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Steven Yeun’s Trailblazing Artistry of Feeling

Throughout a notably consistent career filled with risky experiments, Yeun demonstrates a mastery of depth and empathy that drives his cross-genre appeal.
Steven Yeun Sorry To Bother You
Annapurna Pictures
By  · Published on May 5th, 2021

Tales of Arcadia (2016-2021)

Trollhunters sets up a fascinating deviation for Steven Yeun’s career at the time. The series is the first installment of Guillermo del Toro’s Netflix fantasy trilogy Tales of Arcadia and spotlights a teenage boy’s abrupt discovery of a curious magical amulet. This guides him to unearth the age-old existence of trolls and other such supernatural beings. 

Yeun originally recurs as Steve Palchuk, a rather dim-witted foe to Trollhunters’ lead character, Jim Lake. Both boys attend Arcadia High School, where Steve basically functions as the arrogant jock stereotype. He’s the type of guy who stuffs nerds into lockers, picks petty fights, and gloats about entirely superficial occurrences. 

At the time, Yeun was more widely known for playing good guys, so watching him portray this classic school bully made for a thoroughly entertaining and refreshing experience. Yeun adopts an especially nasally sneer for all of Steve’s early appearances, virtually making him unrecognizable from his other, more likable guises. The amazing thing about Steve — even early on — is that he consistently maintains the show’s buoyant levity despite his otherwise annoying qualities.

In due time, Steve fully evolves from his inconsequential antagonistic role and becomes a wholly admirable champion for the forces of good in his own right. Later seasons of Trollhunters and the subsequent series, 3Below and Wizards, upgrade Steve to main character status. Moreover, he will return in Trollhunters: Rise of the Titans, the Netflix movie mashup of all three shows.

With ample screentime to do some soul-searching, earn his warrior stripes, and fall in love, Yeun’s complex adventures in Arcadia are as enriching as they are entertaining. This distinguishing transformation, which has also been directly attributed to Yeun’s finesse as a comedic performer, encompasses the soulful core of the series as a whole, which no one could have predicted.

The Star (2017)

Not all animation ventures have been a win for Steven Yeun, though, and I’m talking about Sony’s take on the Nativity of Jesus. The Star features Yeun as Bo, a talking miniature donkey whose purpose is tied to Mary, Mother of Jesus, at the behest of a prophetic star. He must then go on a sprawling quest to protect the divine providence.

In theory, after the successes of Voltron and Tales of Arcadia, continuing to tap into the market of family-friendly content wouldn’t be the worst decision for Yeun. The actor is even super likable when voicing Bo. Unfortunately, The Star sorely lacks thematic depth and prowess of execution overall. Its soft attempt at secularizing parts of the narrative only leaves it half-baked and doesn’t justify the eighty-six-minute runtime.

Okja (2017)

Otherwise, 2017 was a breakout year for Steven Yeun, marking a major transition from TV to film for the actor. It begins with Bong Joon-ho’s environmentally-minded ensemble drama Okja. Lush and ambitious in both scope and story, the film follows a young farmgirl’s odyssey to rescue her beloved family pet — the majestic titular “super pig” creature — from the clutches of factory farming.

Yeun enters the picture as K, a member of the clandestine Animal Liberation Front (ALF). When he and his compatriots land in Seoul to help save Okja, K’s Korean-American heritage stands out in the all-white group. Tasked with the vital job of translating between English and Korean when interacting with locals, he has notable utility in the ALF.

However, this responsibility of interpretation is graver than K realized. It is worth noting that he is far from evil — he is demonstrably kinder to the film’s young protagonist Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) compared to the other ALF members. Still, when K sacrifices that sliver of his humanity for the cause, he finds himself embroiled in the predicament of a complex savior narrative that is ultimately unsolvable.

What makes Yeun so compelling in Okja is not that he plays K with the enigmatic, confident charisma of Paul Dano’s ALF leader or the desperate gusto of Tilda Swinton’s powerful CEO. Instead, K’s loyalties oscillate between the narratives espoused by systems he is simultaneously a part of and exploited by. Yeun’s heartfulness is never amiss, and through him, we realize that K’s struggles are, like Mija’s, considerably human. His decisions make or break climactic moments in the film precisely because of his ethical and personal grey areas.

Mayhem (2017)

Mayhem is a brilliant bloodfest that puts a hilarious, socially conscious bent on Steven Yeun’s old zombie-slaying days. This time, the “Red Eye” virus has infected the world over, turning the population into the most primitive version of itself by erasing inhibition. No one is technically dying of any illness outright, but since they are predisposed to brutally attacking one another should the occasion arise, fatalities are more than likely.

Enter Yeun’s Derek Cho, a fresh-faced lawyer vying for the corner office spot at his firm. He isn’t as soulless as his other co-workers, but his opportunism in the workplace makes him inclined to compromise his integrity at his clients’ expense. Come to find out that his company doesn’t actually have his back despite his perpetual loyalty. When this revelation coincides with a “Red Eye” outbreak within the building, an impenetrable atmosphere of violence percolates.

