Halfway through Burning, Lee Chang-Dong’s film based off of Haruki Murakami’s “Barn Burning,” protagonist Jong-soo (Ah-In Yoo) takes out his lighter and touches it to the corner of a flap of plastic on a greenhouse. It lights up almost immediately and Jong-soo panics, grabbing the corner and stomping it underfoot before the whole building—and the dead brush around it—lights up in flames. What started as a moment of impulsive frustration has turned into a moment of panic. As he is in so much of the film, Jong-soo is walking the blurred line between wanting to stop something from happening and needing to know what it looks like.
This South Korean film takes the ambiguous, surreal ethos of Murakami’s “Barn Burning,” and adds new scenes to stretch the narrative into a feature-length thriller. It centers around Jong-soo, an emotionally distant and unreliable protagonist—the same kind of disaffected male youth that Murakami’s works so frequently center on—and Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon), the woman he falls in love with. Their relationship is complicated by the entrance of a young wealthy man named Ben, played by the film’s most recognizable talent, Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead, Sorry to Bother You). Ben, Jong-soo, and Hae-mi fall into a sort of love triangle. Then Hae-mi disappears.
Jong-soo is an incredibly difficult character to watch because he’s wholly unable to communicate. He has aspirations to write a novel but can’t bring himself to start. He tends to his father’s home, which we learn is right beside the DMZ in a sort of desolate no-mans land. He never directly confronts anyone or vocalizes his frustrations even as he is tortured by Ben’s wealth. He frequently wakes up soaked in sweat, in moments that demarcate time and make it difficult for the viewer to understand whether something really happened. He never tells Hae-mi how he feels about her. Jong-Soo’s numbness makes him nearly impossible to empathize with, especially as we see his rage begin to bubble over.
Hae-mi doesn’t give viewers someone to empathize with either. She’s flirtatious but tender—a manic pixie dream girl whose objecthood precedes her personhood, much like the other unobtainable women of Murakami’s works. Her dialogue is often contradictory; it isn’t clear whether she’s telling the truth or lying, and eventually, whether she is gone or not. During their first meal out, she pantomimes peeling and eating tangerines for so long it looks almost believable. At this point she tells Jong-soo, “What you do isn’t make yourself believe that there are tangerines there. You forget that the tangerines are not there. That’s all.”
So much of the story is not believing something is there but rather forgetting something is not there. It turns a challenging film into a generational allegory: Coping with millennial malaise involves that same kind of forgetting—forgetting that you are empty, forgetting the anger that accompanies a generation that is so stagnant. In an interview with VICE, director Lee Chang-Dong explained:
It’s not clear exactly how to move forward—it’s all a mystery, and it’s what’s central to 'Burning.' But because you don’t know the source of the mystery, you get even angrier. In the old days, if you had a problem, you shared that problem. For example, in Korea, the cause could have been the fact that democratization hadn’t happened yet or economic inequality; everyone had the same problems. But now, that’s not the case—problems are more individualized. Because the problems are trapped within the individuals, for instance, Jongsu is poor and seems to be trapped in a hopeless situation, and then there’s Ben, who has everything, drives a Porsche, makes his own pasta—but he still has this emptiness. Everyone has their own reasons for being angry.
Ben, who is part of the same generation as Jong-soo and Hae-mi, doesn’t have the same problems of ennui and frustration, at least not on the surface. He’s a South Korean Gatsby, charming on the surface, but there is something “off” about him. Burning never gives you enough to work with to know exactly what’s wrong, but he’s distant, impenetrable, and, it emerges, his hobby is burning down greenhouses every two months. He tells Jong-soo that his next target is nearby, and that it has been two months since his last act of arson.
Jong-soo quickly grows obsessed with finding out which greenhouse Ben may have burned down, to the point where he finally tests out his lighter to see what it feels like. These acts of violence have a strange, almost dreamlike logic to them, and the rage and tension the film conjures up never resolve into catharsis—there is simply too much ambiguity. Whatever passion drives the characters feels ineffectual and impotent, much like the characters themselves.
And even as it departs pretty radically from its source material, the film maintains the somnambulant ethos of a Murakami work. Unlike a classic thriller that creates suspense by dropping clues that lead up to a big reveal, Burning trundles along without ever releasing tension, unfurling like a tangerine peeled in neat spiral. Shots linger for an exceptionally long time, especially those where Jong-soo is doing something where he might get caught. Each scene is calibrated to marginally increase this sensation of dread and to keep you teetering on the edge of discomfort. Despite the title, it is a slow simmer, never a conflagration.
By the end, nearly every element in the film remains ambiguous and unresolved. Is it a dream or was it real? How did Ben amass his fortune? What did Jong-soo’s father do? What happened to Hae-mi? In so many ways this film—and so many of Murakami’s works—leaves you with fewer answers than you began with. It is the perfect millennial opus, one that gets at the class warfare and economic stagnation that plague our generation.
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