Earlier this month, Steven Yeun made history as the first Asian-American man to receive an Oscar nomination for best actor, earning the nod for his performance in Minari. While the fact that this is a first occurrence after 93 years of award ceremonies bewildered me, I was nevertheless extremely proud of Yeun for achieving such a milestone. Although the actor achieved his major breakout role with The Walking Dead, it has taken about a decade for him to attain mainstream success. I genuinely believe that he is one of the greatest young actors around, and he continues to prove me right with every new project he undertakes. The fact that Yeun can excel in both dramatic and action/adventure roles while speaking fluent English and Korean makes him a unique, invaluable performer. He has an incredibly bright future ahead of him, and I would love to see him as the next James Bond or Marvel superhero. However, his current filmography is rather limited, which inspired me to thoroughly binge-watch it during reading week. Consequently, I decided to rank the movies from worst to best, in order to list the definitive films of Yeun’s career for newfound fans.
Note: The following list only includes live-action films where Yeun appears as either a lead or supporting actor. My rankings are as follows:
5) Mayhem (2017) — Available to stream on Amazon Prime Video
Mayhem is an incredibly stressful movie. I was initially intrigued, as the plot focuses on an easily transmittable virus (ID-7) that alters brain chemistry. The virus brings out an individual’s Freudian id, resulting in an incapacity to refrain from violence. Legally, individuals infected with the ID-7 virus cannot be held responsible for their actions and can get away with everything from assault to murder. The film focuses on a law firm during an eight-hour quarantine at the height of the ID-7 virus. The story’s focal point is Yeun’s character Derek Cho, who goes through a rampage of bloody murder and sparring to climb the top of his law firm, both literally and metaphorically. Overall, this felt like a pretty blatant ripoff of The Purge franchise. The notion of causing havoc without any legal repercussions has already been explored ad nauseum, and director Joe Lynch takes no real creative risks to truly set this film apart from its spiritual predecessor. Yeun’s character is rather one-dimensional, but he still manages to shine as the greatest actor of the cast. I really wished this would be more than an uninspired bloody action movie, but its lack of proper worldbuilding, character development, relationships, and so much more prevent it from doing so.
4) Okja (2017) — Available on Netflix Canada
Bong Joon-ho’s precursor to Parasite is an eccentric story about the bond between a young girl and her giant pig. Okja, the genetically-engineered superhog, gains international attention after it grows to an incredibly large size. Mija, who lives on the farm and spends every day with Okja, is sent on a frantic journey from Korea to New York to retrieve her best friend and animal companion. Yeun appears in a few scenes as Kay, an animal rights activist determined to reunite the two figures. Although Okja is a tale full of heart with a star-studded cast, it ends up being a little bit all over the place. I am thankful that Bong focuses primarily on the relationship between Mija and Okja, but it results in less screen time for the captivating side characters. Tilda Swinton, Giancarlo Esposito, Steven Yeun, and especially Jake Gylenhaal deliver hilarious and engrossing performances that left me wanting to see much more of them. Perhaps I am impossible to please, but I would have preferred if there was more of a balance between the primary relationship between the girl and superpig, as well as the numerous secondary characters trying to get in the way of it. The final acts of the film felt unnecessarily rushed, making the resolution and finale feel less satisfying than they should have been. In sum, Okja is a lot of fun. It is possible that I went in with too high expectations due to the triumph of Parasite, but I still enjoyed the ride, despite not being necessarily blown away.
