Revered director Lee Chang-dong (Poetry, Peppermint Candy) returns to UK cinemas this week with his latest masterwork, Burning: a scintillating Seoul set psycho-love drama, based on a short story by Haruki Murakami. The story touches upon themes of fractured classes, toxic masculinity, adolescent poverty and Korean propaganda which pulse beneath the surface of a teen love triangle tale.
Jongsoo (Yoo Ah-in) is a teenager from a broken home in Paju, who dreams of being a successful novelist. After a romantic encounter with old school friend Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), Jongsoo agrees to take care of her cat while she travels to Africa. Upon Haemi’s return, Jongsoo is peeved to discover her accompanied by a man called Ben (Steven Yeun), who could be a threat to their “relationship”.
HeyUGuys recently met with actor Steven Yeun (Ben) for a round-table interview at the May Fair Hotel in London where we discussed his character, what it was like working with directory Lee Chang-dong, the theme of toxic masculinity, and the growing success of multicultural mainstream cinema.
HEYUGUYS: There seemed to be a lot of unspoken, suggested drama between the characters; what they weren’t saying as well as what was in the dialogue. Is that something you had to explore or did you pick it up when you first read the script?
STEVEN YEUN: I would be lying if I said I connected every single dot as soon as I read it, but I had a really strong connection to the character, the place he was in, the potential existential angst he is feeling and the ideas inside him that kind of pervade. I felt like I understood that when I read the script for the first time.
On a page it looks very different to how it does on the screen. I also made a deep connection to the character after reading the short story that the film was based on. That’s what Director Lee and I talked about a lot when we met; building him from a philosophical perspective. Not who or what he is but how he is looking at the world. The ambiguity comes together at the end of the process.
The story also had an imperfect but relatable love triangle that I’ve never seen explored in such a way before.
It’s a love triangle that wasn’t overly burdensome on the connection per se. More like three people that are all alone in their respective ways and trying to find meaning in life. I heard this really great critic say; it was as if each character was waiting for the other. Something to complete them or take them away or whatever they were burning for. That something or someone to interject their life that’s on this road/ trajectory culminates with these three people. It wasn’t a triangle but a singular dot. In a way, they were all the same person. I’ve heard a lot of people walking away from this film feeling like they are all three of them.
It was difficult to tell when Ben was lying or not, most of the time. Were there truths to the character that the audience will never be aware of?
I know some audiences will think the character got what he deserved while others won’t be so sure. I’m the only one who knows! And it defeats the purpose for me to say anything because that’s a choice I made for myself, from my own experience with the film. I think there is a lot to say about that because no one is ever really sure. We come to all these conclusions, make decisions and say “this is based on this, this, this and this”, but when you peal it back you realise there is no actual evidence that anything went down. It’s all just conjecture and how pieces have been put together for you. So yeah, what’s real?
On whether or not Ben is a victim of toxic masculinity:
I think Ben is not a victim of toxic masculinity, depending on what he’s done, which is left up to interpretation. In some ways, Ben feels free to embrace his femininity. He’s not encumbered by social rules or stigmas. He could show up in a dress for all he cares. That kind of stuff doesn’t bother him. That doesn’t mean he isn’t flawed in other ways, but I never saw toxic masculinity necessarily representative within Ben. I actually saw it mostly in Jongsoo, who is a man trying so hard to control his life, but each step of the way, none of his decisions are his own.
Jongsoo is so awkward in every exchange because he isn’t free to be the way he is. That’s applicable to anyone, regardless of whether you are male or female, but I think, in this particular sense, you can look at him and ask: “what drives a man to do the things that he does? What type of hurt? What type of boxes is this man trapped in, that makes him unable to embrace every aspect of himself?” For me, the lesson I learned from Ben, that I continue to learn, isn’t necessarily his care free attitude, but his acceptance of himself; being comfortable within his own skin.
On working with Lee Chang-dong:
I wanted to work with director Lee because, to me, he is one of the greatest film-makers of the modern age. The first time I saw Poetry, I saw a deep connection to the pain that I must have put my grandmother through when I was a kid. For a film to speak like that to me is very important. I think it allowed me to really understand the scope and ability for the film-making. That is why I wanted to work with director Lee. I always thought it would be awesome, but I never thought it would happen.
Lee allowed me to break down any social barriers so I could see him as a human being. It was really wonderful to see someone I aspired to be like; at his age and to have relinquished his ego so many times, make a film about the young generation without telling them what they are; but empathising with who they are. That’s really gracious. Those are the things you see and witness in people you admire.
On leaving Hollywood to work in Korea:
There is a whole other market in Korea to participate in. I had many opportunities in the past to participate in a different capacity, and I didn’t take them. Not because of anything other than that they didn’t feel natural to me. But this one did. I look at this as not the only thing I will ever do in Korea but, right now, the only one that really made sense for me to do. I saw it independent of where it was being filmed and what culture it’s being filmed in. Obviously that’s very important, but I looked at it like, I had a shot to be in an auteur’s movie, transcendent of any boundaries or barriers.
This film is wonderfully universal. That’s what drew me to it. I didn’t want to service a Korean story that was so intrinsically about being Korean, to the point that if I was in it, it would actually seem false. In hindsight, knowing director Lee; he would never have let that happen. But the story felt very universal, like we were making this on the moon, with its own vacuum. I hope, as our world becomes more connected and cosmopolitan, that we can just skip over ponds and make movies with other people if we want to. I will say, it’s hard and it’s not going to be so easy.
This was really kismet in that way. To find a moment in time where America has built up enough Asian American careers where they could even be considered people that have jobs in Hollywood. Then to go and do something in Korea and have the actor be able to speak Korean; those are the things that we have tried, but never had all of the pieces together. I feel fortunate that I have been a part of this one, because it’s kind of a freak situation.
On embracing multi-cultural mainstream movies:
Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians might not have played the game in terms of perfect one-to-one representation of Asian people or black America, but what they have done is prove that the “not being white doesn’t make any money” argument doesn’t function anymore, and I think that’s really cool. That’s part of the process that I am really interested in. Will there be more greenlighting of eclectic tales about different people’s lives, regardless of the skin colour now? Because I think that’s ultimately what everyone wants. It’s just human, and to feel human. Whether they’re eclectic or not, everyone is just living their own lives and trying to get by like human beings, but there are these extra things that you have to deal with. I’m excited, but I don’t own a studio so I don’t know what’s going to happen.
Burning is released in UK cinemas on Friday 1st February