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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

I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson (2019)

As first evidenced by Like a French Film, stand-alone appearances in anthologies are an ideal way for Yeun to get experimental. This applies to serial sketch shows such as the I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson as well, in which comedy skits focus on obstinate caricatures navigating the social taboo of getting others to leave them alone.

Steven Yeun factors into a segment in the first episode, playing an affable man whose birthday party goes awry after one of his guests angrily demands that his gift is conspicuously appreciated. What comes after isn’t simply a traditional breakdown of friendship but a full-blown exercise in mean-spirited toilet humor. Comedy is subjective and the series isn’t necessarily my cup of tea, but considering its overall ludicrous premise, it is a fun, unusual way for Yeun to re-center his comedic talents.

Weird City (2019)

The comedy sci-fi anthology Weird City hopefully foretells many joint projects between Steven Yeun and creative visionary Jordan Peele. The YouTube premium series highlights the everyday lives of citizens living in the distant future. The titular city where these stories take place is walled off into two sections based on economic class, propagating warped experiences for those Above and Below the Line.

Yeun stars in the Amy Heckerling-directed episode “Chonathan & Mulia & Barsley & Phephanie” as one of four absurdly privileged Above-the-Liners. I could describe him (he’s Barsley, who is obsessed with organic cantaloupes), but that wouldn’t really matter. The four friends operate as a virtue-signaling commune that craves Brownie points, despite their unquestionable detachment and disinterest in the true state of affairs Below the Line. 

The Above-the-Liners’ ignorance and excessive sense of entitlement result in them kidnapping a Below-the-Line child and sneaking him across the border “to a better life.” Yeun and his lovely co-stars give their all, personifying the horrific yet amusing reality of repetitive shallowness. Lamentably, the “rich people suck” narrative doesn’t stick as well with thinly drawn individuals and an unrefined story.

The Twilight Zone (2019)

Choosing between the Peele-produced projects in Steven Yeun’s filmography (for now, seeing as the actor has been announced to star in one of Peele’s movies in due course) is a no-brainer. I’d pick the revival of The Twilight Zone any day. Yeun’s episode “A Traveler” — expertly helmed by Ana Lily Amirpour — is an amalgamation of traditional horror sci-fi conventions that broaches topics of injustice, racism, and self-determination.

The episode spotlights an indigenous police sergeant named Yuka (Marika Sila), who is stationed in the small town of Inglaak, Alaska. Her role in law enforcement comes to an uncomfortable head every Christmas, during which the area’s white police chief offers one ceremonial “pardon” to an incarcerated individual at his annual office party. As patronizing and flippant as the practice is, Yuka still wishes to free her delinquent brother and drives him to the station the night of the party. Unfortunately, an unusual man (Yeun) mysteriously turns up, vying for that very same prize.

“A Traveler” provides another delectably unfathomable antagonist for Yeun to sink his teeth into. The charm that he exudes is overwhelmingly saccharine, yet Yuka is the only one who picks up on his bizarre behavior. The episode especially enraptures if you’re already familiar with Yeun’s penchant for courting audiences into a comfortable lull. Paired with Amirpour’s liberal use of unnerving Dutch tilt camera angles and extreme close-ups, “A Traveler” keeps viewers guessing until the very end.

Naysayer (2019)

The short films in Yeun’s résumé haven’t always been completely indicative of his caliber as a performer. Prior to the success of The Walking Dead, the actor built a portfolio with non-speaking parts in cringe-worthy entries, namely The Kari Files and Blowout Sale. Eventually, Steven Yeun did take the lead in one early short called Carpe Millennium, a comedy all about losing one’s virginity on New Year’s Eve. Unfortunately, the earnestness that he employs for the eccentric and genuine sides of his goofy lovelorn protagonist isn’t enough to make the film engaging.

On the other hand, David M. Helman’s dramatic short Naysayer is a better fit for Yeun all around, especially quality-wise. When a young father (Yeun) decides to steal away with his baby and take to the open road, a fateful phone call to his estranged ex only plunges him further into turmoil.

Yeun’s emphatically distraught performance is, in and of itself, something to celebrate. Simultaneously fervently combative and thoroughly exhausted, his emotional devastation demands the audience’s empathy.

Truthfully, the technical aspects of the film itself work to Yeun’s benefit, too. The camera rarely lets him leave the frame, capturing every jittery instance of anxiety through his speech and mannerisms. The frame visually epitomizes the claustrophobic undertones of Yeun’s distress, in spite of him standing on the side of a wide-open highway.

Naysayer’s world-building works directly in tandem with its star, crystallizing around Yeun and fostering a grounded, believable character in just eight minutes. Thus, regardless of the film’s straightforward plot, the final product is as engrossing as Yeun’s feature-length and serial ventures.

Tuca & Bertie (2019)

Steven Yeun joins yet another stellar ensemble cast in Netflix’s adult animated series Tuca & Bertie, although here he isn’t meant to be front and center. The actor instead lends his voice in support of Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong’s respective eponymous leads.

