By Jordan Cronk
Published in Cinema Scope 75 (Summer 2018)
In the eight years since Poetry premiered at Cannes, narrative cinema of the sort that director Lee Chang-dong specializes in has hit a fallow period unseen in decades. Coincidence, perhaps, but one need not look much further than the festival’s interceding Competition line-ups, traditionally rounded out with at least nominally dramatic narrative films, to sense an unfortunate lapse in competent (which is to say competently cinematic) storytelling. Indeed, even the most fruitful of current trends, most predicated on some hybrid variant of fiction and nonfiction filmmaking, have managed to grow familiar, if not altogether tiresome, in the interim. As if on cue, Lee’s long-awaited sixth feature, Burning, arrived in Competition at Cannes to remind viewers just how complacent narrative cinema has grown in recent years, and to reconfirm the South Korean auteur as arguably one of the world’s great dramatic storytellers. It promptly won zero awards. (Time will likely look more favorably upon the independent FIPRESCI jury, who awarded the film its top prize.)
Based on the short story “Barn Burning” by Japanese author Murakami Haruki, Lee’s latest internalizes many of its source writer’s traits and thematic preoccupations. Foregoing much of the openly emotional and productively melodramatic flourishes of his past work, Burning is Lee’s most cerebral, psychologically engrossing film to date, a moral tale in the guise of a thriller that finds the filmmaker and former novelist bending the rules of genre to more readily resemble allegorical fiction. In transposing Murakami’s modest ten-page story about a struggling young writer who slowly loses his love interest to a mysterious stranger with a penchant for arson, Lee has refashioned a number of the cultural and psychoanalytic elements that he explored in the decades-spanning Peppermint Candy (1999) into a distinctly contemporary meditation on the sociopolitical forces plaguing Korean youth. If Lee has rarely been this topical, he’s also never been quite this formally and stylistically mischievous, utilizing the narrative’s sociological particulars to engage a number of dramatic devices that continually upend readings of the film’s metaphoric premise.
Lee and co-screenwriter Oh Jung-mi expand considerably on Murakami’s story, tweaking the details and broadening the scope of this three-character drama to suit the cultural nuances of the director’s reimagining, while bringing the film closer to a traditional three-act structure. Relocated from Japan to South Korea, the adaptation opens with the chance meeting of Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in), a wayward aspiring novelist, and Haemi (Jun Jong-seo), an advertising model with an interest in pantomime. Former grade-school classmates, Jongsu and Haemi exchange a few pleasantries outside a suburban Paju storefront and soon head to the latter’s apartment for an afternoon tryst. (In the original story, the extent of Jongsu and Haemi’s relationship is left at “friends,” while a ten-year age gap and Jongsu’s marriage leave each character’s motives intriguingly ambiguous.) Immediately taken with his companion’s carefree spirit, Jongsu agrees when Haemi asks him to cat-sit her beloved feline Boil during her upcoming sojourn to Africa. While Haemi is gone, Jongsu dutifully tends to Boil, though the cat is curiously never seen, even as his food and water is in regular need of replenishment, the first of many abnormalities that haunt the periphery of the narrative.
When Haemi returns, she’s not alone. Accompanying her upon her arrival at the airport, where Jongsu eagerly awaits, is Ben (Korean-American actor Steven Yeun), a well-to-do young man whose good looks and flashy Porsche make Jongsu feel inadequate and, worse yet, altogether ordinary by comparison. What transpires from here is less a love triangle (Haemi seems to have made up her mind between the two men well before her return to Paju) than a battle of wills. Ben, whose Americanized name confirms a distinct class division between him and the other characters, is everything that Jongsu is not: confident, suave, rich, and successful. (“How does he live like this at his age?” Jongsu asks Haemi, who, with considerable credit-card debt of her own, seems as unclear as anybody about Ben’s actual source of income.) This otherwise unspoken but deeply felt division between classes soon becomes the narrative’s driving force; with an absent mother and a father awaiting trial for assaulting a police officer, Jongsu is left to maintain the family farm, where he spends much of his time after Ben and Haemi begin dating.
