Steven Yeun could lead South Korea to a first: A groundbreaking nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards.
The 34-year-old actor is the antagonist of Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning,” which competed at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and won the FIPRESCI Prize there. The country has selected the film, which opens Stateside in theaters on Friday, as its official Oscars submission. The movie has been hailed as a particularly competitive entry with many elements that make it an attractive entry with Academy voter appeal: It’s an adaptation of a short story by a legendary writer — that would be Haruki Murakami and his “Barn Burning”; with a celebrated director (Lee), and led by an international star (Yeun). All that aside, it’s just a really good film.
“Who knows what will happen?,” says Yeun when asked about the film’s award season resonance. “I think it would be great for director Lee to finally get some recognition, as to me and many people he’s one of the masters of filmmaking in the world. I feel lucky to be an American person that can also identify as Korean to an extent to play a role such as this, and in some ways be a weird bridge to connect cultures. But the really cool thing is we’re just seeing what’s going to be; you had Elisabeth Moss in ‘The Square,’ and I imagine it’s just the beginning of things like this happening, and I’m excited for what people are now ready to watch. Before people couldn’t stand subtitles, but now it’s just standard. I think this is maybe a precursor to what can come from an international type of filmmaking.”
The future looks bright for Yeun. Elevated by the popularity of his role in “The Walking Dead,” Yeun has gone on to star in several critically lauded film projects, including Boots Riley’s summer surrealist satire “Sorry to Bother You” and Bong Joon-ho’s 2017 Korean-American hybrid “Okja”; the director not only connected the two cultures in his film, but ultimately connected Yeun to director Lee. During the “Okja” press tour, Yeun was asked during an interview about other Korean directors he’d want to work with; he threw director Lee’s name out.
“Not ever thinking that anything would actually come of it,” Yeun clarifies. “His writing protege Oh Jung-mi, who helped write this film, saw that interview. And they were looking for a new person to play Ben, because the prior person had fallen out, and they contacted me through director Bong. Now I’m in a Lee Chang-dong film — which is a dream of mine, so it’s pretty cool.”
The role required a language-immersion for the 34-year-old actor, who was born in Seoul but grew up in Michigan and calls his pronunciation of Korean “decent.” The biggest hurdle was slipping into a general ease of being with both the language and the culture.
The cultural hurdle ultimately benefited his character by creating a sense of “other.”
“I was raised in a really Korean household, so I knew the way to live there; even when I was there doing ‘Okja’ people couldn’t realize that I wasn’t from Korea,” says Yeun. “But there are these tiny nuances that I couldn’t necessarily shake — nor did director Lee want me to shake — which was the American-ness that is bound into my body in a way, maybe the way I move or the way I express or things like that,” he adds. “He wanted [Ben] to be slightly dissonant, in that every single thing is telling us this person is from Korea and is a native Korean, but there’s something off.”
Yeun traces his involvement in multinational films back to the concept of breaking down borders. No matter the spoken language, the emotional language remains the same across film industries.
“There is always a way to understand this film to be about something Asian or Korean, or Asian-American, and while those things aren’t untrue, I think one thing that I really love is the human component that pervades through the whole [movie]. And that’s what I’ve been really happy about, is we do have our differences in culture and we do have our nuances in culture, but it’s a human experience,” he says. “Something that meant more to me as time went on and as I finished this project and had more distance from it, was the overwhelming sense of loneliness that pervades through the whole film, and what that means.”
As for what’s next, Yeun is still searching the waters.
“This year has been reflective for me, and I’m kind of being patient,” he says. “I think in order to change certain systems’ perspective of yourself, you have to work at it, surprise people, stretch yourself in ways that people didn’t expect, or even you yourself, so that seems to be what I’m trying to do,” he adds.
And in case magic can strike twice: Who else would he like to work with?
“There are just so many wonderful directors. Denis Villeneuve would be awesome, I really love Sean Baker,” he says of other dream directors. “I mean, I could list directors, but that would be no fun.”
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