South Korean audiences have turned out in force for Burning (버닝), the latest feature from Lee Chang-dong, which opened here the day after it played at Cannes. Its success so far doesn’t come as a surprise, due not just to the strong buzz generated (albeit not from a Palme d’Or win) at the festival, but the combined enthusiasm of two separate but dedicated fan bases as well. Lee, one of the most respected Korean filmmakers alive, hasn’t made a film since 2010’s Poetry (시). His latest comes based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, a Japanese writer quite popular worldwide but especially so here. This cinematic adaptation — and considerable expansion — not only conjures up a suitably uncanny Murakamian mood, but also makes use of a few of his signature tropes: a vanishing cat, a dried-up well.
Murakami’s casual readers will already be chuckling in recognition, but his hardcore fans, who know that Burning takes as its basis the story “Barn Burning” (originally published in 1992, as translated by Philip Gabriel, in the New Yorker), may feel confused: that work counts among his few that involve neither a cat nor a well. Lee and his collaborators have thus, on one level, taken a Murakami story and, in expanding its scant 10 pages into nearly two and a half hours, made it more Murakamiesque. But they’ve also Koreanized it, using Korean settings, Korean characters, and intensely Korean themes. Lee, who in his 60s remains enough of an angry young man to repeatedly title his works-in-progress “Project Rage,” has imbued Murakami’s observant disaffection with simmering, ultimately explosive anger.
“I met her at the wedding party of an acquaintance and we got friendly,” begins Murakami’s story as translated by Alfred Birnbaum in the collection The Elephant Vanishes. The narrator is a married 31-year-old writer; the girl, a 23-year-old pantomime student and part-time ad model. Her “guileless simplicity” attracts “the kind of men who had only to set eyes on this simplicity of hers before they’d be dressing it up with whatever feelings they held inside.” But not so much the narrator, who simply invites her out to eat or drink with her once or twice a month, picking up the bill every time. Only in her presence, he realized, can he truly relax: “I’d forget all about work I didn’t want to do and trivial things that’d never be settled anyway and the crazy mixed-up ideas that crazy mixed-up people had taken into their heads. It was some kind of power she had.”
Eventually she comes into an inheritance, and uses it to travels to Africa. Three months later she returns with a boyfriend in tow, also Japanese, whom she claims to have met at a restaurant in Algeria. As the narrator continues periodically to encounter him, this benignly shady figure — “He told me he worked in trading” — begins to look like a man of means, not least because of his “spotless silver-gray German sports car” that reminds the narrator of something out of a Fellini movie. The boyfriend even manages to procure a bit of marijuana, no mean feat in nearly drug-free Japan, and the three have a smoke in the narrator’s apartment. Only then, with the girl safely passed out, does the boyfriend confesses to the narrator his unusual hobby: “Sometimes I burn barns.”
Readers attuned to Murakami’s fiction will have no problem accepting that line; others may find themselves put off as usual. The narrator, for his part, wants to hear more, first asking the boyfriend the how, and then the why. “There’s a lot of barns in this world,” goes his unhelpful response, “and I’ve got this feeling that they’re all just waiting to be burned.” Does this make him immoral? “In my own way, I’d like to believe I’ve got my own morals. And that’s an extremely important force in human existence. A person can’t exist without morals.” After taking that Nietzschean tack, he then generalizes the point, turning his ostensibly literal barn-burning metaphorical: “What I want to say is, the world is full of these barns. Me, I got my barns, and you got your barns. It’s the truth.”
In the way of so many Murakami’s narrators, this one’s intrigue turns into an obsession. Told by the boyfriend that the next barn he’ll burn lies “very near,” he marks all the local barns on a map and jogs deliberately past all of them each morning thereafter. They still stand two months later, the next time he runs into the boyfriend. He insists that he did burn the barn, but that the narrator missed it: “Things so close up, they don’t even register.” Neither of them have seen the girl lately. The boyfriend, if boyfriend he still is, goes on to tell the narrator how special he thinks the girl, possessed of so little money and so few friends, considered the narrator. “It’s enough to make me kind of jealous. And I’m someone who’s never ever been jealous at all.” But the girl’s phone is disconnected, her apartment locked, her mailbox stuffed with fliers. “Just now and then, in the depths of the night,” admits the narrator a year later, “I’ll think about barns burning to the ground.”
Lee’s film keeps these three characters and their dynamic basically intact, but gives them names and more developed identities. The narrator becomes Jong-soo, a young deliveryman and aspiring writer yet to start work on his first novel. The girl becomes Hae-mi, who spots Jong-soo on the street while dancing outside a shop, one of a skimpily dressed pair, as part of a promotional raffle. (Such displays, I can assure you, aren’t unknown on the sidewalks of Seoul, though Burning makes them seem like an everyday sight.) Hae-mi calls out Jong-soo’s name, but he can’t pace her. She claims that they lived in the same neighborhood back in middle school, and that he commented frankly on her ugliness; the cosmetic surgery she’s since had on her face since explains why he wouldn’t recognize it.