And yet Jongsu is intrigued by Ben, seduced by his effortless charm and nonchalant outlook on life. In the film’s centrepiece sequence, an extended scene set at Jongsu’s farm near the Demilitarized Zone on the border of North and South Korea (actual propaganda announcements can be heard over loudspeakers in the distance), the three characters share a (very illegal) joint as the sun sets over the horizon. With philosophical poise, Ben describes an unexpected hobby: burning greenhouses. Every couple of months, he admits, he sets fire to one, not because of some moral imperative to do so but rather as an act to maintain a sense of balance in an inherently volatile environment. “There’s no right or wrong, just the morals of nature,” Ben justifies. Contradictory though his statements may be, this notion fosters a reckoning within Jongsu, which in turn prompts a breach in the film’s narrative fabric, epitomized by a show-stopping moment immediately following in which Haemi removes herself from the conversation and dances topless as the autumnal glow of the setting sun washes over the hilltops and Miles Davis’ score for Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (1958) plays on the soundtrack. A similar set of disruptions and abstractions, each visualized with precise compositional care by Lee and cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, will punctuate much of the remaining story, which utilizes the mysterious disappearance of Haemi that concludes Murakami’s original as a structuring absence around which to build a third act that entwines the fates of Jongsu and Ben through a tragic series of events.
More than a half-century before Murakami wrote “Barn Burning,” William Faulkner explored similar thematic ground in a 1939 short story of the same name, an association Lee not only acknowledges but also works into his film. Jongsu is a Faulkner enthusiast, and his outspoken passion encourages Ben to seek out one of the Nobel Prize laureate’s novels. Like the film’s wider kinship with the world of Murakami—certain plot elements, such as the cat, a frequent presence in Murakami’s work, are not present in the original story—the Faulkner connection runs deeper than a shared title. While of a vastly different time and milieu, Lee’s adaptation shares a bit of the Gothic drama and sociopolitical specificity of Faulkner’s work, suggesting a kind of tripartite correspondence between three writers of disparate backgrounds, each preoccupied with a sense of alienation in their respective cultures. What Lee has done so expertly with Burning is locate a cinematic correlate for this unspoken affliction. The act of arson itself might be a fairly straightforward metaphor, a stand-in for Jongsu’s mounting rage and resentment, but Lee gives shape to this metaphor through a gripping fusion of narrative elisions and aesthetic abstractions, turning notions of intent, implication, and even identity into questions of immense moral and creative consequence. With Burning, Lee’s words find powerful new form.
Cinema Scope: I understand that you wrote and discarded two scripts in the eight years since Poetry. Is that correct?
Lee Chang-dong: It’s true that I worked on several scenarios in the course of these eight years. I spent time brainstorming with Oh Jung-mi, the co-screenwriter of Burning, and we completed three screenplays over that time. If you read the scripts, they’re probably not bad, but I wasn’t really confident that they had to be made into films.
Scope: How did you come to Murakami’s short story, and what about it inspired you to want to adapt it for the screen?
Lee: It started when the Japanese television network NHK commissioned me to adapt a short story into a movie. At first I thought I’d produce the film and hire a young filmmaker to direct it, but when I read “Barn Burning” I was very attracted to the minimalism of the storytelling and its mysteriousness. It seemed it would allow me a lot of room to develop it into cinema.
Scope: In the past, when first developing certain projects, you’ve often written short, novella-like treatments of your own, before writing the actual screenplays. Was that also the case with Burning, and how do these treatments work with regards to the actors and your other collaborators?
Lee: Yes. With Burning it started with a short synopsis, and then developed into an extensive treatment. But as I developed the treatment it began to more and more resemble the actual screenplay. In some cases I do show the actors these treatments, but only in cases when the actor, because of his or her busy schedule, has to see the story before I can actually finish the script.
Scope: Is it when these treatments don’t organically begin to resemble screenplays that you decide they aren’t worth pursuing as films, as you did with the three scripts you just mentioned? Or does something else become of them?
Lee: It is not easy to come up with a treatment that organically develops into a scenario, but that’s not what stops me from making them into films. As a certain idea begins to take shape, I continue to question, “Does this story have to be made into a film?” And I often lose faith in my answer. Regarding the three screenplays, many people encouraged me to make them into films, but I ended up deciding against it. It could be me being over-particular.
Scope: Burning seems to represent a slight shift in approach to your material, from the openly emotional to the more psychological. Was the story’s psychological dimension something that drew you to the text?
