In the new Netflix animated comedy Tuca and Bertie, Steven Yeun plays Speckle, the bird boyfriend of Bertie, an anxious but driven song thrush who is trying to find a workable balance between the security of regular adult responsibilities and a more devil-may-care approach to life like her BFF Tuca. Speckle isn’t exactly a perfect boyfriend, but he is positioned as close as one could get to that scenario without descending into total fantasy. He’s sweet, responsible, has grown-up goals in life, respects his girlfriend and has near-infinite patience with her, and considers cooking up two types of oven fries to be the perfect night-in. In the grand scheme of season one’s narrative arc, Speckle is the figure who represents the impossible bind of anxiety: How can you have everything you want and still be smothered by your own mind, as Bertie is. It would have been so easy for showrunner Lisa Hanawalt and her team to make Speckle a pompous jerk or whiny brat who demands more of his girlfriend than is necessary, but smartly, he is left as a genuinely good person whose own drive for goodness can sometimes leave him untethered. It helps that Yeun plays him as a down-to-earth goofball who, as he himself said, is ‘just such a good dude and he’s trying really hard.’ Of course, the fact that he’s voiced by Steven Yeun also adds an extra layer of appeal to Speckle. After all, he’s this year’s new perfect pop culture boyfriend.
Steven Yeun has been a pretty solid presence in modern pop culture for the past decade, in large part thanks to his performance as Glenn Rhee in AMC’s mega-hit The Walking Dead. The Second City alum was a fan favourite on the series, which remains the highest rated series in cable television history, but Glenn wasn’t necessarily at the centre of the narrative’s focus. Even Yeun himself admitted that the role didn’t always give him the most to work with. In an interview with Slate, he talked about wanting to avoid the American white gaze that reduces Asian American men to ‘nice guy, dependable, supportive, benign. Beige’, and admits that ‘I felt beige with Glenn. That was a little bit of the frustration that I could never explain to the wider society, to fans of the show.’ Glenn Rhee, a role Yeun is keen to remind people he is grateful for, may have been a major role in a widely beloved show, but he still represents a way that Asian characters are maligned in white-driven pop culture: White writers are so desperate to avoid racist stereotyping that they deny these characters the prickly layers that are the default mode for their white counterparts. Yeun is not the only supremely talented and charismatic Asian American leading man who was long denied the parts he deserved - hi, Pajiba favourite and future Spike Spiegel, John Cho - but seeing it happen to Yeun on such a scale felt especially unfair. For a while, it felt like the only place you could see Yeun flourish was on Conan, where he got to put his improv training to good use by bouncing off the talk-show host in hilarious banter and visits to the Korean spa. It doesn’t seem all that surprising that the two projects that would finally elevate Yeun to critical greatness - and develop his perfect pop culture boyfriend status - would be ones that operated outside of the typical Hollywood system.
Burning, directed by Lee Chang-dong, is adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami and was the first South Korean film to make the longlist for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars (although it ultimately wasn’t nominated). The story is a languid and unnerving exploration of slacker 20-somethings, their economic anxiety, and the desperate search for identity. In it, Yeun plays Ben, an enigmatic traveller who Shin Hae-mi (played by Jeon Jong-seo) meets and introduces to her childhood friend Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in). The jealousy on Jong-su’s part is evident, and for the audience, it’s completely understandable. For the first hour of Burning’s 148 minute running time, the movie is basically that ‘You Versus That Guy She Told You Not To Worry About’ meme. Ben is ridiculously handsome and completely aware of his allure at every moment. He has deliberately created an enigmatic persona that positions him as both mysterious and completely irresistible. It’s tough to portray a man who hides everything from himself but creates allure through that unknown nature rather than aggravation, and Yeun pulls it off with absolute ease. Whether Ben is a murdering narcissistic genius or just a spoiled brat who’s never had to struggle a day in his life, Yeun ensures that the magnetic charm that makes him so enthralling remains at the forefront, but not in such a way that distracts from the unease he radiates. Indeed, that’s partly why you can’t resist him, even when you know what he may have done. He’s a man playing the role of the perfect boyfriend, right up until the perfection starts to bore him. Sure, Ben may not be the pop culture perfect boyfriend you want for obvious reasons, but seeing an examination of that fantasy as embodied by Yeun is a fascinating dissection of something we fetishize constantly, as played by an actor who previously was reduced to beige-ness. It’s no wonder he received so much critical acclaim and awards buzz for his work.
On the flipside of Yeun’s Perfect Boyfriend year, we have Tuca and Bertie. It escapes nobody that one of Yeun’s funniest, warmest, and most engaging roles involves you never seeing his face, alas. His comic timing has always been sharp - watch those Conan interviews for proof - but that he manages to retain it so effectively through voice alone is an underappreciated talent. Like Ben in Burning, Speckle is a particular shade of pop culture perfection seen through a sharper lens than one is used to. If Burning dissects it, then Tuca and Bertie offers it as a comfort that still does not ease one’s anxieties. Pop culture is full of perfect girlfriends for troubled dudes in comedy and drama alike, but the gender-switched equivalent is far less common.
Of course, playing perfection comes with its own pitfalls. It’s another route towards that overwhelming sense of beige that Yeun discussed previously. As with many actors of colour who are the only representation of their entire race in a major series, film, or other such pop culture phenomenon, the pressure to be everything to everyone is immense:
‘That’s why it was beige. Because he was meant to be the heart of that show [The Walking Dead]. When you look back, you go, “That’s great, everyone wants to be represented that way. Why wouldn’t you want to be a perfect being?” But I don’t wanna [play] perfect, because we’re not perfect. And that’s a thing that I wasn’t able to feel for a while, because I was holding up this ideal that was way bigger than me, way larger than any single human can possibly do. I became less and less interested in doing that.’
Playing perfection can be dull and smothering at the best of times, and I can imagine it’s a hell of a lot more complicated when you’re the only Asian guy in the room and there’s a whole level of fetishistic stereotyping to be avoided. That’s what makes the unlikely double bill of Burning and Tuca and Bertie so invigorating for Yeun fans: It’s perfection with all the bullsh*t added back in! I hope this streak of great roles continues for him, perfect or otherwise (hey Marvel, your Shang-Chi is right over here!)
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