As Derek, Yeun is a bundle of nerves in the best possible way, both pre- and post-“Red Eye” infection. He embodies the anxieties and desperation of an everyman trapped by the jowls of capitalism, without forgetting to include a healthy dose of guilt and self-awareness about his character’s own complicity to the system. Mayhem’s adroit commentary is fully amplified by Yeun’s ferocious tenacity. When Derek is pushed over the edge and goes on a murderous rampage of revenge, we are firmly along for the ride.

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

Boots Riley’s bombastic Sorry to Bother You firmly moves Steven Yeun into stranger territory, constituting one of the actor’s most stimulating and creatively progressive films. The genre-smashing anti-establishment flick merges unabashed social critique with intense psychedelic imagery, pushing narrative and thematic boundaries to reflect on the corporatization of present-day America.

Yeun’s character, Squeeze, crosses paths with the film’s struggling leading man Cassius (LaKeith Stanfield) as a fellow telemarketer at the conglomerate RegalView. While quiet and aloof at first, Squeeze declares his lingering frustration over the insidious inequities in the company. As a result, he puts together a union and urges Cash to join him in striking and picketing to have their voices heard.

Unfortunately, Cash has found a way to rise through the ruthless corporate ladder and this puts him squarely at odds with Squeeze’s goals. Regardless, Squeeze lets his actionable plans speak volumes, organizing a growing number of disgruntled telemarketers in and outside RegalView.

Sorry to Bother You recalls prior films in Yeun’s oeuvre that directly tackle the overarching notion of exploitation. In this instance, his character is far more level-headed than the ones depicted in Okja and Mayhem. Yeun’s comparatively muted presence in Sorry to Bother You isn’t even a problem. In the screentime he has, Yeun effectively espouses the characteristics of a natural, impassioned leader. In taking a definitive stand for the film’s powerful ethical standpoints, Squeeze sets a cutting standard for Cash.

Burning (2018)

There’s a common throughline across Steven Yeun’s Korean-language projects: that is, they tend to embrace the richness and significance of the actor’s cultural heritage without losing sight of his undeniable American mannerisms and influences. This presents Yeun with a unique chance to indulge in more complicated and unusual character types in Korean cinema.

This is aptly demonstrated by Lee Chang-dong’s mystery-thriller Burning. When aspiring fiction author Jong-soo randomly reconnects with childhood neighbor Hae-mi, their spark is immediate. Jong-soo catches her just as she prepares for a trip overseas, so he settles for agreeing to feed her pet cat while she’s away. But when Hae-mi later returns to Korea with the enigmatic Ben (Yeun), Jong-soo can’t shake the feeling that there’s something suspicious about him.

Based on a Haruki Murakami short story, Burning is noteworthy for its viscerally uneasy examination of relationships that rings true of an emotional labyrinth. Much of this uncanniness is derived from Ben, who unapologetically inserts himself into the lives of the film’s other two protagonists. His picturesque lifestyle of fancy clothes, classy dinners, and flashy sports cars flaunts an existence that’s frustratingly out of Jong-soo’s reach. To make matters worse, Ben’s inner life is totally unknowable. He hides behind an armor of wealth. 

Further fortified by a condescendingly genial attitude, Yeun has never appeared more alluring or dangerous onscreen than he does in Burning. He makes Ben’s easygoing worldliness both maddeningly exasperating and quietly menacing, creating a character so punchable yet magnetic. It is by far his most beguiling performance.

Final Space (2018-present)

In the wake of Sorry to Bother You, even Steven Yeun’s animated adventures took a turn for the weird and wonderful. TBS’s adult comedy space opera Final Space tracks the many journeys of Gary Goodspeed, a bumbling astronaut serving time on a prison spacecraft, with no one for company except the ship’s A.I. and a handful of overzealous robots.

Gary’s many shenanigans soon introduce him to a bunch of new friends. One of them happens to be the fourteen-year-old Ventrexian Little Cato, an anthropomorphic cat-like creature voiced by Yeun.

Final Space’s first season keeps the rebellious Little Cato somewhat minor for the most part. He starts out having been held captive by the evil Lord Commander for years. The early stages of Little Cato’s arc posit that he is merely a kid in distress waiting to be saved by a begrudging member of Gary’s crew — Little Cato’s dad, Avocato.

However, like Steve in the Tales of Arcadia, Little Cato comes into his own throughout Final Space. A lot of time-warping goes on in this show, causing the young Ventrexian to literally and figuratively age considerably and come to terms with his traumas.

That’s the ticket to Final Space: the narrative only seems cursory when it deals with varying displays of emotional baggage. Utilizing deadpan humor and bold visuals to service a gloriously offbeat narrative, Final Space relishes in testing the boundaries of its genre. The unruly plot never gets away from itself thanks to characters like Little Cato, whose desire to form meaningful relationships with the adults in his life only adds weight to their silly escapades.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)