A barn burns in the middle of the night while a motherless calf simply exists in a nearby shed. A long lost friend magically reappears and asks Lee Jong-su to care after her cat while she visits Africa. Donald Trump gets into office on the promise that a wall will be built between America and Mexico. North Korea exhausts propaganda over the South Korean border, showing that wall or no wall, there is no escaping what’s already here.
These things are true, but these things are also untrue.
This is Lee Chang-dong’s Burning.
An adaptation of the short story “Barn Burning” by Haruki Murakami, Burning is a yearning ode to isolation. While the narrative primarily considers Ah-in Yoo’s Lee Jong-su the main character, this is a film that encompasses the world at large and tries to digest it as best as possible. To do so, co-writers Jungmi Oh and Lee Chang-dong craft a wavering mystery that is at once about a childhood friend, Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun), who establishes herself with purpose in Lee Jong-su’s life, while also about a curiously wealthy, Ben (Steven Yeun).
And yet, like all Haruki Murakami works, Burning is about everything, and it is about nothing. Deliberately obtuse, and yet, the obfusciation and meandering nature of the filmic text is at once a clear and frank exploration of society as a whole. Lee Chang-dong shows a world bombarded with messages we don’t want to hear, and that we simply cannot escape, yet it’s not intoxicating or all consuming. These messages merely permeate through life with subtlety, creeping into our consciousness like a whisper in your ear while you’re sleeping. For this reason alone, Burning is not a film for everyone.
At the risk of sounding pretentious, this is a film that is for the Murakami faithful. Lavishly filled to the brim with iconic Murakami traits – cats that go missing, a well that may or may not exist, masturbation to pass the time, a mysterious woman who enters a man’s life and forever alters it, jazz. Yet, most importantly, Burning is the clearest depiction of the grandest of Murakami tropes – the slightly pathetic single thirty-something man who lives by himself and meanders through life with little purpose, and little desire to seek a purpose. He cooks for himself, he is book smart, yet, socially inept and devoid of personality. While Lee Jong-su may not consider himself an introvert, his loneliness, and the world he exists in, has pushed him into the realm of being one.
Just like the ever dancing Hae-mi, Lee Jong-su has been moulded by society into being disconnected from those around him. Neighbours to his father’s farm remark that his father always kept to himself and was never approachable. When Lee Jong-su meets up with his long estranged mother who he hasn’t seen for sixteen years, she can barely take her attention away from the messages coming through on her phone. While we search for reasons for why we are disconnected, we are left with more questions than answers. Is it pride that has caused us to be this way? Is it merely not knowing how to talk to one another?
Burning has little interest in answering these questions, but instead suggests that we need to reflect on ourselves, and the world around us, and ask the world why we are disconnected. What forces craft loneliness? How are we manipulated into being singular vessels that simply exist, waiting for something to kick us out of our stupor?
Steven Yeun’s Ben suggests casual destruction is a way of breaking out of the grip of society. To help ‘feel the beat’ within ourselves, he suggests that one must destroy and wreak carnage on the dilapidated skeletons that are scattered around the world. For Ben, that means burning a discarded greenhouse every so often. The flames move quick, quicker than you’d expect, but there is a rebirth that occurs afterwards.
Is Ben the walking epitome of the chaotic destruction that North Korea and Donald Trump have brought to the world? Is he the boy that has come to stir up an ants nest just to see the ants rebuild after their world has been forever changed? As a faithful adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s writing, Burning never aims to answer these questions it raises.
Burning is like a lozenge that you roll around on your tongue, letting the flavours dissipate in your mouth, and when it has all dissolved, the taste lingers, soothing your throat and easing your day. Yet, at the same time, the sickness that you took the lozenge for remains. It’s unshakable, lingering in your lungs like the air you breath.
There is so much more to Burning, so much more that I don’t have the words or the skills to explore in text. Lee Chang-dong has crafted a film that exudes a mood that is difficult to put a finger on. It’s unease. It’s discomfort. It’s peace. It’s emptiness. All of these emotions crumble together into a pile under the shade of being comfortable with one’s own loneliness. Lee Chang-dong embraces the sorrow of being alone and then reckons with that emotion in a devastating way.
This is not a film that I will easily shake off.
Director: Lee Chang-dong
Cast: Ah-in Yoo, Jong-seo Jun, Steven Yeun
Writers: Lee Chang-dong, Jungmi Oh, (Based on the short story “Barn Burning” by Haruki Murakami)