There is no easy way to describe Burning, the latest film from Chang-dong Lee and South Korea’s official submission for the Academy Awards. The film refuses easy categorization; programmers have selected it among prestigious arthouse films at major festivals, but the movie has also played at more conventional genre festivals, a testament to how the literary and lurid elements of Lee’s film are hopelessly intertwined. Politics, violence, and sexuality are all caught up together in Lee’s film, making it an experience that will differ slightly for every audience member.
Understandably, that makes Burning a difficult movie to talk about. “It’s weird to talk about this film because there’s no way to talk about this film,” admits Steven Yeun, the Korean-American actor whose work in Burning is being hailed as his much-deserved breakout film role. “It’s hard because words fail us in general, but this one seems like one of those where words fail us pretty hard.”
Based on a short story by Japanese writer by Haruki Murakami, Burning introduces us to Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), an aspiring novelist who bounces between the South Korean city of Paju and his father’s farm along the Korean Demilitarized Zone. One day, Jong-su has a chance encounter with Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a former classmate who feels a kinship to Jong-su because of a kindness he did her when they were both young. The two begin an innocent flirtation that is put on hold when Hae-mi takes a vacation in Africa and then shelved entirely when she comes back on the arm of Ben (Yeun), a mysterious rich socialite who takes a liking to both of his new friends. From there, Burning carefully and methodically digs into its central love triangle, all the while hinting that Ben’s intentions towards Hae-mi may be considerably more sinister than they appear.
For six-plus seasons, Yeun has been best-known internationally as the star of AMC’s The Walking Dead, but the past two years have seen Yeun carve a different path in Hollywood. The actor has worked with idiosyncratic filmmakers such as Joe Lynch (Mayhem), Joon-ho Bong (Okja), Boots Riley (Sorry To Bother You), and now he adds a director he has long admired to the mix. For the actor, the success of The Walking Dead has brought with it a period of introspection, an opportunity to be a bit more selective in both the parts and the industries he chooses to work in. “Part of that is getting to work with these great filmmakers that I’ve got to work with over the last couple of years,” he explains. “It’s my attraction to their ideas and their way of looking at the world.”
Despite a childhood split between South Korea and the United States, Korean cinema was not something Yeun grew up with. According to the actor, his parents spent their days bouncing between work, school, and church — what he describes as the “classic immigrant life” — and it wasn’t until college that Yeun began to explore the breadth of Korean cinema. There he discovered a wealth of film beyond the revenge classics that make up the Western canon. “For a time, it got branded, kind of like, either you’re a Korean drama or you’re a thriller where someone’s going to get destroyed,” he points out. “But while all that was happening, there was all these other beautiful films being made that people necessarily weren’t digesting on the mainstream American side.” Yeun recalls the feeling of making his way through the filmography of Lee — including two other Academy Award submissions in Oasis (2002) and Secret Sunshine (2007) — and being shocked that the director was not already a household name in the United States. “We didn’t talk about him at all,” he says with surprise.
As a Korean-American actor who has worked primarily in Hollywood, Yeun himself is also something of an outsider to the Korean film industry. And yet, his celebrity makes him immediately recognizable anywhere across the world. While he admits that this duality was likely a factor in the casting process, he also admits he does not feel any more at home in Korea than he would another international film industry. Yeun is quick to point out how different his experiences in Korea are now versus the experiences he might’ve had as a child. “I probably, in some ways, get to see the not-real Korea more these days than the real-real, true Korea, just from whatever privilege that I’ve been able to have,” he explains. “It can also be like a weird blind spot, because now you’re just staying in Americanized hotels if you go there. But it’s strange. I don’t think I’ve properly processed it.”
What drew him to this film, in particular, was the script. It’s easy to see comparisons between Burning and Sorry To Bother You, another film that tapped into a disenfranchised youth culture. Burning is many things, not least of which is an exploration of how the different classes in Korean society diverge. Jong-soo and Hae-mi, immersed in their lives of quiet desperation, are intoxicated by the glamorous place in society Ben seems to occupy. Much like Squeeze — the character he plays in Sorry To Bother You — Ben seems to have an almost supernatural ability to navigate multiple worlds without ever seeming beholden to any of them. “He was blowing it all up,” Yeun says of Sorry To Bother You director Riley and his approach to making a youth-focused film. “He was blowing it all up. He was saying, ‘All this shit that you’re used to? Well, here’s a movie that’s not that. And it also works. So now what?’ And I think director Lee did in his own way, director Bong did it in his own way, and for some reason, I’m attracted to that right now.”
As the film becomes more widely available over the next few weeks, Yeun hopes that audiences seek out Burning more than once and take the opportunity to observe a different character each time. “People always talk about why they process this film after they’ve seen it and why it kind of lingers and then worms their way into their head,” Yeun says. “And I think it’s because it’s unexplainable. I think [Lee] communicated something at the core and our brain’s just trying to make sense of it. And whatever it is is whatever it will be for that person.”
If you would like to learn more about the cultural specifics of being a Korean-American actor working in Korea, or the challenges of being an Asian-American actor in Hollywood, be sure to check out Emily Yoshida’s interview with Yeun in Vulture or Kristen Yoonsoo Kim’s interview in The Ringer.