Steven Yeun is having a hell of a year. He co-starred in one of the most highly-buzzed films from Sundance, Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You,” and then topped that by appearing in the Cannes Grand Jury prize-winning “Burning,” now playing in select theaters and opening wider over the next few weeks. In the masterful film, which Sheila O’Malley gave four stars, Yeun plays Ben, a mysterious friend who enters the life of the film’s protagonist and essentially upends it. Yeun’s Ben is a mystery, someone who seems to be apart from the cultural and economic issues that define the people around him. Yeun’s performance is one of the most magnetic of the year, and the actor sat down with me in Toronto to discuss making the film, after sharing a few quick memories of our shared alma mater, Kalamazoo College. (Light spoilers follow.)
I want to start with the complexity of playing a character who’s kind of a question mark. As an actor, you’re trained to know so much about your character but then how do you bury that to then convey someone who’s supposed to be sort of elusive and undefined?
Part of that has to be director Lee being a, full-stop, genius. So it comes through his ability to see humans and people for what they are. He’s just a very wise man. And that was part of the genius of casting someone like myself who speaks Korean, but not at the level that my character does. We had to put a lot of work into the language portion. What happened was he knew that my American-encoded body was going to give off something dissonant with the things he was saying and the way he was living in that world. So we didn’t explicitly say Ben is a Korean-American; we just said he’s a Korean person who happens to be named Ben and is so rich that he doesn’t have to identify with a group and can just be free to be his own person. A person who looks above society. He’s floating above it. So, going in with that philosophy, knowing what my body was naturally going to be dissonant with, and talking with director Lee about where we can build specific ambiguity—where we can go from ‘I think I know this person’ to ‘I don’t know this person’ to ‘I really don’t know this person.’ And I think you really don’t come to an understanding of who he is until the very end.
Oh that’s interesting. You mean in the final scene?
In the final scene. It might take a couple viewings. That was the moment to me that he felt the most human.
Oh sure. No matter what interpretation of the film you go with.
Right, right. He’s able to feel something no matter what. So that brings him back down to reality.
How much of his back story do you know? How much do you go through with Lee?
I have all that. Director Lee never asked me for it. (Smiles.) When I met him, he sent me the short story and he sent me the script. We then met for three days, each night for dinner, and it was like a 4-hour conversation each night. I would say what I thought and he would just nod his head. There was kind of a mutual emotional understanding that we both knew exactly who this person was and we’re just gonna go with it. At the end of those three days, the greatest feeling was when he just got up and hugged me. He said something to me—“I don’t meet actors, I meet my characters.” It sounds more intense now than in the moment, but it was just the way of convincing me that I could trust him. The parameters are difficult because it’s another country, but it gave me that freedom to play this character with complete abandonment of fear.
I’ve talked to a lot of people about this movie and tried to condense it into a recommendation, but it’s a difficult experience to capture in words so I’m curious: What do you tell people “Burning” is about?
If I’m feeling lazy, I say “Burning is about life.” If I’m feeling giving, I’ll say “Burning is a thriller about the mysteries of our world and how the youth are living in that mystery.”
Especially in Korea.
Especially in Korea. Yeah. I will say there are absolute cultural differences. As a Westerner, it’s easy to pick up on those. But then you just extrapolate the data and it’s like literally the same. It’s the same.
The class differences are similar. There is a specificity to the gender dynamics of how a young Korean girl can just disappear, but I suppose that’s not exclusive to Korea.
Right. It’s the difference between having a society that allows for the outward admonishment of women in that way, but, in America, we act as if women are completely free and they’re not either. It’s a perception thing. I feel like a collectivist culture [like Korea] might allow the people to understand its system and be cognizant of its system and yet not fight against its system. Whereas, here, the lie is that there is no system when there clearly is a set system that benefits some and not others.
I’ve heard a lot of people talk about trying to ‘solve’ “Burning” and I’ve had to say that I don’t think that’s what it’s for.
First off, I have a problem in general with the over-reliance on seeing films as puzzles that need to be solved. We shouldn’t be doing that. Let things be open for interpretation.
