The Interpretation of Human Drama
In many ways, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is unlike a nothingness of human identity like Poetry, despite the last time he was behind the camera. In addition to being the director’s sixth film, Secret Sunshine earned him international attention. It ranks him among the most famous South Korean directors. As the title suggests, Burning is the definition of a slow-burner. Lee and Hong Kyung-pyo (his cinematographer) affect a mysterious atmosphere, growing more confusing with each scene. It captures the narrative and subtle performance moments that people question.
As the audience feels closer to revelation, the title conveys a metaphor of long-burning. Based on Haruki Murakami’s short story Barn Burning, the film is similar to the film’s important cat character, which the protagonist refers to as Boil. As a launch pad, it is not like an abscess. However, it is like cooking or even aggravating. The film’s central theme may, in various interpretations, be anger. Anger can grow in an individual when the perception of the world confronts the individual. In an unsatisfactory or inquisitive manner, such a perception of the world triggers anger at the outset.
Objectively, the perception and hope of understanding the world remain impossible. Besides impressions and assumptions about the world, as has long been suggested, identity and culture develop from personal experience and social learning. How the internal mainframe continues to process identity and Lee enjoys an ambiguity between what the audience perceives and knows. It occupies a vast space between subjective and objective, with complex character studies and masculine class currents forming many scenes during its two-and-a-half-hour runtime. Despite the audience’s uncertainty about the motivations behind each character, the making of the film somehow made the minimalistic director convey it neatly. Therefore, Lee’s interest in ambiguity further sculpts the use of a central mystery of how an artist writes and portrays characters in a medium.
Burning, a promising contender in the Foreign Language Film Oscar race, takes place in two South Koreas:
- Recreation country, where the 20s and 30s stroll through elegant cafes to K-pop club bangers.
- Facing ongoing economic turmoil. Billions of dollars represent the average household debt. Millions of citizens have taken to the streets to overthrow a president comfortable with conglomerate interests.
- Hundreds of thousands of young people remain unemployed.
The film focuses on the clash between the two countries through the life of a working-class man named Jong-su. He is a quiet type of guy; life is full of disadvantages. His hometown of Paju is one of many small-town areas in South Korea facing significant changes amid urbanization. His mother left the family when Jong-su was little. She came back only to ask for money from her unemployed son. His father faces trial for assaulting a local government official, leaving Jong-su with an abandoned family home and a dwindling cattle ranch.
When Jong-su wins the affection of his childhood acquaintance Hae-mi, he quickly loses his fledgling romance to a wealthy urbanite named Ben. Throughout the film, Jong-su rushes between Paju, a checkpoint far from the demilitarized zone, and Seoul, hoping to salvage his relationship with Hae-mi. He also monitors the always mysterious Ben. With its stark juxtaposition between urban and rural, Ben and Jong-su embodied, the film resists the glamorization of Asian wealth. The idea of a universal Asian identity, as Jon M. Chu describes it in Crazy Rich Asians, Lee rejects as well. Instead, Lee focused his film on the extreme class inequality in South Korea. It underscores the economic desperation that destroys many individuals.
The Great Gatsby
Jong-su always openly compares Ben to the Great Gatsby. Ben is the exact opposite of Jong-su. Traditionally, he is handsome and even suave. Ben had countless sources of wealth. He is cultured and enjoys cooking delicious food, living in luxury apartments, and driving around Paju in a Porsche. On the other hand, Jong-su is poor. He cannot cook other than cooking to survive, while Ben cooks because he likes it. He always drives his old rusty truck and has no sense of the world. For Jong-su, the world is full of mysteries. However, in contrast to Gatsby, who is secretly empty and hopeless, Ben seems to have it all, and everyone knows. At that specific moment, Hae-mi and Ben visit Jong-su’s country house.
The three of them smoke marijuana. Hae-mi and Jong-su giggle, acting strangely as the effects of the drug take hold. On the other hand, Ben’s reaction is one of experience and tolerance, as if the effects of marijuana had never been seen. About halfway through the film, Ben confesses. He has a strange hobby of burning greenhouses. He equates hins of action with morals of nature, thinking how the greenhouse in Paju is waiting for him to be burned. Coolly, such Lee lines convey as if they were the most natural reception in the world. In the next victim of the greenhouse, Ben admits that he is very close to Jong-su. The audience, from the scene, suspects that Ben is talking about a completely different, far more sinister act.