3) Sorry to Bother You (2018) — Available on Netflix Canada
Boots Riley’s directorial debut is an absurdist masterpiece. With its focus on telemarketers, the film is deeply rooted in imagery, dreamlike sequences, and anti-capitalist rhetoric. Watching the young Cassius Green (played by Lakeith Steinfeld) climb the ranks of the telemarketing business to ridiculous heights feels like a dream at times. The film is so ridiculous, in all the right ways. Yeun’s character, Squeeze (yes, Squeeze) leads the telemarketer’s union, serving as the workers’ revolutionary voice. He and Cassius have an interesting relationship, as Cassius is forced to choose between unionizing with his co-workers or climbing the company’s corporate ladder to its peak. The world of Sorry to Bother You is brilliantly crafted, from the television shows to the fashion; it comes off as a dystopian version of Oakland plagued with unemployment and riots. The movie’s message is clear, but it is also not forced down the audience’s throat. It comes across as a film where every minor detail was attended to, and it pays off immensely. While the ending is quite absurd even for a film as odd as this, I still enjoyed the final confrontations between Cassius and the antagonist Steve Lift, played perfectly by Armie Hammer. I have recommended Sorry to Bother You to a number of people, and will continue to do so with pride. Fans of comedy, fantasy, absurdism, telemarketing, horses, and communism rejoice; your ideal movie is waiting patiently on Netflix.
2) Minari (2020) — Available on-demand wherever you rent or buy films.
Lee Isaac Chung’s Oscar-nominated Minari is a deeply personal film that is as serene as it is emotional. Based on Chung’s experiences of immigrating from Korea to Arkansas, Minari is a movie about family above anything else. The film focuses significantly on the adorable friendship between the eight year old David (Alan Kim) and his grandmother (Youn Yuh-jung). Despite their differences, the two are forced to share a room in their cramped trailer. A series of pranks and disrespectful comments leads to David’s greater appreciation of his grandmother, which results in some of Minari’s greatest scenes. Of course, Yeun’s performance as Jacob is heartfelt and exceptional. He portrays an immigrant father seeking a better life for his family, who decides to start his own farm. Chung focuses on Jacob enough for us to grow attached to him while learning his motives and values. Jacob’s arc is compelling due to his constant shift in focus between making a name for himself with his farm, and being present for his family during a difficult transition. Almost every scene of Minari is bright and beautiful, truly bringing the Arkansas farm to life. Despite its low number of dramatic occurrences, the movie is never boring. The combination of quirky dialogue, captivating cinematography, and charming performances allow the film to triumph. Lastly, Minari’s ending manages to be poignant and moving, making sure to leave a lasting impression on all its viewers. Although the upcoming Academy Awards contain stiff competition, I would not be surprised if Minari goes home with the Best Picture Award, or if Yeun snags the Best Actor Award, as both are completely deserving.
1) Burning (2018) — Available on Netflix
The only movie capable of being placed above Minari is Lee Chang-dong’s mystery/drama Burning. Not only is this the definitive Steven Yeun film, it is the best Korean movie I have ever seen. Burning is a slow burn (no pun intended). With its runtime of two and a half hours, and the inclusion of several scenes with minimal dialogue, it feels long…but not in a bad way. The first chunk of the movie is a simple love story between reunited classmates Jong-Su (Yoo Ah-in) and Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo). After a brief vacation, Hae-mi returns to Korea with a new acquaintance, Ben. Steven Yeun was perfectly cast as Ben, and he steals the spotlight in every scene in which he appears. His American mannerisms and appearance come off as intimidating to Korean residents like Jong-su. Since the story is told through Jong-su’s perspective, we witness him grow exceedingly jealous of Ben. As the story progresses and develops, Ben’s motives begin to become hazier. His modern apartment, sinister attitude, and lack of a real job drives Jong-su crazy. As the audience, we remain uncertain as to whether Ben is truly evil, or if Jong-su is simply blinded by his rage. Every scene between the two is tense and unsettling, as it eventually goes off the rails with a striking final scene. Burning is slow at times, but more than worth a viewing. Such a story can not be told in a fast-paced manner, as drawing it out adds several layers of suspense and mystery to the plot. This is undoubtedly Steven Yeun’s greatest role, and it is a major reason why I decided to embark on this ranking.
Although I believe Burning is the crown jewel of Steven Yeun’s filmography, creating this ranking was not an easy task. Yeun seems capable of adding a positive element to every film he has appeared in, and he is undoubtedly worthy of the recent praise he has been receiving. Academy Awards, take note of this amazing actor!