Steven Yeun, the new look of a Hol­ly­wood icon

Even type­cast as a la­dykiller, ac­tor rep­re­sents widen­ing nod to Asian male mag­netism

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - ZEST - By Wei-Huan Chen STAFF WRITER

For an ac­tor who’s never been in a ma­jor film, Steven Yeun sure looks like an icon. His hair’s slicked back, un­parted and curl­ing at the top and side. He has a thin mus­tache, naked at the philtrum, with a goa­tee. And his build is slim but toned, like James Franco or Johnny Depp.

In the 2017 Net­flix film “Okja,” he wore the fraz­zled look of a Korean-Amer­i­can eco-ter­ror­ist, with wavy hair some­times hid­den by a black beanie. In this year’s “Sorry to Bother You,” he wore cargo jack­ets over T-shirts bear­ing sub­ver­sive, anti-cor­po­rate slo­gans. The leader of a protest move­ment, he looked suave and charis­matic and just a bit un­kempt.

As Glenn, Yeun’s break­out role in “The Walk­ing Dead,” he started off as a kid with a base­ball cap. Then he got cuts, scars, mus­cles, hair, dirt, sweat, a wife — he grew into some­one who doesn’t wear base­ball caps. He no longer re­sem­bled any other Asian man on tele­vi­sion, nei­ther the clas­sic hunk Daniel Dae Kim plays in “Hawaii Five-O” nor the stereo­typ­i­cal dork Matthew Moy played in “2 Broke Girls.”

Then, this year, came Yeun’s coup de grâce.

“He’s the Great Gatsby,” says Jongsu, a dis­af­fected, love­struck farmer’s kid in Lee Chang-dong’s brood­ing drama “Burn­ing” (play­ing in Hous­ton since Fri­day). Jongsu’s talk­ing about Yeun’s Ben, the older man who se­duces Jongsu’s love in­ter­est, Hae-mi. And what an apt lit­er­ary com­par­i­son for this Gang­nam-dwelling, Porsche-driv­ing man whose mys­tery and glam­our con­tain just a hint of fa­tal­ity. If the role of Ben were a car, Yeun would be both the en­gine and the new paint job — he feels like a vet­eran ac­tor be­ing type­cast, once again, as the chilling la­dykiller.

Ben first ap­pears in the back­ground of the screen. He car­ries lug­gage be­hind Hae-mi at an air­port, as if his pres­ence were an ac­ci­dent. Jongsu and Hae-mi were child­hood neigh­bors and re­cently re­con­nected. Jongsu is now in love with her. But she re­turns from a trip to Africa in the com­pany of this mys­te­ri­ous, older man who is wealthy but will not say what he does for a liv­ing.

Yeun smirks and smiles through­out the film. He dresses in the ca­sual clothes of a man used to lux­ury — solid col­ors, well-made fab­rics, clean-cut sweaters that be­tray just the slight­est hint of mus­cle. Korean Gatsby. This isn’t just a sexy man in a blis­ter­ing psy­cho-thriller. It’s a glimpse of the fu­ture.

In 2018, af­ter all, the con­ver­sa­tion around Asian-Amer­i­can rep­re­sen­ta­tion has re­volved mainly around the break­out hit film “Crazy Rich Asians.” The con­ver­sa­tion was hot be­cause the movie por­trayed Asians as good­look­ing, wealthy and re­lat­able, and the film made a lot of money. Henry Gold­ing played the love in­ter­est, and im­me­di­ately af­ter the film’s re­lease ar­ti­cles were writ­ten about his prospects to be­come the next James Bond.

Gold­ing was like Kim in “Hawaii Five-O,” the kind of man’s man whose sex­u­al­ity is ob­vi­ous and typ­i­cal. Gold­ing has a friendly smile, a sculpted body and a Bri­tish ac­cent. Stand him next to Yeun and Yeun seems a bit shrimpy and wily. Gold­ing is Mar­lon Brando. But Yeun is James Dean. Gold­ing is the man to make your dreams come true. Yeun’s the one who’ll ruin your life. He’s un­usual in just the right way.

That there would even be a pop-cul­tural du­al­ity of Asian-Amer­i­can hunks within an Amer­i­can con­text is a mar­vel. A 2018 study by the UCLA In­sti­tute for Re­search on La­bor and Em­ploy­ment found that Asians rep­re­sent 3 per­cent of all film roles in Hol­ly­wood. Yeun has cho­sen roles — and thus looks — that broaden the scope of Asian male ex­is­tence.

In “Sorry to Bother You” and “Burn­ing,” he has played two se­duc­ers. It’s a com­plex emo­tional jour­ney to watch these films as a het­ero­sex­ual Asian man. On one hand, you think Yeun is there for the women. On the other, you think these roles were cre­ated for your eyes only, just so you’re re­minded that the de­mo­graphic in which you ex­ist con­tains the pos­si­bil­ity of mag­netism — that a di­verse au­di­ence could be drawn to some­one who looks like you.

There’s one other ac­tor who par­al­lels Yeun’s dis­play of Asian male sex­u­al­ity. John Cho, in the 2017 in­die drama “Colum­bus,” was like­wise a se­ducer of a younger woman. Brood­ing, cold and gor­geous, Cho landed the role af­ter a ca­reer of un­der­sex­u­al­ized char­ac­ters, start­ing with his stoner dork in “Harold & Ku­mar Go to White Cas­tle.” Ac­tors of color are start­ing to be more de­lib­er­ate in the way they present them­selves on film. They are be­com­ing more al­lur­ing. Yeun, a decade Cho’s ju­nior, is pick­ing up Cho’s ba­ton.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tion can be purely vis­ual. This is OK. Some­times the mere pres­ence of beauty is enough. Af­ter see­ing “Sorry to Bother You,” my girl­friend and I de­cided to dress as Yeun and Tessa Thomp­son’s char­ac­ters for Hal­loween. We were ex­cited to fi­nally see a movie with an Asian man and black woman who had a re­la­tion­ship with one an­other and who had dis­tinc­tive, fash­ion­able looks that we could em­u­late. We re­marked how rare it was to see an Amer­i­can film with im­ages of fan­tas­tic-look­ing peo­ple who looked like us — though, in the era of “Black Pan­ther” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” they seem to be pop­ping up more of­ten.

The is­sue with say­ing Yeun “looks like you,” though, is that it’s very dif­fi­cult to look like Steven Yeun. Few can work a mil­i­tary jacket, curly hair and bad­boy smirk the way he does.

I chick­ened out of try­ing to be Yeun for Hal­loween. He would have been the first Asian pop­cul­ture char­ac­ter I was proud to dress up as for Hal­loween. The prob­lem, which broadly speak­ing isn’t one at all, was that he was much, much too good-look­ing. [email protected]


As Glenn on “The Walk­ing Dead,” Steven Yeun grew into some­thing larger than a kid in a cap.

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Yeun, right, co-stars as a man of lux­ury with Ah-Inn Yoo, left, and Jong-seo Jeon in the South Korean film “Burn­ing.”

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