it. Not me on my island — but my experience is my experience.” It may have triggered mixed feelings, but with Burning, Steven Yeun has solidified himself as an actor to watch. Regardless of what he does next — whether it’s in America or Korea — the world should be scrambling to see him.

Iana Murray (@suspiriana) is a writer and film critic based in Scotland. She is an editor at Much Ado About Cinema and her work has appeared in The Skinny, Culture Whisper, Girls on Tops and A24’s Notes.

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