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Steven Yeun Explains How His Burning Character Speaks ‘Textbook’ Korean

Steven Yeun. Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images for BFI

Steven Yeun’s Burning character will leave you with a chill. The Lee Chang-dong movie is about an unsettling love triangle that unravels: protagonist Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) jockeys against the wealthy Ben (Yeun) for the attention of Jong-su’s childhood friend, a young woman named Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo). Ben is as meticulous as he is mysterious — he lives in a luxury apartment, has a revolving door of glittering socialite friends, and drives a Porsche, even though he doesn’t appear to have a real job. (At one point, Jong-su remarks that Ben is Gatsby-esque.) “What I really enjoyed about the exercise of playing this character was that he’s actually the most present person in every situation,” Yeun said at a post-screening Q&A at the Quad Friday night. “He’s fully there in every moment, but maybe the sad reality is that no one else is there with him. They’re either worried about what they’ve got to say next, or thinking of something smart that they want to say to look good, or thinking about their phone — whatever it is, they’re not there. But Ben is right there, and he’s bored because nobody else is there with him.”

One of the most important details of Yeun’s performance might be lost on non-Korean speakers. Director Lee wanted Ben to speak Korean that isn’t colloquial or casual, but very specifically articulated. “My Korean was left intact because when we immigrated, my folks only spoke Korean in the house. My pronunciation was pretty spared,” Yeun explained. “When I got to Korea [to film], and when you read the script and read the things this character is saying, he speaks almost in a literary sense, a very poetic way of speaking, that is not common or colloquial. He doesn’t sound like an average, normal person. We wanted to make sure the Korean was exact.”

Yeun said Ben’s way of speaking can be divisive, which only makes the character more unnerving: “It is interesting, because it depends on who you ask, but some people argue that Ben speaks the best Korean, but not the most colloquial. He speaks the most textbook Korean. But other people think that he’s not speaking Korean well at all. It depends on who you ask, but from a Korean speaking standpoint, it’s the former.”

Steven Yeun Says Burning Character Speaks ‘Textbook’ Korean