After making waves at Cannes, Lee Chang-dong brought his thrilling sixth feature Burning to the UK at the 2018 BFI London Film Festival last October. There, I had the pleasure of sitting down with one of the film’s stars, The Walking Dead alumnus Steven Yeun. Yeun plays Ben, a character who appears in our protagonist’s life and shakes everything up; someone whose motives are never quite clear.
Having been selected as South Korea’s entry for this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Burning seems set to further thrill audiences upon its UK release on February 1. Yeun’s memorable performance in the film cements him as an actor to keep an eye on. Here, he talks about what it meant to work with a hero, navigating his Korean-American identity as a teen, and the unsettling sense of mystery that Ben brings.
On how different countries have reacted to Burning
SY: “What’s been nice about this film coming from director Lee’s mind is that he always has a universal approach to the humanness of 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.”
On the first time he 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.”
On 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.”
On working with his hero, 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.”
On toxic masculinity
“I think Ben, in some ways, is actually not a victim of toxic masculinity—depending on what he’s done, and that’s left up to interpretation. In some ways, Ben feels free to embrace his femininity; he feels so free, which is why he can move about so carefree in that way. He’s not encumbered by social rules or social stigmas based on certain things and ways that we have to be. He could show up in a dress, for all he cares; I feel like he could. That kind of stuff doesn’t bother him. Now, that doesn’t mean he’s not flawed in his own ways, but I never saw toxic masculinity as necessarily representative within Ben. I actually saw it mostly in Jong-Su (Yoo Ah-in), where this is a man who is trying so hard to control his life. Where each step of the way, none of his decisions are his. They’re always up against everyone’s expectations of what he’s supposed to do. He’s so awkward in every exchange because he’s not free to just be the way he is. That’s applicable to everyone, regardless of whether you’re male or female, but I think in this particular sense, you can look at Jong-Su and go, ‘What drives a man to do the things that he does? What type of hurt and what type of boxes is this man trapped in, that he can’t feel free to embrace every aspect of him?’ And I think that’s the conversation that we’re having around toxic masculinity. What are the expectations that are placed on men? So yeah, I think you definitely look at [the film] and you go ‘Wow, Jong-su is flawed for sure.’ Ben is flawed, too, but we’re not entirely sure how.”
On what he takes from his roles
“If someone was to interview me while I was playing Ben, I don’t think I would have given a very fun interview. Not that I am doing [that] now but… I think during that time, I was really in it. I think you carry with you the lessons that you’ve learned. For me, the lesson I learned from Ben that I continue to learn isn’t necessarily his carefree attitude, but is maybe just that acceptance of himself. Just being comfortable within one’s skin. People go through their own journeys, [and] however that manifests is different for each person.”
On Ben and his secrecy
“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?”
On what Ben’s job may be
“We talked about some things. I don’t want these answers that I give to be like, ‘This is what and who he is.’ But you know, maybe his money comes from real estate. If you look throughout his house, he has a lot of architecture books and sculptures and dioramas of early-stage buildings. So, director Lee and I would sometimes talk and be like, ‘Maybe he does that… or maybe he doesn’t!’ I made decisions for myself, but really, we were just serving the narrative of, ‘Life is a mystery.’
I don’t think Ben has secrets from me. I think I made those decisions for myself to fully realise the character, in order to inhabit him. But ultimately, he’s not a man that’s certainly supposed to be known, so… sorry.”
On making his first Korean film
“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.”
On Asian protagonists in mainstream media
“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.”
On seeing himself represented on-screen
“When I was young, my hero was Will Smith. That’s because he was probably the closest to my own personal journey, of feeling ‘other’ or [like an] ‘outsider.’ Fresh Prince was exactly that. Then, you try to connect to mainstream stuff, and it’s not to say I can’t connect to a film that has a white protagonist—like of course I can, we’re all human beings—but those things spoke to me. But sometimes, having a more nuanced approach to how it can connect to you is really that important. Watching Peppermint Candy was massive for me. To know that I could go to a place where someone looks like me, feels like me, and has the emotions that I would run through in that scenario was a real wonderful message of not feeling alone. I think we’re gearing to that. We’ll see how it all shakes down.”
On Burning’s unconventional love triangle
“It was a love triangle that wasn’t necessarily overly burdensome on the connection, per se. It was more three people that were all alone in their own respective ways, that were trying to find meaning in their own lives by finding something. I heard this really great film critic say it like this, and I thought that [it] was really wonderful and that’s how I felt: It was as if each character was waiting for the other. So Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun) was waiting for Ben her whole life, Ben was waiting for Jong-su, and Jong-su was waiting for Hae-mi—something to complete them. Or to take them away, whatever that means, you know; they were all burning for something or someone to interject in their life trajectory. We saw it manifest in these three people. Yeah, it was interesting. It was almost like, not a triangle, but a singular dot. They were all kind of the same person in some way. That’s what I’ve heard a lot, too, that people walk away from this film like, ‘I feel like I’m all three of them,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah!’”
On Hae-mi’s memorable dance scene
“We played that song out of the Porsche, and Jong-seo was incredible. It was magic hour. We had set away two weeks to shoot at magic hour every day, so we’d get there, prep for like four hours and just shoot for 45 minutes and then we’d be done. She was brilliant; I think it only took about three takes. When we shot that, we were like… [leans back and applauds]. We were like, ‘Oh shit we did it!’ That was incredible. I remember that; I remember us going to the monitors and being like that is one of the most beautiful things that we’ve shot. She’s amazing.”
On his first BFI London Film Festival
“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 [on] the outside. 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. I am excited to know that there are two films here [Burning and Sorry to Bother You], and I could probably do a better job of taking them into account, but I’m also just kind of really enjoying letting them do what they do and just going with it.”
Burning is in UK cinemas February 1.
This interview has been edited and condensed.