From Walking Dead casualty to South Korean cinema star

(From far left) South Korean actress Jun Jong-seo, US-South Korean actor Steven Yeun, South Korean actor Yoo Ah-in and South Korean director Lee Chang-dong at a photocall for the film, Burning, at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
(From far left) South Korean actress Jun Jong-seo, US-South Korean actor Steven Yeun, South Korean actor Yoo Ah-in and South Korean director Lee Chang-dong at a photocall for the film, Burning, at the Cannes Film Festival in May.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • When Glenn Rhee, the scrappy pizza deliveryman turned warrior on The Walking Dead, became another casualty of that AMC series, Steven Yeun, the actor who played him, already felt he had outgrown his character.

But like Donnie Yen, Joan Chen and other Asian-American performers before him, he had to look outside Hollywood to find three-dimensional roles that defied stereotypes and caricatures.

While The Walking Dead led to parts in provocative American indies like Mayhem (2017) and Sorry To Bother You (2018), it was in South Korea that he got a chance to collaborate with world-class auteurs on serious Palme d'Or contenders.

A case in point is Burning (2018), the new film from director Lee Chang-dong which premiered in Singapore in July and opened last week in the United States.

The movie - and Yeun's performance as Ben, the cosmopolitan rival of the country-bumpkin antihero - earned rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and the experience of working overseas made Yeun realise that he did not feel exactly at ease in either the US or South Korea.

"It really just makes you have to go inwards and you can only be comfortable in your own skin," he said in an interview this month when Burning played at the New York Film Festival.

Lee said Yeun perfectly understood the disaffection and hollowness he was seeking to convey in the film, an adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story.

"Steven said he sensed an emptiness deep down in the character. He said he knew it well because he felt it as well," Lee, the respected film-maker of Peppermint Candy (1999), Secret Sunshine (2007) and other films, said through an interpreter.

Yeun, 34, began traversing two different worlds early in life.

When he was four, he and his family moved from South Korea, first to Canada and then to the US. At school, he kept to himself. But within the tight-knit Korean church community in Taylor, Michigan, he felt freer to be rambunctious.

With a dearth of Asian-American representation in pop culture, Yeun and his friends gravitated to actor Will Smith for his outsider appeal.

The success of comedians Steve Park and Margaret Cho was momentous to aspiring Asian-American performers. "With Steve, I remember being shocked at In Living Colour having an Asian person," Yeun said.

Park and Cho were among the pioneers "that you just got to respect because they were doing it when nobody was doing it".

While Yeun was not actively pursuing roles in South Korea, he was a fan of that country's vibrant film industry.

A friend there arranged for Yeun to meet some of his favourite film-makers: Kim Jee-woon (I Saw The Devil, 2010), Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, 2003) and Bong Joon-ho (The Host, 2006).

He did not think Bong was serious about wanting to work together and certainly did not expect that the director would eventually write a part for him in Okja (2017).

"When Steven first came over to work, he was also very sensitive about being perceived as an American actor or a Korean actor, how was everybody relating to him. But that evaporated very quickly," Bong said through an interpreter.

Before The Walking Dead, Yeun was often asked to play variants of Long Duk Dong, the infamous nerd in Sixteen Candles (1984), which was a toxic screen stereotype of Asian men.

Now in the US, Yeun tends to get offered genial characters. In South Korea, where Bong said women regarded Yeun as a sex symbol, the actor said that typecasting based on his personality or status as a foreigner or expatriate might be inescapable.

"It's just that when Korea approaches me about a project, it's usually missing a component of, like, 'What does an Asian man do in this situation?'" he said.

"What was wonderful about working in South Korea is, you know, you kind of feel the fullness of yourself for a second," he added. "You don't have to be reminded of your otherness there and that is a very freeing feeling. You don't realise how oppressive that is until you experience not experiencing that."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 30, 2018, with the headline 'From Walking Dead casualty to South Korean cinema star'. Subscribe