Interview: Steven Yeun on BURNING, Channeling His South Korean Heritage, and What’s Next
The older I get, the broader my definition of horror becomes. Perhaps it’s seeing the daily confrontations people have about various topics and all the anger and vitriol that is associated. Perhaps it’s my own life experiences growing and widening, which allows me to be afraid of so much more that’s out there. Whatever the cause, horror is becoming an ever-increasing and ever-diverse tapestry that is equally beautiful and horrifying to look at.
With the limited theatrical release of Lee Chang-Dong’s latest film Burning now upon us, I think it’s fair to analyze the film and wonder if it qualifies. Personally, I’m 100% convinced it does. In the movie, we follow a young man who becomes convinced that the woman he’s reconnected with from his childhood has become victim to a sociopathic killer, played by The Walking Dead and Mayhem actor Steven Yeun. A mysterious, poetic, and slow burn film, Burning doesn’t concern itself with providing answers to viewers’ questions. Rather, it delights in simply offering more conundrums with each passing scene. In the end, the audience is left to determine what is real, what is an illusion, and what is a grave mistake.
At this year’s Fantastic Fest, we were able to sit down with Yeun to discuss his character, what it was like being in a South Korean production, the kind of representation he would like to see, and what’s next in his life.
Dread Central: So first of all, how are you?
Steven Yeun: I’m great.
DC: There was the press and industry screening of Burning this morning but the actual film was playing later today, so how excited are you?
SY: I’m super excited. I’m excited for this film festival, which normally wouldn’t have a film like this, like Burning, in its lineup, have some people go and watch it and walk out hopefully liking it. I don’t know, do you feel like this programs here? Burning doesn’t necessarily program…
DC: I think it does. Fantastic Fest is all about genre films, whether it be something like Mayhem or…
SY: Would you say something like Burning is a genre film?
DC: I think that there are elements to it because there is that, is it a mystery or thriller, is it potentially a serial killer movie, it’s never really abundantly clear but there enough of those suggestions that make people wonder. The most important thing is it spurs discussion and that’s what Fantastic Fest crowds live for.
SY: That’s great and that’s what I think is the coolest part is this is a Korean film and I, as an American actor, somehow got to be a part of it and it’s playing in Texas, in Korean language, by a Korean master. It kind of for me encapsulates hopefully where we are headed overall in the future, to just kind of make borderless art, if you can.
DC: That brings up an interesting question because if it’s borderless art, how do we then make sure that we recognize and appreciate the cultures that are a part of that film? So I guess, what makes Burning a Korean film?
SY: I think it isn’t a Korean film, I think it’s like a human film and that’s what it crosses over. I think the Korean parts of it are, not the inside jokes, or the things that are not accessible to the wider audience, but rather the colors that he knows to paint with, the places that he speaks from. I guess that’s what I mean, I don’t mean a borderless world where all of a sudden we’re making anything for anybody, but where we can see the humanness in all of us in spite of all these delineations that we’ve created for ourselves. As beautiful as they are and as celebrated as they should be, there’s a human component that kind of transcends it and I think that’s the appeal of Burning for me I’ve noticed, for the Western audience it’s like, some people I’ve even talked to are like, I’ve never watched a Korean film before and this film spoke to me in a way and I’m like yeah, that’s called film. That’s where we’re hopefully getting to, where you can watch something from somewhere else and still just feel that connection to being a human being.
DC: Now on top of that were also seeing in today’s socially conscious day and age, the kind of world we’re living in, we are seeing movies where people are saying, we need more representation of minorities or certain types of people and we saw with Crazy Rich Asians there was a big push with that. So what does it mean for you to have that kind of impact and influence, especially with as you said, it’s a Korean film and you’re an American actor, but it’s playing in Texas?
