From Glenn in the hit American television series The Walking Dead to Ben in South Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong's latest film Burning (2018), the range of characters that Korean-American Steven Yeun has recently portrayed on screen has been nothing short of unprecedented. Yeun’s character of Glenn Rhee on The Walking Dead felt, at the time, like a watershed moment in Asian-American representation in that Glenn’s minority status as an ethnic Korean was not signposted as a point of difference or foreignness—Glenn was simply Glenn. However, such "race-blind" logic marks what is often the poverty of discourse in film and television regarding diversity: that simply getting to the point of race-blindness, in which Glenn’s racial background is a complete non-factor, is celebrated as an achievement in representation.
Yeun’s character K in Bong Joon-ho’s Okja (2017) brings to bear an unusual attention to the complexity of the Asian-American lived experience, for Bong astutely incorporates the hybrid quality of Yeun’s ethnic and national identity into his character. One of the most illuminating scenes is one in which K, who has traveled to Korea along with his band of white American animal rights activists to rescue a genetically engineered "super pig," must translate to the pig’s owner, a Korean girl named Mija, who the activists are, what their philosophy is, and what they plan on doing with the pig. The joke of this scene is obvious to any Korean-American: K’s Korean is nowhere near proficient enough to translate English into Korean, a fact that K later confesses and for which reason he is expelled from the activist group. K’s status as a Korean-American in Okja does not mean that he is both Korean and American but that he is neither Korean nor American.
Enter Ben, a character whose strangeness interrupts Burning's brooding, small-town milieu a third of the way into the film. Burning begins as the story of an incipient and awkward romantic coupling between Jung-su (Yoo Ah-In) and Hae-mi (Jun Jong-Seo), both young and struggling Koreans living outside of Seoul. Hae-mi returns from a soul-searching trip to Africa with Ben, a wealthy Korean dilettante, whose conspicuous wealth and air of detachment strikes a chord that couldn’t be more different from Jung-su’s provincial sincerity or Hae-mi’s earnestness. Ben is ostensibly Korean, but his behavior and command of the language feel deliberate, studied, and almost mechanical. “It’s interesting to see a person cry,” Ben says to Hae-mi, “I’ve never before cried in my life. I must have when I was a child, but I don’t remember.”
To be clear, the contrast between Ben and Hae-mi or Jung-su is not simply one of rich versus poor, cosmopolitan versus provincial. It is not only that Ben is a "crazy rich Korean," but that his wealth seems to obscure the very markers of his ethnic and national identity. Devika Girish writes in Film Comment that in moving from his roles in television and film in the States to Burning, Yeun “switches languages (and countries) as effortlessly as he did mediums.” This may appear true to most of an American audience, but any viewer with a proficiency in the Korean language and culture would notice from the moment Ben appears on screen that there is something unmistakably foreign in his manner and speech: they just are not natively Korean. Lee’s decision to cast Yeun, an American of Korean descent, for the role of Ben is by careful design; as Yeun says in his interview with Girish, “For director Lee to get me, a non-native Korean actor with very American sensibilities encoded into my body, to be there in the world of the film – it was a genius move.” Yeun also noted in the Q&A session at the film’s New York Film Festival premiere that Lee chose “not to eliminate his [Yeun’s] Americanness” but made it an essential part in conveying Ben’s cultural elusiveness. Similar to the way in which Bong made trenchant use of Yeun’s Korean-American background in Okja, Lee makes Yeun’s irreducible “Americanness” something essential to the fabric of Ben’s character.
To notice Ben’s many American-isms (e.g. Ben frequently uses English words such as “bass,” “metaphor,” and “pace” in conversation, regardless of whether his interlocutors seem to be familiar with those words or not) is to also notice the American-isms already embedded in the Korean language. When Ben makes the startling pronouncement that he burns plastic greenhouses (비닐온실), the film’s major story conceit, it’s worth noting that the adjective for plastic in Korean (비닐) is "binil," a phoneticization of the word vinyl. The film’s title (버닝), too, is a phoneticization of the word burning rather than a Korean word that would translate into burning. These and other examples in the film, in which the line is blurred between a properly "Korean" word and an anglicized one, feel purposeful in light of the film’s portrayal of culture and nationality as a moving target; far from fixed categories, they are, as Ben’s character would indicate, especially amorphous for those who occupy higher positions of wealth.
