Steven Yeun, the new look of a Hollywood icon
Even typecast as a ladykiller, actor represents widening nod to Asian male magnetism
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.
Yeun, right, co-stars as a man of luxury with Ah-Inn Yoo, left, and Jong-seo Jeon in the South Korean film “Burning.”