Minari star Steven Yeun made Oscar history earlier this year when he became the first Asian-American ever to be nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards.
His performance as Jacob Yi, patriarch of a Korean immigrant family in 1980s Arkansas, has helped propel the indie drama into the international spotlight, and to success at numerous festivals and award ceremonies.
This recognition caps a swift rise to fame for the 37-year-old actor, who was born in Seoul but raised in the US state of Michigan.
Best known for his role as Glenn Rhee in the hit zombie drama series The Walking Dead, Yeun was one of the show’s original cast members, and a fan favourite, until his character’s shocking death in the season seven premiere.
A prolific voice actor, Yeun has also proffered his dulcet tones on animated shows The Legend of Korra, Tales of Arcadia and Final Space, and currently voices the lead character in Amazon’s superhero series Invincible, adapted from a comic book by Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman.
To date, Yeun’s big-screen appearances have been relatively few and far between, but the tide is already turning
Since leaving The Walking Dead in 2016, he has applied his small-screen cache to secure significant movie roles both in the US and South Korea, where he has collaborated with acclaimed auteurs like Bong Joon-ho and Lee Chang-dong.
Yeun’s Oscar nomination could not have come at a better time.
Asian and Asian-American representation in Hollywood productions is breaking new ground, and Yeun is set to secure his place on the industry’s A-list: he is next to be seen in drama The Humans, as well as Get Out director Jordan Peele’s forthcoming horror project opposite fellow Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya.
Here we rank all of Yeun’s movie performances to date, from worst to best.
9. My Name is Jerry (2009)
Yeun’s first film was this low-budget romantic comedy about Jerry, a disillusioned middle-aged salesman (Doug Jones) who falls in with a group of young hipsters.
Yeun plays Chas, housemate of Jerry’s new love interest. He works at a record store, plays in a punk band and turns Jerry on to some cool music.
Yeun’s affable, easy-going charm helps Chas inject some comic relief and youthful banter into the film’s flimsy narrative, but it’s a non-essential sidekick role that does little to drive the narrative forward.
8. Like a French Film (2016)
For his first Korean film role, Yeun plays an American struggling to fully understand the language, culture and family dynamics in contemporary Seoul.
In his segment of this four-part anthology, his character Steve has arrived from the US with his Korean girlfriend, only to discover that her father disapproves of their relationship and his career as a musician.
The pair visits a fortune-teller, which only exacerbates their already strained relationship.
One suspects Yeun could relate only too well with his character’s sense of frustration and exclusion, but the film only scratches the surface.
7. I Origins (2014)
Another fun-loving roommate role, Kenny is the lab partner of Michael Pitt’s molecular biologist, who is studying the human eye.
Yeun’s character goes on to develop a global database of the population’s iris patterns – unique to each of us – which ultimately leads Pitt’s protagonist on a globe-trotting search for his dead ex-wife (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey).
Yeun only has a handful of scenes and Kenny is more of a catalyst for the narrative than a fully rounded character, but the film does see Kenny evolve from hedonistic student to successful entrepreneur.
6. The Star (2017)
Yeun’s versatility as a voice actor is applied to this bizarre animal-oriented nativity play, his only big screen animation to date.
Yeun plays Bo, the donkey Mary rides into Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth, but leading up to this moment, Bo is taken on a wild road trip through the Nazarene desert accompanied by a dove and a sheep.
The movie is a somewhat ill-conceived venture, with little to champion in this era of top-tier animation, but Yeun’s energy and enthusiasm helps you root for the plucky little ass.
5. Okja (2017)
Bong Joon-ho’s satirical fast-food action thriller for Netflix proved to be Yeun’s most high-profile movie role up to this point, premiering at the Cannes Film Festival.
Yeun played an integral role in Bong’s international ensemble, appearing alongside Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano and Ahn Seo-hyun as a member of a terrorist organisation tasked with the liberation of a genetically modified super-pig.
Serving as the group’s translator, “K” is able to manipulate characters on both sides of the language divide, but more importantly, the role helped elevate Yeun’s standing for both Korean and Western audiences.
4. Sorry to Bother You (2018)
In Boots Riley’s wildly absurd corporate satire, Yeun plays Squeeze, a disgruntled employee at RegalView telemarketing who spearheads an industrial action movement that puts him at odds with Cash (Lakeith Stanfield), the film’s central protagonist.
Squeeze also becomes his rival for the affections of Tessa Thompson’s outspoken performance artist as she grows increasingly disillusioned by her fiancé’s new-found wealth.
Yeun ensures that Squeeze remains sympathetic and redeemable in the film, however – unlike Armie Hammer’s exploitative entrepreneur, whose vision for the future is exposed to be despicable, racist and horrifying.
3. Mayhem (2017)
Yeun’s first bona fide leading man role is in Joe Lynch’s deranged horror comedy, in which a viral outbreak causes people to lose all their moral inhibitions.
His character Derek, a just-fired lawyer now trapped in an infected office building, vows to make his way to the top floor and demand compensation from his boss.
What follows is a deliriously unhinged parade of violence and gallows humour that serves as the perfect platform for Yeun to showcase his versatility and charisma as a take-charge hero, comedy star and charming romantic lead.
2. Minari (2020)
Yeun drew from his own experiences as the son of Korean immigrants for this semibiographical portrayal of writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s own childhood.
Jacob Yi is a man determined to carve out a slice of the American dream for his family by purchasing a plot of remote Arkansas farmland to call his own.
Unassuming yet stubborn, he persistently battles against his family and the advice of his neighbours to succeed on his own terms. It is a remarkably subtle and understated performance, for which Yeun’s Oscar nomination is thoroughly deserved.
1. Burning (2018)
Adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short story, Burning taps into a generation of lost, nihilistic young adults who feel they have been abandoned by the society that raised them.
Yeun brings an insidious menace to Ben, the ambiguous villain of Lee Chang-dong’s latest masterpiece, that rises above everything else in the actor’s oeuvre thus far.
When his wealthy, Gatsby-esque misanthrope comes between Yoo Ah-in’s wannabe writer and Jeon Jong-seo’s free-spirited beauty, all three are propelled inevitably towards a tragic denouement that explodes in pent-up violence.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.