SY: It feels cool, I feel like it all drives the conversation, in hopefully the same direction. Certainly, different things serve different purposes and not all art is the same type. I feel like Crazy Rich Asians does a wonderful job of legitimizing a presence in the industry while at the same time, allowing a lot of other actors to be seen. Does it incorporate all of us? No. Does it speak to all of our experiences? No. But it shows that there’s variance and that they can, unfortunately, speak to the business side sometimes and say you can make money off this stuff. There’s a whole population that wants to see diverse cinema. Then you have Searching, where you see John Cho put down the portrait of a very classic normal American family that just happens to be Asian. Then you have something out of left field like Burning, where it’s a Korean film that has different parameters associated with it that hopefully lets people see that these things that we’ve created for ourselves because we’re the onus to celebrate the specificity of them. That’s what makes us human, is you see humanness in specificity. A lot of times minority actors have to play roles that are often limited and makes them inhuman because they’re playing a portion that the Western gaze is telling them that they are. It’s very stereotypical and it’s not to say that all these projects that are coming around are perfect but it’s just to say that we are getting to see a lot more shades and the more specific and deeper we can get in, hopefully, that will loop us out and back into our humanness. It’s not to say I want to skip to human when people aren’t ready for it yet but I want all of these things to take us to human.
DC: I like that you said more shades because continuing that analogy, the more shades you have the more beautiful a painting you can have, that you can create.
SY: The more realistic that you can make something feel and look and that’s what I felt from this experience for me, that I didn’t realize how many times I was mostly playing roles that were intended to be just one shade because it was to serve a purpose or fill a slot or it was to be a thing that you’re used to seeing but when you’re with a filmmaker that allows you to be free and bring that to your performance then they’re just putting a camera out and you’re getting to live the experience of a full person. That is really rewarding and, hopefully, a lot of people get to experience that, it’s awesome.
DC: I think it always goes into some films’ specific questions because with everything you’ve been mentioning, what can you talk about in getting into the mindset of playing Ben and this deliciously creepy individual?
SY: There was a lot of prep, I think the first big hurdle was language, which I had to get right. Me being not a native Korean speaker, I was not at the level that was required of me here, so a lot of work there. Then, to get to Ben, I feel like what helped was kind of recognizing a lot of things, like ones aloneness in the world, what it means to be present, looking at the world from Ben’s lens of maybe what’s reality to him, digging into those types of things in a character that allows you to shift your worldview a little bit differently. When you operate from Ben’s worldview you’re just kind of there, you’re floating through whatever’s happening.
DC: Something that I noticed, and I might be off, but it seemed like every time Ben smiled it never touched his eyes, it was always a mile that stayed a hair below, it was very kind of Patrick Bateman in a way. One could say there is an interesting parallel between Derek from Mayhem and Ben in here because both are kind of characters that are allowed to be completely unhinged and free from the shackles of standard society, but there’s still something that seems to keep them within a certain arena. In Burning, we never really know, at least from how I saw it, we never really know if you are guilty of the crimes of which you are judged. In your mind, do you think you are?
SY: Director Lee came to me and part of the freedom he gave me, was he said you’re the only one who knows.
DC: [pause] And?
SY: I’m the only one who knows.
DC: Argh, dammit!
DC: Ok, so you were born in South Korea, you had to learn the language and really study it. What was that journey like for you, not just for doing this for the film but for you personally?
SY: It was a personal intense time. It kind of started with Okja, to play who I felt like I was to people in Okja, which was just this kid stuck in the middle, not being able to fit in too closely anywhere, but this one was a totally different experience where no, you are here and you are from here, this is you. That was an interesting time because I wasn’t as aware of the meta as I was in Okja. In Okja I was oh, I’m helping my cast mates have a career while my character navigates Korea, while I don’t and my character doesn’t really know Korea, so it kind of helped that way. This one was, go be that character right now, just go do it, and so I guess it let me feel what it feel likes to be a citizen of that country for a second and then as soon as it was done I was reminded of how you are a man with no country.
DC: I find it fascinating that all this is brought up because the character Hae-mi, we meet her before she goes to Africa and then when she comes back and she is clearly a citizen from there. It’s interesting that all the stories you have told me, our first introduction to Ben is that he’s coming back from Africa, it’s almost like we don’t know where he’s actually from. Is he a citizen or is he a man of the world and this is just one stop on his journey? But then we see just how ingrained he is, he knows everyone here, he knows how to navigate there, in the city, out in the country, we don’t know about you.
