Before he became the most vital director of the Korean film renaissance, Lee Chang-dong was a successful novelist, and the most penetrating aspect of his movies is their unpredictable but nevertheless natural plot developments. In his two best films, Oasis (2002) and Poetry (2010), he sets up simple storylines that stress character interactions and then tests those interactions by setting off catastrophes that are both shocking and seemingly inevitable. Consequently, the melodrama that is so intrinsic to the Korean cinema sensibility feels neither sentimental nor contrived, making for the purest catharsis.
Burning is Lee’s first film as a director in 8 years, and this time he adapts someone else’s work, a short story by Haruki Murakami, which I haven’t read. Reportedly, Lee took the basic idea of the story, written in the early 90s, and made it relevant to South Korea right now. If the movie differs appreciably from his earlier work, it’s in the way he plays with thriller elements that may have been inherent in Murakami’s story. The most common complaint about Burning the film is the way the “mystery” propelling the plot is or isn’t resolved, and thus the motivations of the protagonist, a young, ineffectual would-be novelist named Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), remain unknown, though it doesn’t take a big leap of imagination to guess what those motivations are.
As with most Lee protagonists, Jong-su’s inner life is initially characterized as being inert. His annoying countenance usually presents an open mouth and eyes that rove as if trying desperately to make sense of his surroundings. He rarely responds to stimuli, spoken or otherwise, giving the impression he’s slow on the uptake. And yet, as he explains to Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo), an old classmate he runs into while delivering merchandise to a department store where Hae-mi is doing promotional work in leather miniskirt and boots, he attended college where he studied creative writing. If no one seems surprised at this calling, it’s probably because no one seems to believe it. How could this guy, so incurious, make fictional worlds?
Jong-su could simply be an empty vessel, and one night of sex with Hae-mi gives him at least some sort of goal, which is to make her fall in love with him. She goes to Africa in an ambitious bid to learn about a certain tribe she’s read about, and while she’s gone he takes care of her cat, an animal he never sees, and masturbates in her empty apartment while thinking about her. However, when she returns, she’s with Ben (Steven Yeun), a rich, handsome, internationally savvy dude who befriended her overseas. Jong-su can’t quite get a handle on their relationship—are they lovers, just friends, or something in between? Jong-su obviously sees Ben as a rival, and not just for Hae-mi’s affections.
Plotwise, there isn’t much beyond this threeway dance of meaning, but when Hae-mi disappears without a trace, Jong-su falls into an obsessive pattern of stalking Ben and sinking deeper into his own fancies, which are opaque to the viewer even if Lee attempts to visualize them to a certain extent. The director’s game is to widen the socioeconomic gap between Jong-su and Ben without ever having either character comment on it, unless you consider Jong-su’s description of his rival as a “Gatsby” to be criticism. Actually, what he says is that there are a lot of Gatsbys in Korea these days, a situation that seems to perplex him, a lower middle class, marginally employed individual living for free on his family’s farm while his volatile father is tried for assault. Like his stalled literary career (we never see Jong-su write anything except a petition for leniency for his father), the social milieu of Burning feels stuck in neutral. No one and nothing seems to be going anywhere, including Ben, who doesn’t work and spends most of his days lounging around his high-rent Seoul pad, tooling aimlessly in his Porsche, and entertaining friends, many of whom are similar in demeanor to Hae-mi—or maybe that’s just us looking at them through Jong-su’s eyes.
This, to me, is Lee’s comfort zone, an ambiguous moral environment where one’s sense of right and wrong is a matter of improvisation, but if the characters in Lee’s past films eventually reached a state of grace without necessarily achieving happiness, Jong-su falls on the other side of the divide, and this would seem to be the Murakami effect. Certainly, the seminal scene where Ben, after smoking some weed, confesses to Jong-su that his hobby is burning down derelict greenhouses, feels straight out of Murakami, and Lee seems to accept that non sequitur as a challenge; not just in terms of fitting it into the plot, but in making it the central motif in a movie that smolders rather than burns—until the end, that is, when all bets are off.
In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001).
Burning home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2018 Pinehouse Film Co., Ltd.