Steven Yeun, a former Troy resident, leverages his ‘Walking Dead’ fame into new frontiers for Korean-American actors.
By Andrew Lapin
Photography courtesy Well Go USA
The first thing Steven Yeun does in the movie “Burning” is shake someone’s hand, and you can’t look away from him. The guy is so charismatic, he even shakes hands better than everyone else.
Stepping out of a Seoul airport, Yeun seems to have landed in this South Korean movie from halfway around the world. Which, in a way, he has. Hailing from Troy, the 35-year-old hometown hero is one of the most exciting screen performers working today.
Born in South Korea, Yeun moved to North America with his family as a child. After a brief stay in Saskatchewan, Canada, Yeun’s parents moved to the Detroit area to open a chain of beauty supply shops downtown. Their first Michigan home was in Taylor, but the Yeuns moved to Troy in the mid-’90s, where Steven attended Troy High School and was involved in his Korean church. Today he still counts himself a hardcore fan of Detroit sports, especially the Pistons and Red Wings.
Yeun got into acting and comedy while a student at Kalamazoo College, where he befriended Kasey Klepper, younger sister to fellow Michigan native Jordan Klepper (“The Daily Show”). He then headed to Chicago to find work in the improv scene before moving to Los Angeles in 2009. That same year, Yeun booked the role that would become his ticket to a level of stardom rarely open to Asian-American actors: as Glenn, a former pizza delivery man fighting off zombie hordes on AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”
Glenn became a fan favorite for his nobility and commitment to humanity in the face of a flesh-eating zombie apocalypse. Yet in typical “Walking Dead” fashion, he was brutally killed off in the show’s seventh season. Being booted from cable TV’s top-rated show could have been a career killer. Instead, Yeun has followed a path that put him in the same league as “Harry Potter’s” Daniel Radcliffe and “Twilight’s” Robert Pattinson — leveraging his fame from a hit fantasy franchise to land challenging roles in more boundary-pushing projects.
The reinvention started in 2017 when Yeun took a supporting role in South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Netflix film “Okja,” a disturbing fable about a giant, genetically engineered pig in which Yeun played a member of a militant vegan collective. The film was primarily English-language, but Yeun did get to speak a small amount of Korean for the role.
Yeun then booked parts in two workplace satires: a lead role in office-set midnight splatter flick “Mayhem,” and a supporting part as a union organizer in Boots Riley’s anti-capitalist indie hit “Sorry to Bother You.” Fittingly, in the latter film, Yeun’s character becomes involved in a love triangle with a woman named Detroit (played by Tessa Thompson).
But “Burning,” from acclaimed South Korean director Lee Chang-dong, gives us another level of Yeun’s gifts. As the smarmy Seoul playboy Ben, he gets to project an air of vague menace into his every Westernized motion. Although he delivers all his lines in Korean (a first for the actor), Yeun makes the character an outsider, a wealthy, cosmopolitan anomaly in a country with a sky-high youth unemployment rate. At one point, he casually jokes that he enjoys burning down abandoned barns for fun. But is he actually joking?
Based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, the movie sets up a class conflict between the Porsche-driving Ben and poor farm boy Lee (Yoo Ah-in), as the two men with very different social standings enter a silent rivalry over Shin (Jeon Jong-seo), the beautiful, elusive young woman who courts both of their attentions. More than a simple love triangle, “Burning” is a mysterious, enigmatic clash between three contrasting characters, all of whom represent different futures for South Korea’s anxiety-driven millennials. The simmering conflict between Ben and Lee finally erupts in an unforgettable, knockout ending.
And unlike most foreign-language films to earn a U.S. release, Yeun’s presence has also ensured “Burning” won’t be lost in the arthouse ghetto. A prizewinner at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and a fixture on most of 2018’s major top 10 lists, the film was also selected by South Korea as the country’s official submission to this year’s Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar race. In December, the movie made the nine-film shortlist for the category alongside major contenders like Netflix’s “Roma” and Amazon Studios’ “Cold War.” Two prestigious critics’ groups, the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, have also awarded Yeun their top Best Supporting Actor prize.
When both Yeun and “Burning” came up empty-handed at the nominations, there was an outcry from critics and fans across the country, and the film quickly went down as one of the year’s biggest snubs.
Andrew Lapin grew up in Huntington Woods and is a film critic based in France. He reviews movies for NPR and Vulture.
SEE YEUN ON SCREEN
“Burning” will be available on DVD March 5. “Okja” is available exclusively on Netflix. Seasons 1-7 of “The Walking Dead,” co-starring Yeun, are available for rental and streaming on Netflix.