Lee: There’s definitely a psychological dimension to the story that attracted me. Especially the suspicions of the main character, Jongsu––they almost grow into obsession and paranoia. And that aspect could be derived from the repressed anger, or anxiousness, of the character. That’s what first drew me to the story.
Scope: Was there also a desire to utilize this material to explore a new genre? The film seems to take pleasure with the narrative potential afforded the mystery or thriller genre—with the unseen cat, for example, or the unexplained phone calls.
Lee: I did of course want to explore the mystery genre. In most cases in the mystery genre, the mystery is solved by the end. However, I wanted to keep the mystery unresolved, so as to signify the mysteries in the real world we live in. Moreover, I wanted the film to keep the audience on the edge of their seats, by deriving suspense from the very small aspects of our daily lives, such as the cat, the phone calls, or the well, rather than a horrific incident or a murder, which are typical mystery-genre conventions.
Scope: The film extends beyond the scope of the short story. Can you talk a bit about the liberties you took with the source material and how you conceptualized the remaining narrative, which accounts for much of the second half of the film?
Lee: The story starts out with a question: Who is Ben? And that’s basically the question that drives the story. What I wanted the latter half of the film to really do is raise the question: Who is Jongsu? Because in the end this question is connected to the questions surrounding Ben.
Scope: Would you say that in attempting to learn about these two characters is where the film’s class critique comes into play?
Lee: In Korea, as in much of the world, there really isn’t that much distinction between the classes—or at least between the classes represented by Jongsu and Ben. For example, even middle-class people such as Jongsu don’t think they’re very different from the upper class. People who work at convenience stores, or work several part-time jobs, even though they don’t make much money, they still try and wear nice clothes, high-end brands. And while the living conditions of these people can be very different, the lifestyles of young people are changing, and there are less obvious distinctions between the classes as a result.
Scope: But Jongsu believes there’s a difference between himself and Ben. At one point he compares Ben to Gatsby—this perceived difference seems to be partly fuelling his paranoia.
Lee: I didn’t necessarily want to depict the conflict between the two classes, but rather wanted to show how it is felt. Jongsu is jobless and doesn’t have a bright future—or at least he thinks he doesn’t have a bright future—and Ben is very sophisticated, kind, and generous. In this way Jongsu almost feels like Ben could be the object of his rage, or the person toward whom he could direct his rage—he being a kind of reason for his hopeless situation. In the past, one’s reasons for rage were more obvious, but nowadays these reasons are not clear. People direct their rage at many different objects. Jongsu’s suspicion of Ben—especially his suspicion of him as a serial murderer—could be the expression of this rage, because Jongsu feels intimidated by Ben’s presence.
Scope: Yoo Ah-in gives a striking performance as Jongsu—his somewhat expressionless face yet deeply pained eyes convey so much about the character. What were you looking for in an actor to portray such a troubled character, one the audience is ostensibly supposed to identify with?
Lee: Yoo Ah-in has played characters with strong personalities in other movies, in which he offered emotionally charged performances. This is why I thought it’d be interesting to see him play Jongsu. I always encouraged him to just feel the character. I believe that an actor’s reaction is more important than the action. Jongsu is a sensitive character who observes the world as someone aspiring to be a writer. He has anger bottled up inside him, but at the same time feels frustration at his impotence. If the actor could feel such precarious sensitivity, frustration, and the sizzling anger, I believe that the audience can feel that too.
Scope: Murakami’s short story of course also shares a title and certain narrative elements with the William Faulkner story, and you work Faulkner into the film’s plot. How do you see Faulkner’s story in relation to the film you’ve made?
Lee: The influence of Faulkner’s story is as important as that of Murakami’s. I personally believe this film is a “story of young Faulkner living in the age of Murakami.” Just like the young boy in Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” Jongsu lives with the pain and anger weighed upon him by his father, and looks at the smooth, sophisticated, and ever-convenient postmodern world—the world in which something seems wrong, but where the exact problems remain as mysteries.
Scope: One of the film’s most memorable locations is Jongsu’s family farm on the border of North and South Korea, near the Demilitarized Zone. What was the thinking behind utilizing this location, and what was the experience like shooting there?
Lee: From a technical standpoint it was difficult because we could hear the North Korean propaganda broadcasts over the loudspeakers during the shoot. That made it challenging for the sound team, and we had to do a lot of ADR as a result.