Right. You have to go back and connect the dots.
But not here. I’m not sure it’s meant to be solved.
I 100% agree with that. Mostly because I think Lee is doing it consciously…you know what, he does everything consciously…there’s even some interesting stories about lessons learned while making it. We would have pow-wows and just talk about what we learned today. I will say that the intention is more of a light shone on how we as a society—given all the changes that have happened—have created a system with our world in which people only have knowledge.
Instead of experience.
Experience or wisdom. We speak in brain. We speak in words. We speak in tones and boxes and ways to compartmentalize things. We try to figure things out. And so people will watch this and try to connect every piece and by the end you have a dissertation about what this thing is, but, really, he was trying to convey an emotion. So, if you got that, your body got it but your brain maybe doesn’t and so you have this dissonance and you’re trying to wrack your brain to catch up with your body. It’s this thing that you feel but can’t exactly process.
It’s a register not a lot of filmmakers are able to work in although he did it in “Secret Sunshine” and “Poetry” too. You said something about the actors discussing what they learned today, but what would you say learned from the entire experience?
I learned that life needs balance, individually and externally. I learned that things are not that serious. There are serious things in the world, but the things that you as a person every day, privileged as you might be if you are privileged to watch a film like this …
Yes, perspective. Right? And also, in some ways, there’s an optimism. It’s very easy to read something bad and devolve into life is meaningless. Or you could accept that life is meaningless and make meaning out of that life. Then choices are yours.
(Laughs.) I have to say that’s the deepest answer I’ve heard to that question. Most people are like, “I learned how to deal with long days on set.” This was a deep experience for you.
For real! When we chat, we would talk into the night about what we were experiencing. There were moments when director Lee would let himself go into the emotion of the film. We’d shoot a scene and you’d think it was fine and then you’d do it again and there are a flock of geese in the back, perfectly timed, that no one could have known was coming. The last scene! I was supposed to shoot that in December and our location fell through so we kept pushing. My family came and I said I had to go back home. I went home and didn’t come back to shoot the last scene for three weeks, and, when I came back, it was snowing on the day we shot it and never again.
There are so many moments in the film like that, especially the Miles Davis scene. It’s like how do you recreate that natural light? It’s just a gift.
That scene. The dance scene was one day. And when we got it, we were all like whoa. We all looked at Jong-seo [Jeon], who is brilliant and wonderful but also brand new. So this is her first role ever. Her first audition. She’s incredible. You could see that she put it all out there. It was so awesome to be like, ‘You fucking did it.’ That was incredible. Moments like that.
It sounds like you felt a lot of magic on set. I’m always curious how much people know about the final product on-set when they’re making a great movie. Did you know this was something special? Were you confident taking it to Cannes? Same with “Sorry to Bother You.”
I’ll be smart and say, ‘I don’t think I know the feeling of knowing that something is going to catch or something is going to be good.’ But what I will say is ‘I know the feeling when I feel fulfilled having done the job.’ That might be the indicator. What I mean by fulfillment is not just like ‘I got through the day’—I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of some great ensembles. I just go with it. From my point of view, the thing that happens is this kind of absolution of ego. You don’t hear that often. You hear the worst stories all the time. These experiences that I’ve had is everyone just being in. When you’re in, and you trust the director, all you have to do is stay in. If you’re rolling up to a scene and everyone is going for it, that’s crack for an actor. You’re getting to live a true moment even if it’s not real.
You speak so much about collaboration. Is that what you’re mostly looking for?
I don’t know if I have like a specific thing. There are parts of me that want to be in my own film. There are parts of me that don’t want to be buried in an ensemble. There are parts of me that love ensemble. I think it’s not that I look for it it’s just that the projects that I’ve been fortunate to say yes to or be offered are projects that tend to have those parameters whether I set it up like that or not. If I’m gonna be honest, I’m not parsing through scripts—‘Not this one, this one.’ I’ve just been lucky enough that these jobs found me. Boots [Riley] was a call. Director Bong [Joon-ho for “Okja”] was a call. Director Lee was a call. I’ve got some luck in the universe and I’ll never take it for granted.