There follows a sex scene of a kind probably not weird enough for a Murakami novel. It does, however, charge the interactions between Jong-soo, Hae-mi, and the boyfriend with whom she emerges from baggage claim upon returning from her subsequent Africa trip. An ostentatiously Westernized Korean in his mid-30s, he introduces himself as “Ben” and drives Hae-mi home from the restaurant they all go to in that silver-gray sports car. (A Porsche, it turns out, which, in a strong suggestion of an American background, he also drives to the gym to run on a treadmill.) The Gangnam coffee shop he hangs out in looks like it belongs in one of the capitals of western Europe, as does his vast Gangnam apartment. There he invites Jong-soo to join him and Hae-mi for a home-cooked pasta dinner, just one of the occasions he actively seeks out Jong-soo’s company despite not apparently having connected with him on any meaningful level.
“There are so many Gatsbys in Korea,” remarks Jong-soo, making the obvious literary connection in his aggrieved astonishment at Ben’s lifestyle. (That connection, notably, goes unmade by Murakami, though he has publicly discussed his love of Fitzgerald’s novel and even produced a Japanese translation himself.) Playing the Gatsby is Steven Yeun, a Korean-American actor well known for his work on the zombie television series The Walking Dead. He has also, in recent years, taken on cultural-bridge roles: Conan O’Brien’s Virgil on his visit to Korea, a radical animal-rights group’s unprofessional translator in Bong Joon-ho’s transpacific spectacle Okja. In both he got laughs playing up his imperfect grasp of Korean ways, linguistic and otherwise, but in Burning he speaks with what sounds to my admittedly non-native ears like impeccable Korean — impeccable, that is, but for its conspicuously numerous English loanwords.
While “Barn Burning” made little of the class difference between the narrator and the boyfriend, or perceived little such difference in the first place, Burning highlights it at every chance. Class signals, in Korea more so than Japan, tend to involve performative adoption of foreign characteristics: long ago of Chinese, then of Japanese, and now of Westerners, all underscoring one’s distance from rural Korean life. Jong-soo, by contrast, goes back and forth between his hole in the wall in Seoul and the dilapidated family farm up in the border town of Paju, forced to look after it with his violent father trapped in the courts. (Yoo Ah-in, who plays Jong-soo, has a reputation for volatility himself, albeit one expressed mostly in online spats over his views on matters like feminism and Korea’s #MeToo movement.) There, well within shouting distance of North Korea’s propaganda speakers, Ben brings out the joint and tells Jong-soo of his avidity for — wooden barns being uncommon in Korea — burning down greenhouses.
Themes of class conflict have lately appeared in a wide swath of Korean cinema, not just the kind of independent movies you’d expect to criticize society from the margins but big-studio, big-budget special-effects showcases as well. The productions that fall somewhere in the middle, such as Yeon Sang-ho’s recent zombie-apocalypse-on-rails picture Train to Busan (부산행), do an especially entertaining job with them. Most if not all of Lee’s films, marketed globally as art-house material, have been received as direct critiques of his homeland: 2000’s Peppermint Candy (박하사탕), for example, which underwent a small-scale theatrical revival before the release of Burning, traces the life an idealistic student turned amoral and eventually insane by enduring military service under the dictatorship of the 1980s and then the economic disaster of the late 1990s.
That character represented the experiences of the large and influential Korean generation born in the early 1960s, a cohort someone of Jong-soo’s age would nevertheless resent for having it so easy. This mirrors the generational resentment felt by many struggling American Millennials against their parents, the Baby Boomers, who similarly came up in a fast-growing economy. Just this month the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis published a study finding Americans born in the 1980s, which covers most of the Millennial demographic, to be the country’s economically worst-off living generation. No few observers have publicly wondered when and how, still dealing with roommates and student-loan payments deep into their 30s, they’ll finally take out the anxiety and frustration with which they have long seethed. And on whom: are the Boomers really the enemy, or are their peers in Silicon Valley, quite a few of them millionaires and even billionaires?
Maybe, like many a Murakami character, they’ll resign themselves to their fate. “Every morning, I still run past those five barns,” says the narrator of “Barn Burning” near the story’s end. “Not one of them has yet burned down. Nor do I hear of any barn fires. Come December, the birds strafe overhead. And I keep getting older.” No such placid reflections for Jong-soo, in whom both a misplaced devotion to Hae-mi and a hatred of the outwardly friendly Ben grow to enormous proportions. Despite the addition of the mysterious cat and well, and other such Murakamian touches as the music of Miles Davis and a reference to William Faulkner (Murakami’s attachment to American culture being strong enough to give even the Bens of the world a run for their money), Lee punctuates Burning with several characteristically visceral scenes, the most savage of which comes at the end. As for the real-world economic stories that underlie this cinematic one, we’ll have to wait and see what kind of end they come to: the alienated peace of a Murakami novel, or the more troubling finality of a Lee Chang-dong film?
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall hosts the Korean-language podcast 콜린의 한국 (Colin’s Korea) and is at work on a book called The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles. You can follow him at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.