Scope: Shooting the scene there where Haemi dances as the sun sets must have been incredibly difficult. Was that sequence conceptualized during production, or was it written into the script?
Lee: The dance scene was in the screenplay. I think it’s the most pivotal scene in the film. It’s meant to capture a woman seeking the meaning of life between these two men. What I really focused on was the choreography. I didn’t want Jong-seo to practice or have her steps blocked in a certain way, but rather I wanted to capture her spontaneous movements. That was the most challenging part, because those movements weren’t planned.
Scope: When did you decide to soundtrack the scene with the Miles Davis piece from Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, and what inspired the pairing?
Lee: I, too, like the film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, and that particular piece is one of my favourites from Miles Davis. But most of all, I loved the title, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud—Elevator to the Gallows. I felt that the title itself had built-up tension, and added to the ominous atmosphere of the film.
Scope: The film’s original music, by Mowg, is equally beautiful and increasingly ominous, even atonal at times. Can you talk about how the music was conceived, and how you worked with Mowg to develop the appropriate sonic atmosphere?
Lee: Mowg has been producing music for a lot of commercial films, including films by director Kim Jee-woon. Typically, music plays a subordinate role to a scene, amplifying emotions. But I wanted the music in Burning to feel as if it was independent from the film, and that’s what I asked of Mowg. I also wanted the music to feel like a “noise” rather than a “melody,” but at the same time communicate emotion of its own. I thought that such unfamiliar music that conjures up strange emotion would mesh well with the mysterious atmosphere this film tries to convey. The music first started from a few concepts that were made based on the dailies and the footage of a few scenes, as well as the screenplay. I selected one concept from the few they suggested, and we fine-tuned different parts of this music to fit each scene.
Scope: This is Jun Jong-seo’s first film role. Where did you find her, and what did she bring as far as look or personality that you felt would be right for the character of Haemi?
Lee: Jun Jong-seo has no prior experience in acting, and this was actually her very first audition. Perhaps I was unconsciously drawn to the fact that everything was a “first time” for her. Also, she has a face that makes people wonder what she’s feeling and thinking. I think that made her a good fit for Haemi’s character.
Scope: The dance scene I mentioned earlier is one of many scenes in the film that appear to break from realism and adopt the perspective or mindset of a particular character, only to reorient back around the central drama. Did the film’s form develop during the production, with your cinematographer, or did you have a clear outline of how the film would look and operate from the start?
Lee: The very first two scenes that came to my mind when I sat down to discuss the story with the screenwriter were the dance scene and the final scene of the film. These images were the catalysts that inspired me to create this film. And for that reason, it was very important for me how these scenes were going to be presented. The dance scene, which is situated in the centre of the film, blends all different elements of the film into one scene: the reality with fantasy, the light with the darkness, the ugly with the beautiful, the happy with the sinister. Both the director of photography and I prepared the shoot so that the scene was not filmed in a technically smooth or calculated way, but in an organic way that communicated spontaneity. The final product was a work of pure, unintended luck and timing, rather than our precise calculation.
Scope: Ben’s notion of “the morals of nature” seems to have a double meaning—nature being either human nature or one’s given environment.
Lee: That line could be interpreted many ways. It could just be Ben talking nonsense when he’s high, or it could be interpreted as a philosophically deep observation. Through that line I hoped to portray Ben as someone who could be delusional—deluded into thinking he’s God, or God-like. It’s meant to raise the tension of the film.
Scope: The film ends with this tension giving way to catharsis, at least for the audience. Jongsu, on the other hand, might finally be able to start writing his novel, but he seems fated to be haunted by his actions. Would you consider Burning to be a moral tale, or otherwise a film meant to engender an ethical response or reckoning in the viewer?
Lee: While this story follows the question,“Who is Ben?”, I wanted the audience to raise a question by the end of the film about “Who is Jongsu?” I wanted his nudity in the final scene, which reminds us of a newborn baby, and his fear and unknown emotions that overwhelm him, to convey a certain cinematic question to the viewers: What will become of him? What is he going to do?
And this is also connected to the novel Jongsu tries to write. What kind novel will he write about the mysterious world? And what kind of stories do we desire? Such questions are inescapably ethical and moral, and often political, and could just be in the realm of a pure cinematic imagination.