Being a Korean-American that people might recognize on the street in Korea and staying at a very Western hotel and trying to fully immerse myself in my Koreanness was a lonely experience.
Working from a Haruki Murakami short story first published in The New Yorker in 1992, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning—the South Korean auteur’s first feature in eight years—looks from afar a millennial love triangle between an impoverished country kid, a wealthy playboy, and a pretty mime artist. It is that, but with no shortage of the persistent dread that all is not what it seems.
Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is a young writer who never seems to find the time to write outside of his paycheck-to-paycheck existence as a delivery boy. He lives alone on a rundown cattle farm in his rural hometown of Paju on the 38th parallel, where you can hear propaganda echoing from nearby North Korea. Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) is a girl from Jong-su’s past who he runs into in Seoul while she’s selling raffle rickets outside of a discount store. He barely recognizes his classmate. “I got plastic surgery!” she exclaims. He’s nonetheless thrilled when she begins to take a liking to him. Then he’s mystified when Hae-mi announces that she’s going on a spiritual quest to Africa. He’s puzzled still, and more than a little miffed, when Hae-mi returns home with a man in tow. His name is Ben (Steven Yeun), a well-to-do jetsetter who invades Jong-su’s life like an icy, hostile space alien. This is when things start to get a little strange. Ben later confesses to Jong-su his life-long habit of arson—the specifics of which he fully reveals but the intent he obscures behind musings about the “morals of nature.” It’s when Hae-mi vanishes without a trace that Jung-su begins to suspect Ben’s secret might be more sinister than he had initially believed.
In Burning—after lighting the Cannes Film Festival on fire earlier this year with rave reviews—Yeun, who portrayed the nicest guy of the post-apocalypse on The Walking Dead, breaks in a very different direction. Ben’s ambiguity—he’s Korean, but at the same time, seems to come from another world—is central to Yeun’s first Korean-language performance. It’s a compellingly watchable turn that feeds off the star’s intersectional identity. It’s a character that’s, much like the actor himself, out of place in an Asian context and legibly Asian in an American context.
Burning is now playing in select theaters.
I was at a press screening for another film yesterday and the people around me were still raving about Burning. It’s really resonating with audiences.
That’s great! I’m really glad to hear that.
The story is that you received an urgent voicemail from director Bong [Joon-ho] because director Lee [Chang-dong] wanted to meet with you about Burning. Did you ever find out what made him think of you for this role? I mean, he wanted you to play a psychopath.
I think director Lee mentioned to me that he liked how my Americanness was kind of in my bones and that mixed with having the character be fully Korean was gonna have this natural dissonance, which makes it strange to see a person in that situation. I think it added to the mystery of Ben. It’s something that director Lee was very cognizant of when he asked me to be a part of it. Director Bong says this and I still don’t know how to take it, but I think it’s hilarious: “You look like a liar, but one that will forgive.”
That’s so specific…
[Laughs] To me, that’s the genius of director Bong and director Lee. What makes them such wonderful directors is their ability to cast and understand people that way. So I think that’s what they talked about.
We won’t get into any spoilers here, but ultimately, only Ben knows what he did or didn’t do. Do you know what happened? Is that something you resolve while playing him?
Yeah. I think all the work we did helped to create that character and that mystique he’s shrouded in. We even went as far as to pick moments where we would show Ben’s face in this way or that way depending on the situation. We were going for a natural ambiguity that wasn’t ambiguous for the sake of nothing, but rather stemming from a very real place. We talked about that quite a bit.
This is a very nuanced performance. Ben is undeniably creepy, but he’s never malicious. He really messes with your head. What was the essence of this guy that you were tapping into?
I think you can go multiple ways with that type of ideology. I tried not to think too hard into any sort of core concept in terms of what the M-O of this character was intending to be. Rather, I dug more into how he might just view life on the everyday. That meant reading certain books and diving into, in some ways, the loneliness of his existence and what that might do to someone in that situation. What was nice was the ecosystem around me, whether it was done on purpose or it was kind of qismat that way, which really helped me get into that place. Being a Korean-American that people might recognize on the street in Korea and staying at a very Western hotel and trying to fully immerse myself in my Koreanness was a lonely experience. You feel disconnected from everything. I just went with it and it was just kind of the journey of that character.
I’d never heard the term “Gatsby kids” before watching this movie. That’s a real thing in Korea, right?
These are young people in Korea who are mysteriously wealthy and nobody knows what they do for a living exactly. They travel and live in luxury. Did you have real-life examples of people to work off of?
Sure. You know—it’s not hard to find the rich people in Korea. They’re all kind of in certain locations. When a country that small exists with that much GDP and most of it’s going to a specific subset of people, I’m sure those people look at that place like a playground. It’s like New York in that way, you know? If you’re rich here, I’m sure your experience of life is completely different.
Right. New York City is so often referred to as the playground for the 1%.
