Steven Yeun Sets the Screen on Fire in Burning
Playing the outsider in working-class Korea
By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Nov. 9, 2018
The journey to making a film about your homeland can be long. In the case of Steven Yeun and Korean mystery Burning, it was intercontinental. He was actually in London, tossing and turning at 3am with a bad case of jet lag, when he got an unexpected phone call from Korean director Bong Joon-ho, with whom he had worked on 2017's Okja. Yeun recalled, "He said, 'Director Lee Chang-dong wants to see you, because he thinks you might be perfect for this role.' I went, 'What?' So confused, because [Lee's] one of my heroes." By sheer coincidence, Yeun was booked on a flight to Korea the very next morning for a three-day trip. Once there, he met every day with Chang-dong (director of critically lauded works like Peppermint Candy and Poetry) for a couple of hours. "When he had me read the script, I loved it, because I haven't been given the opportunity so far to explore a character like that, that gets to tell his tale himself over time."
Astoundingly for one of the most impactful and influential film industries on the planet, South Korea has never had a film even nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar. This year, the Asian nation hopes that Burning, which is its offical selection for Academy consideration, will change that. Adapted from the short story "Barn Burning" by the Japanese author Haruki Murakami (itself inspired by William Faulkner's 1939 short story of the same name), Burning is a story of three characters who are a mystery to each other: Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a twentysomething drifting through life in provincial Korea; Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-Seo), a woman from his past who suddenly reappears; and Yeun as Ben, a suave, smart young businessman who seems far too cool to be hanging out with either of these two aimless young dreamers.
Yeun is often described as Korean-American, but like many migrants his experience goes beyond a simple tag. Born in Seoul to Korean parents, his family lived in Canada before moving to the U.S. "That's part of why director Lee cast me," said Yeun. "Part of the Americana that I have in me lends itself to a more cosmopolitan portrayal of Ben."
It's one of the subtle contradictions of being a migrant, to be from somewhere, but to no longer be of that place. While Yeun speaks Korean fluently, he admits to not being "a particularly great reader of Korean." When it came to the script, he had someone record it conversationally, "and then I'd literally write the meaning of every single thing specifically to what I was saying, so that I would understand it at that level, and then I had to deconstruct it so that I could say it naturally coming from my mouth, and not like the recorded version."
The end result is that Korean audiences have told him that "Ben speaks the best Korean" – best as in most correct, most formal, and precise – "while the other two speak more colloquial, vernacular Korean."
For Yeun, it's all part of the subtle flattening of the world. Burning is filled with subtle nuances for Korean audiences (like locating the story in Paju, a remote city right on the border between South and North Korea), yet those same Korean audiences knew him already from his groundbreaking run as Glenn in The Walking Dead. Similarly, his day-to-day experience while shooting was more global than local. "I was staying at a Hyatt at the top of Itaewon. Yeah, it's very Korean, but I can get my omelette and hash browns in the morning. ... It was a change for me, because I'm used to going there and experiencing working-class Korean life."