Originally conceived as a webcomic by creator and executive producer Lisa Hanawalt, this idiosyncratic sitcom follows Tuca the toucan and Bertie the song thrush, who are thirty-something gal pals living in a kaleidoscopic menagerie of fellow anthropomorphic non-human organisms (think plants with legs). 

When Bertie’s socially conservative boyfriend Speckle (Yeun) moves into the women’s shared apartment — effectively kicking the loud-mouthed Tuca out — they truly seem to be on different paths in life. To make matters worse, the prim and proper Speckle then repeatedly unknowingly destabilizes the duo’s once-carefree friendship.

Yeun’s line delivery maintains the character’s unwavering sincerity and dedication to Bertie. Speckle’s jokes tend to be on the innocent side compared to the rest of the raunchy series, but his sweetness guarantees that all of them land. Additionally, he loosens up over the course of the series, allowing Yeun to indulge in some of the wackier possibilities intrinsic to the stylings of Tuca & Bertie.

As a plot device, Speckle establishes the potential stagnancy and boredom of adulthood that awaits Bertie should she carry on with the romance. That said, Yeun ensures that there is much more to him than meets the eye.

Minari (2020)

Over the years, Steven Yeun has drawn from a reservoir of emotion to bolster narrative impact. Virtually all of his characters are soulful enough to attach themselves to audiences as either relatable or at least attractive. This mighty grasp on the ins and outs of humanity then comes to a perfect culmination in Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical drama Minari.

The film recounts the lives of Korean immigrants, the Yis, who leave their Californian home in hopes of building a sustainable life in the Ozarks. For years, the Yi patriarch, Jacob (Yeun), and his wife Monica raised their two children on menial, unfulfilling work as chicken sexers. However, Jacob has dreams of starting his own farm filled with vegetables from his home country. Problems arise when the task of juggling his work life with the demands of his family proves seemingly untenable.

Watching Yeun detangle Jacob’s conflicting sense of masculine pride and his muted devotion to his wife and children is so deeply satisfying because of how completely he embodies those struggles. As a father, husband, and primary breadwinner of the family, Jacob resolutely hangs on to his desire for his version of the American Dream to alleviate the stressors of these responsibilities. Moreover, Jacob just wants to do something right by himself for a change after years of personal sacrifice. Then there’s the factor of self-determination: Jacob is Korean and wants to stay connected to those roots.

When Jacob’s ambition inevitably becomes dangerously all-encompassing — engulfing him in tunnel vision and causing him to neglect his familial duties — Yeun expertly handles the character’s guilt with deep, sorrowful grace. His performance paints a delicate portrait of a man constantly warring with expectations that others have, and more importantly, he has, for himself. Jacob is Yeun’s most mature role to date, but that only partially relates to the film’s subject matter. Unsurprisingly, it has netted Yeun multiple accolades and nominations, included the coveted one for Best Actor at the 93rd Academy Awards.

Invincible (2021)

And because everyone seems to be one these days, getting to see Steven Yeun become a superhero is heaps of fun, too. The fact that Amazon’s Invincible actually wouldn’t mark Yeun’s first time playing a character of such distinction is something to note.

In conjunction with Hasbro, Netflix once commissioned a couple of seasons of Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters, a kid-friendly animated show based on the 1970s action figure of the same name. Yeun proficiently voices one of the series leads, Wingspan. Sadly, a lack of cohesion in the series’ plot, unfocused arcs, and its uninspired treatment of recognizable character archetypes make it frankly forgettable.

In contrast, Invincible leans into the most predictable superhero tropes imaginable as a red herring, subverting them with exhilarating twists with each passing episode. The series follows a teenager named Mark Grayson (Yeun), who longs for the day he develops superpowers of his own. He wants to make a difference in the world just like his extraterrestrial father, Omni-Man, who is the strongest superhero on Earth. 

Otherwise, life at home with his human mother Debbie is pretty damn regular. Still, when his powers finally manifest and he teams up with other crusaders across the country, the anticipated coming-of-age origin story quickly turns macabre and sobering.

Grit, superpowers, and any combination of the two are a dime a dozen onscreen nowadays, but Invincible’s familiar thematic beats are firmly held together by a love for strong characterization and a disregard for the kitschy standalone appeal of gore and death. Rather, the series focuses on the messiness of humanity — the dire emotional consequences that feel unavoidable in the world-saving business. 

For Yeun’s part, he has portrayed his fair share of teenagers by this point in his career. Nonetheless, his multifaceted impression of youthfulness in its many shades continues to impress. Mark is goofy, sarcastic, and cocky, with Yeun oscillating between relatable bouts of self-possession and insecurity with instinctive ease. He makes Mark the perfect conduit for us to process Invincible’s moral quandaries and to question the worth of the superhero gig if tragic elements are part-and-parcel of it.

Steven Yeun’s disparate and delightful résumé speaks for itself. He was always on his way to bigger and better things, and after over a decade of genre experimentation, the successes of his carefully curated filmography remain intact. Yeun often makes extremely enjoyable things that are enthralling in multiple respects. His malleability and dexterity as an actor make his slate one of my absolute favorites to dissect. He showcases deep respect for the art of performance across live-action and animation media, committing himself to create multi-dimensional characters with truly universal appeal.

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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)