Yeah, yeah. So I got glimpses into those places and into that scene. I knew some people that might be a part of that life and they navigated me around. Also, it’s about being within the confines of recognizable culture or celebrity, which is a big thing over there. It allows you to feel your aloneness inherently, too.
You left Korea when you were 4 years old. You moved to Canada and then grew up in Michigan. What was the working relationship like with director Bong on Okja, a co-production, and director Lee on a fully Korean movie? I mean, what was the process like in terms of language and communication?
Well, with director Bong I actually think I had a tougher time, not with him personally, but because I was still coming into a comfort of my own ability to navigate both sides. The great thing about that experience was that the discomfort fed into the narrative of K, my character who is inherently locked in the middle. I myself as an actor felt trapped in the middle. Sometimes you’d hear director Bong speak to the other actors who are non-Korean and there would be a general ease in how he spoke to them. But the way he spoke to me was layered with, “You understand, right?” That’s how I perceived it on my end, at least. So it felt like talking to your brother as opposed to talking to a neighbor. If it’s your brother, you’re kind of like, “Do this thing. You get it.” Whereas if you’re talking to your neighbor, it’s like, “What do you think?” There was kind of that happening so at moments it felt frustrating, but in hindsight, you realize that it was all an internal struggle of just finding out: “What am I supposed to be?” or “Do I have to continue to keep juggling all the time?” Then the director Lee experience was like, “You’re just a Korean person here.” You also don’t have to help anyone else outside of this culture navigate their way through it. It’s just you. So that allowed me to just take care of me and do my own thing. Both experiences were incredibly freeing.
You’ve said that director Lee is a hero of yours. You’ve also gone on to say that you probably would’ve never been offered—or agreed—to play a role like this in America, at least at the moment. It seems like it really was about director Lee that was important to you. How much reservations did you have?
The reservations had not at all to do with director Lee. If anything, I wanted to work with him. It was along the lines of: I didn’t know what he wanted me to do yet, so I had prepared myself to tell him that maybe I couldn’t deliver the thing that he wanted me to do. That’s just my own self-hatred. [Laughs] But once we got to talking about it, I was like, “Cool.” No matter how difficult this task might’ve seemed, all that fear was absolved. Once director Lee says, “You’re my guy,” you just trust him because filmmakers like that aren’t dime a dozen. He’s a rare one. So if he trusts you, then you just trust that process.
You shot this for four months?
Was that a new experience for you?
Honestly, it spoiled me, you know? I wish all productions had the grace to take the time to make things right or take the time to feel things out, and reshoot things if we need to. We didn’t have to reshoot too much. I remember one time it started snowing in Seoul and the scene that we had to shoot was earlier in the film where it’s not snowing, so we picked up production on that day and everybody drove to Busan, which is about a five-hour drive. We just shot there and then came back. So if you’re at that level of director Lee, you can kind of find the places you want to go and shoot there. It’s not willy-nilly. He’s earned some respect so you’re definitely chilling with some of the best in that kind of situation. It’s cool.
Do you have a process of working with directors that you’re most comfortable with now? Do you just work the way the directors work or do you work the way you work and hope they let you do that?
I just kind of adapt. I think that’s just natural to my immigrant disposition: go with whatever and find out. There definitely have been frustrations, but in the last couple of projects that I’ve been a part of, I’ve been lucky enough to be with directors and on projects that really leave my area free. They just kind of go, “This is your corner. Please fill it in for us. I’ll direct you here and there, but it’s on you.” When it’s like that, the larger and overall process might be different, but your own process pretty much stays the same. You’re adapting to shooting techniques at that point.
What was your experience like seeing Burning all finished?
Scared because we had seen footage day-by-day as we went. Director Lee live-edits so—
[An ominous alarm goes off on our cellphones.]
Is this an AMBER alert? Why are they testing this? I’ve never gotten a presidential alert before… What was the question? [Laughs] Oh right. I was terrified because now that the work was done, it’s like, “Did I mess up his film?” For me, it always takes multiple viewings to watch myself, which I actually don’t even do. Luckily, with this film, it’s strange because I can separate myself. When I’m watching the film, I don’t really take myself into consideration. I look at the overall thing. Also, as a viewer, I watch it and it changes for me every single time. It’s really fun that way, too.
I noticed that you’ve been tapping into a lot of voice work lately. You have Chew on the way.
That’s actually not gonna happen anymore…
Well, there are other ones: Final Space, Voltron, and Stretch Armstrong & the Flex Fighters. Is this worth mining? Is there something that’s been drawing you to voice work as of late?
If I’m gonna be honest—for one, who doesn’t want to be in a cartoon? It’s gangbusters! It’s awesome. But in some weird messed up way, that’s where I get the roles with the most flexibility because it doesn’t have to do so much with the explaining of my face. I’m hoping to emulate that experience on the outside as well. We’ll see how that goes!