SY: Yeah, that was purposeful. I think Korea is definitely where Ben started but he has seen a lot of the world and when you know the history of Korea there are so many extra things that you can imply. Korea just became a powerhouse GDP in the last thirty years, I mean in the eighties Korea had nothing and now they’re becoming a top five economic power. That will do something to people, that will skip generations, that will make certain generations obsolete in thought. It will speed along a process that can’t keep up with people’s ability to adjust to them, and I think that’s indicative of the greater world too, the internet does that on a whole, but Korea has gone through some major changes very quickly and so we’re just being able to see what that translates to on a growing pains scale. I think this film…what I love is director Lee gets to take a chance at telling a story about the kids and kind of showing how he sees what the kids are going through and it is scary like that, everybody does feel lonely, everybody does feel like there’s nothing left for them, that they’re just busy managing and taking care of people above them and below them. Are we headed to a world of sociopaths? I don’t know but maybe. It’s that scary out there and I think that’s where Lee really comes in to comment on that and I love that about this film.
DC: So you feel Burning in its own way is very reflective of the society that currently people are living through right now, because see this kid, he wants to be a writer and he’s working part-time and they even talk about the unemployment in that country within the film itself. It’s strange because Ben is so secure, he has this great apartment, the amazing car, friends that all seem to be at that same level as him and there’s not a care at all and yet this person that he seemingly, manipulatively befriends, is the complete opposite. A guy that has to sell a cow to make sure he can get by so what is it about that huge disparity that makes Burning such an interesting vision?
SY: I think it’s that in spite of those differences, they’re both incredibly lonely people. That is what binds them, how they feel what casts them apart from society. You know, I think it’s indicative of the world in that way too, just like thinking about what our own echo chambers do for us. It regurgitates the exact information it wants us to have and then all of a sudden we think the greater world thinks the same way we do because our Twitter timeline says that it does but some people don’t give a shit about what you give a shit about and that only serves to separate us more and I think that’s kind of the hollowness that is going on sometimes, sometimes it feels like you are alone.
DC: Burning may be one of the most dramatic and serious roles that you’ve taken on but like I said, for me at least, it feels like it’s in the genre wheelhouse. You’ve done so much genre work, not only over the years but over a wide variety of mediums, video games, TV, movies and voice work. What is it about genre as a whole that kind of keeps pulling you back in?
SY: You bring up a good point and I don’t think I get drawn to genre, genre pulls me in because, unfortunately, that’s usually the space that’s provided for me.
DC: With something like this though, because it’s such a crossover, it will hopefully afford you more opportunities. What does the future look like to you, that you would hope for?
SY: I don’t know, I’m just trying to get to more human for myself. As an Asian/American actor you are sometimes made to realize that as lucky as you are to be working, to play a character, that sometimes the way that it’s written or the viewpoint from which it’s told has to always explain yourself and so by virtue of having to explain yourself you’re already kind of shrunk yourself into words, which is never enough to capture a full human being. Its gestures, its thoughts, it’s that connection to the audience where we’re actually just the same thing. I think that’s why I’ve played in genres so much, because usually when they are willing to look at it from a different angle, say put a different type of person in there, it’s usually under certain parameters which are controlled, like here is a thriller to carry you through the visuals of seeing an Asian person carry this role, or here’s a tight weaving storyline, to make sure it’s not about his ethnicity but about the story. I’d like to see a film that’s about all of it, it’s about his ethnicity, it’s about that he’s a man, it’s about that she’s a woman, it’s about that they are five or six feet tall, that they like coffee or tea, whatever, it’s just about that. It’s the normalization of human beings in these boxes that we keep trying to shove things into so however that manifests, I don’t know, we’ll see, but I think that’s kind of the answer to that question, genre has provided me with the ability to feel as free as I can at the moment.
DC: Wonderful, and last question, what is next? What can we look forward to?
SY: I don’t know. I’ve just kind of been taking a break this year. I have a kid so that’s been a lot of time for me but I’m kind of open to whatever comes my way, I’ve been lucky that my gut tells me to go specific ways and I haven’t really found anything like that yet so we’ll see what happens.