Following his eye-popping demise in The Walking Dead, Korean-American actor Steven Yeun is back fighting a different kind of virus in a new horror movie called Mayhem. Helmed by director Joe Lynch, the film follows Derek Cho as he fights to survive an outbreak at work, one that threatens to take both his job and his life. Instead of unleashing your run-of-the-mill zombies though, this infection simply removes all inhibitions, encouraging each office drone to live out their most violent and sexual desires.
At its heart, Mayhem is a blood-splattered exploitation flick that brings a wicked sense of humor to the table, providing catharsis for all of the disgruntled workers out there who have ever been stepped on by the man upstairs. With its killer soundtrack and a fondness for nail guns, Mayhem is a delirious ride from start to finish, but there's so much more to Yeun's journey than just simple vengeance.
Derek Cho-se To Fight Back
When we first meet Derek Cho, our downtrodden hero wants nothing more than just some respect and his favorite coffee mug returned to him. A quick montage shot in an elevator effectively conveys how the corporate environment has sapped the joy out of Cho. All that's left of him is the kind of lifeless husk that Glenn fought in The Walking Dead before he met Lucille head-on for the last time.
It's not long though before Cho is emboldened by the "red-eye" virus, safe in the knowledge that any crimes committed during the infection stage can be dismissed in a court of law. With the help of an initially resentful client called Melanie Cross (Samara Weaving), Derek channels all of his surprised rage into a violent frenzy, making use of whatever office supplies he can find to despatch those who stand in the way of him and his boss.
In the wrong hands, Cho's evolution from push-over to office warrior could have felt somewhat contrived, but Steven Yeun is perfect in the role, channeling the charisma of Glenn from The Walking Dead with surprising relatability. Even when he's hacking away at colleagues with rusted office supplies, audiences continue rooting for Derek, no matter how depraved he becomes — and much of that is down to Yeun's breakout performance on the big screen.
Steven Yeun Represents A New Kind Of Hero
Among the various Asian stereotypes and awkward instances of whitewashing that plague Hollywood, Steven Yeun's starring role in Mayhem is a genuine game-changer, although the progressive nature of the film may be lost among all of the bloodshed. As the lack of love for scary movies during awards season can attest to, horror is rarely considered with the same respect as other genres, despite its inherently progressive outlook.
Aside from Yeun's turn in Mayhem, the majority of Asian-American roles that appear on our screens continue to promote sweeping generalizations that suggest these actors are only capable of playing walking stereotypes. Just take a look at the likes of Han (Matthew Moy) on 2 Broke Girls or Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe), from Sixteen Candles. Often emasculated, Asian men are typically depicted as either geeks or kung-fu warriors in Hollywood while women fare even worse, reduced to sexual or submissive characters that are characterized as nothing more than geishas or dragon women.
According to The Guardian, a fairly recent UCLA report revealed that 49 of the top 100 films released in 2015 didn't include a single Asian character... and as for the rest? Not one starred in a leading role. It's no wonder then that Thai-American actor Pun Bandhu expressed his frustration at the lack of opportunities for actors in his position, explaining to the outlet that:
“We’re the information givers. We’re the geeks. We’re the prostitutes. We’re so sick and tired of seeing ourselves in those roles.”
As if that weren't disheartening enough, Quartz notes that even racially progressive films such as Get Out still fall short when it comes to the portrayal of their Asian characters, often lumping negative stereotypes together into stock characters. This then is exactly why Steven Yeun's career trajectory is so impressive.
Steven Yeun Is Causing The Right Kind Of Mayhem In Hollywood
After winning fans over on #TheWalkingDead and impressing fans in the South Korean movie Okja, Yeun's starring role in Mayhem is truly revolutionary, depicting an Asian-American lead in three-dimensional terms. Derek Cho may start out as an exploited employee, but by the end of the film, his transformation is both astounding and believable, empowering audiences as his character revels in a newfound strength. When's the last time that you saw an Asian-American lead triumph over adversity and even win the girl by the end of the movie?
While it's woefully disappointing that these roles remain few and far between, it's still worth celebrating the fact that real-life Asian-Americans are finally starting to see themselves represented more on screen despite the persistence of whitewashing. During an interview with Vulture, #StevenYeun discussed how things are improving in this regard, although Hollywood still has a long way to go in terms of representation:
"I think we’re finally getting there, but it took time, because at a certain point, we had to apologize to survive. You look back at that lens and go, “That’s so fucked up, what they did in the past!” and it really was a different time."
Unfortunately, Yeun acknowledges that even his role as Glenn on The Walking Dead wasn't always fleshed out fully, often defined instead through his relationships with others. It seems then that the key to improving Asian-American representation on screen is a question of balance:
"A greater part of the argument is that we have to find this balance of the beauty of the collective of our Asian-American-ness, and wanting to show that in its best light, but also, not painting yourself without the broader stroke of who you are... I’m so different from you, and you’re so different from me. I offer a unique perspective of me."
Starring roles matter, but they need to be varied, portraying Asian-Americans as the rounded individuals they are across a range of genres. Mayhem is commendable in this respect, but we still have a long way to go before Asian-American audiences no longer feel the same kind of frustrations that plague Yeun's character at the start of the movie.
Mayhem will be released in select theaters alongside VOD and digital HD on November 10 before later making its debut on Shudder. What did you think of Mayhem? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!