Burning is a departure from Lee Chang-dong’s previous films, which tend toward the melodramatic. Peppermint Candy (1999), Oasis (2002), and Poetry (2010) are three such films that revolve around the many and unacknowledged tragedies that accumulate in the life of each film’s protagonist. A quiet brutality pervades Lee’s films; they pay attention to the darker aspects of human behavior and psychology that, much like the provincial "rust belt" towns in which the films are set, are more convenient to ignore.
Burning continues Lee’s earlier conventions both in its small-town setting and in the socially alienated character of Jong-su, who is much more of a traditional Lee protagonist than Ben; however, Burning’s exploration of the mystery-thriller genre, as well as its focused attention on issues of class and globalization, open the film up to a more nuanced and compelling tonal register.
The film reminds us several times of Hae-mi’s severe credit card debt and Jong-su’s job insecurity; the television blares headlines of Korea’s youth unemployment crisis; the unsightly and unattended plastic greenhouses Ben claims to enjoy burning are themselves symbols of Korea’s rural blight. The film’s formal questions—who Ben is, where his money comes from, whether or not he’s a murderous psychopath—have a way of lapsing into broader questions that are just as unanswerable. Where is great wealth amassed in today’s Korea? What are the social and economic forces driving income inequality in Korea? The film’s central question—“who is Ben?”—is also central to other related and pressing questions: “what does the future hold for Jong-su and Hae-mi” or “what future does Korea hold for young Koreans?”
As to the question of Ben: Ben provokes Jong-su’s frustration, anger even, not because Ben is a villainous character but because he conceals his character. It is difficult to tell what lies behind Ben’s aloofness; nothing sticks: all of his surfaces are too slick, too slippery. It would be easier to believe that there is something hidden beneath the surface, some deep and perverse secret about Ben, rather than acknowledge the fact that there might be nothing behind his surfaces at all.
Ben remains a mystery—or, to be more precise, Ben remains a riddle. The English subtitles for the film’s release stateside mistranslates the Korean word for riddle (수수께끼) as mystery, as when Ben asks Jong-su what type of novel he’s interested in writing and Jong-su responds that the world appears to him to be a riddle. It’s worthwhile to consider the meaningful distinction between riddle and mystery. A riddle is like a puzzle; it is intentional, constructed, singular, while a mystery might speak to a more generic state of unknowing that comes from chance or ignorance. A riddle is also a paradox: by its design, a riddle must resist revealing the secret that makes it a riddle—and yet any riddle’s ultimate purpose is to reveal the very secret that would no longer make it a riddle and, in the very same moment, allow the riddle to be seen and appreciated in its full form. It is this very paradox that Lee explores in the Burning’s final scene.
It is unusual for an actor to play a prominent role across a string of three consecutive and critically acclaimed films dealing squarely with issues of capitalism, race, and class, and it is unprecedented for an American actor of Korean descent to do so. Yeun’s role as Squeeze, a labor organizer, in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You is remarkable in light of Asian-American history: Squeeze explicitly challenges the way in which Asian-Americans have been, and continue to be, racially triangulated between Black and White interests so as to serve White interests and perpetuate their own status as perpetual foreigners.
Yeun's subtle performance in Burning rounds out what have been three unorthodox roles in three unorthodox films that consider race and class in a global context; these films blur the line between what counts as American cinema and what counts as world cinema, both in their subject matter and their perceived audience. Yeun gives us good reason to be optimistic about the many different roles Asian-Americans can play in this more flexible landscape. As films like Burning reach a broader and more diverse audience, so too may the roles available to Asian-American actors expand.