Taking the basic storyline of a boy meeting and losing his girl, Lee adapted Haruki Murakami’s Barn Burning, a 1992 short story. In both the original story and the film, the male protagonist loses his love interest from his hometown to Gatsby. Tendency to set off the fire when his lover disappears without a trace. The protagonist suspects a new girlfriend whom he has to blame. However, unlike Jong-su, Murakami’s narrator is a middle-class man living on the outskirts of Tokyo. He remains indifferent to the world around him. Like Jong-su, he is unable to escape from emotional to material problems. Appropriately, the film follows Jong-su on a South Korean trajectory searching for Hae-mi and Ben. Barn Burning cuts through the physical details of the story’s urban setting.
Burning places an ultimately unflinching human identity in a cosmopolitan way of nothingness. Ben shares Murakami’s rootless style when he asserts a personal philosophy of simultaneous existence. He tells Jong-su he is here, which is one of the many condescending conversations. Ben is in Paju, Banpo, and Seoul, but at the same time, Ben is in Africa. Ben also never revealed how he supports the cosmopolitan lifestyle. However, Ben owns a high-rise apartment in the wealthiest district in Seoul and owns a Porsche. He did not hurt the material. Regardless, Ben’s identification with the elite fits into his American style, as Ben shows by his name and his unusual accent. When he extends his hand for a casual handshake and Jong-su bows, the moment marks Ben as a flaneur who comfortably keeps his distance from the public.
The Hidden Externalization
Burning and its nothingness externalization reveal the hidden narrative in its human identity. Ben’s indifference shows the control his wealth gives him. His dissociative chill maps to his neat Gangnam apartment. On the other hand, Jong-su’s inactivity but obsession is a defense mechanism that endures heartbreak, financial woes, and family drama. Although not hidden, his anxiety manifests in his family farmhouse. Old photos, instant ramen containers, and dirty dishes fill the rooms that bring up thunderous memories. In Jong-su’s territory, he and Ben hold a conversation that develops into a dominance battle.
While Hae-mi is asleep, Jong-su reveals that he hates his cruel father. It once forced him to burn his mother’s belongings. Instead, he casually boasted of being a serial arsonist. The real reason for his visit is not to see Hae-mi’s hometown, as he believes. However, he looks for another greenhouse to burn. Ben explained that the police never caught him because the Korean police did not pay attention to such things. Such a secretive nature emphasizes how different the two worlds are. Trauma traps Jong-su while Ben wreaks havoc with no consequence. Through the mirror in the scene of Ben smoking marijuana and speeding in his Porsche, two Seoul cops look Jong-su in the eye for just hanging around in his pickup truck.
The Illusionary Palette
Audiences trying to understand Burning as a hands-on nothingness of thriller and human identity will be dissatisfied and frustrated at the same time. It has the paradox of Jong-su’s character and his need to understand the world before sitting down for a writing project. Like life, people must provide their answers through public perceptions. On the other hand, Lee creates an ambiguity that, if one sees it as a genre puzzle, is confusing. However, if one sees the film as a study of inadequacy and hatred, he offers a wealth of insight and philosophy. More than simple, Lee’s scenario blends a misty story with individual moments of beauty that force the audience to question the purpose of each scene.
It is a way of explaining that the film is contemplating inwardly rather than confining in logic. Lee’s visual approach also aligns with the film’s theme of an illusionary fog where the audience is all there. They try to understand that, occupying a minimalistic yet impressionist palette and editing style. The film’s comments about people getting angry, lashing out at futile attempts to control, or even failing to assert themselves in an uncertain world, are very close-knit. Lee never hesitated to make short connections. However, he notices Jong-su and the conspicuous presence of a specific apparatus. Perfectly calibrated as a work that relies on a nuanced performance of just the right tone. The film rewards audiences who are willing to experience it. They were involved in all that Lee refused to do in presenting or outlining the thematics to his audience.
- Kang, J. (2022). South Korean Art Cinema Since the Late 1990s: A Focus on Lee Chang-dong, Zhang Lü, and Kim Bora (Doctoral dissertation, University of Southampton).
- Min, H., & Moon, J. (2019). The Character Study on Lee Chang-Dong’s. The Journal of the Korea Contents Association, 19(7), 110-119.
- Murakami, H. (1992). Barn Burning. The New Yorker.