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The Walking Dead-alum Steven Yeun talks about his new film, Burning

  • Culture

By Azeem Rajulawalla, BA History

Last week, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning was released. It had already made waves at the Cannes Film Festival where it was in competition for the Palme D’or, particularly for its surprising and tense ending, which ultimately leaves you with more questions than answers. It deals with sexual frustration and social divides in South Korea through the experiences of Jong-su as he longs for Hae-mi, and the enigma of Ben, played by Steven Yuen.

Following a screening at the London Film Festival back in October, I had the opportunity to sit down with Yeun to discuss the film, his career, and what it means to be part of a new era of Asian representation in the film industry.

How have different countries reacted to Burning?

Steven Yeun: “What’s been nice about this film coming from Director Lee’s mind is that he always has a universal approach to the human in all of us. I’ve seen not-too different of takes from each country that gets to watch this. For me, I didn’t really think of it to that extent. I just wanted to work with director Lee because he’s just one of the greatest film directors of the modern age.

The thing I’ve been very fortunate with is that I’ve been able to work with voices that are very direct and sure in their perspective. Director Bong [Joon-ho] being one of them, and Boots [Riley] definitely being one of them. You can see in their work that they have an uncompromising approach.

The thing that really resonated for me with Lee was the first time I saw Poetry. I watched it and I saw my grandmother; I saw a deep connection to the pain I must have put my own grandmother through when I was a kid. And then you go back to his filmography and you watch something like Peppermint Candy, and as a Korean immigrant to America, you always have these cultural feelings within yourself that you can’t explain. It’s kind of like that unrequited Korean rage that a lot of men and women feel. Mostly from being on occupied territory for so much time, you know you can’t explain it ‘cause your parents don’t even have the words to explain it to you, nor are they really concerned about that at the moment because they’re just trying to survive in a new country. 

So, you grow up like this and you’re like, ‘Why am I me? What’s going on?’ And then you watch something like Peppermint Candy and you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s why I’m me. That makes total sense.’ For a film to speak like that to me was very important. It allowed me to really understand the scope and ability of what filmmaking can do. So, I was like, well, if I get to work with director Lee? Awesome. But I never thought that would happen.”

What were your thoughts when you first read the script?

“I’d be lying if I said I connected every single dot as soon as I read it, but I felt a really strong connection to the core of what [the script] was going for—to the character and the place that this person is in, the potential existential angst that this person is feeling, and also maybe the emptiness inside him that kind of prevails. I felt like I understood that when I read the script for the first time. It’s hard to talk about this film because the questions are always going to be rooted in something concrete, but the film is about how life is not as concrete as we thought it was. I apologise for my vague answers.”

How did you go about emoting with such a vague character?

“On the page, it looks very different than it does on the screen—we haven’t made those choices yet of how we want to show Ben in each moment. On the page, it’s mostly just what happens and what people say. I had a deep connection with that character after reading the short story, and that’s what director Lee and I talked about a lot when we met. Just building this character from how he’s looking at the world—and those are the conversations that we had. So, after that, it became: Each moment that we film, what version of Ben do we show? And then that ambiguity kind of comes together at the end of the process.”

What was it like working with Lee Chang-dong?

“Our relationship now is like, I’m still a fan, but he just allowed me to break down any social barriers and really see him as a human being, and I think that was really wonderful to me—to be able to talk with someone I aspire to be like in that way. To be at his age and to have relinquished his ego as many times as he’s done over the course of his life, and to continue to do it, to make a film about the young generation without telling them what they are but rather empathizing with who they are. That’s a really gracious way to approach film, and I think those are the things that you see and witness in people that you admire, and you think, ‘God, I hope I can do it like that, too.’ Yeah, it was a really wonderful and complete experience.”

While Ben has secrets from the audience, does he have any secrets from you?

“Director Lee was really wonderful in that he gave me a kind of freedom. Even in the end, in the final moments I know some audiences will be saying he got what he deserved, and some people will be like, ‘Well, I’m not sure. Maybe he wasn’t what we thought.’ I’m the only one that knows. To be quite honest, for me to say anything would defeat the purpose for me. That was really a choice I made for myself, and that’s my experience with the film. I think it’s supposed to speak on that, that notion that you are never sure. We come to these conclusions for ourselves, we make all the decisions, and say this is what this is based on this, this, and this. But then you peel it back and you go, ‘Well, nothing is actual evidence that anything went down.’ It’s just conjectures and however they’ve put the pieces together for you. So, erm, yeah, what’s real?”

Why did you choose to make a Korean movie when you’re already established in America?

“I know that parameters-wise, how we’re going to digest it is that there’s a whole other market in Korea that you can really participate in, and I recognise that and that’s definitely true. I feel like I’ve gotten many opportunities in the past to participate in it in a different capacity and I didn’t take them. Not because of anything except that they didn’t feel natural to me—but this one did. I look at this as not the only thing that I’ll ever do in Korea, but, right now, the only one that really made sense for me to do. So, I look at it independent of where it’s being filmed and what culture that it’s being filmed in. Obviously that’s very important, but I look at it like I got the chance to be in an auteur’s movie, transcendent of any boundaries or barriers. His film is wonderfully universal; that’s what drew me. 

What I meant by [being] prepared to say ‘no’to director Lee was that I didn’t want to service a Korean story that was so intrinsically about being Korean to the point that if I was in it, it would actually read false. Which now, in hindsight, knowing director Lee, he would never let that happen anyway—he would just not cast me. But this story very much felt universal in that way, almost like we were making this on the moon, you know? In its own vacuum. I look at it as a hope, as our world does become more connected and cosmopolitan, that we can just skip over ponds and just make movies with other people if we want to. 

I will say that it’s hard; it’s not going to be so easy. I think this one was really kismet in that way, to find a moment in time where America has built up enough Asian-Americans’ careers that they could even be considered people that have jobs in Hollywood—and then go and do something in Korea and have the actor be able to speak Korean. Those are things that we’ve tried but we never got all the pieces together. I feel fortunate that I get to be part of this one because I feel that it’s kind of a freak situation.”

How does it feel to be part of this new Asian representation in film and TV?

“Well, you realise the disconnect between what people are willing to go with, what they’re living with every day, and what businesses were telling them life was. I think that’s what is really great, and that’s what happened with Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians. They might not have played the game of perfect one-to-one representations of Asian people or Black America, but what it has done is it’s said to the studios that your money issue doesn’t make sense anymore. If you want to use the whole ‘People don’t bring in money if it isn’t white’ argument, well, it doesn’t function, so now what? Let’s just make the movies then. 

I think that’s really cool. I think that’s part of the process that I’m really interested in, what comes after. Is there more greenlighting of eclectic tales of different people’s lives, regardless of skin colour? Because I think that’s ultimately where everyone wants to get to, just humanness, to feel human. I think every day in our own ecosystems, whether they’re eclectic or not, if they are, you’re usually made aware that everyone is just living their own lives and trying to get by like a human being. But there are these extra things that we have to deal with that we just made up for ourselves. So yeah, I’m excited. I mean I don’t own a studio, so I don’t know what’s gonna happen.”

What is it like being here at the London Film Festival with two films – Burningand Sorry to Bother You?

“Man, I live such a strange, insular life right now. I’ve got a kid, so like, I don’t know what’s going on. Yesterday, I walked around the city with a hat on and nobody cared and it was awesome. I’m just looking for a slice of pizza.”

Burning is in cinemas now. 

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