LFF 2018: Burning Review
Legendary Japanese author Haruki Murakami may be credited with writing the short story director Lee Chang-dong’s long awaited new film is based upon, but Burning doesn’t feel like it was torn straight from the pages of the author’s work, so much as it takes the bare bones of his ideas to create something altogether more enigmatic. Loosely based on Murakami’s 1983 story Barn Burning, Chang-dong (working with co-writer Oh Jung-mi) has crafted the rare adaptation that heightens the undercurrent of mystery from the source material, resulting in an atmospheric anti-thriller that’s engrossing even as you become aware no concrete resolutions will be offered to the audience.
Murakami’s short story is deceptively simple, whereas the film is the opposite; distracting with the elusive plot mechanics carried over from the source material, which all but disguise a singular character study all of the director’s own creation. The lead character, Lee Jong-su, isn’t a particularly likeable figure, and the people he becomes obsessed with aren’t altogether trustworthy either - which makes Chang-dong’s ability to enrapture us by investigating the hidden complexities of their lives all the more remarkable. Using a short, vaguely mysterious story as his inspiration, the director has created one of the year’s most enrapturing films, successfully immersing us in the mysterious lives of characters who would be more overtly repellent in the hands of any other filmmaker.
Yoo Ah-in stars as Lee Jong-su, a broke young man left tending to the family farm due to his father’s arrest, and carrying out odd jobs for extra cash. One day, he meets Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), an old school friend who he doesn't remember, but agrees to go on a date with her instantaneously. She’s an impulsive personality, and days after they meet, travels to Kenya leaving Lee to look after the cat at her apartment, which he never sees. Lee doesn’t hear from her for weeks later, and when he does, it’s to pick her and a mysterious man named Ben (Steven Yeun) from the airport.
Ben and Shin had forged a friendship due to being the only two Koreans in Nairobi, but Ben proves to be elusive when trying to discover more about him; from an aversion to discussing his line of work, to his claim that he’s never cried, there’s something uneasy and impenetrable about his personality. Days later, Ben and Shin spontaneously invite themselves to Lee’s farm, located so close to the North Korean border you can hear propaganda broadcasts booming in the distance. There, Lee confesses to being in love with Shin, but unprompted by anything, Ben confesses something altogether stranger. He’s a pyromaniac, with a fondness for burning down barns, and is in the area to find his next one. Lee becomes obsessed with this idea, and when he stops hearing from Shin immediately after this announcement, his suspicions about Ben’s uneasy character grow increasingly paranoid.
Reading Murakami’s short story, you can see that Chang-dong was more interested in carrying over small character details as opposed to the plot itself, building his interpretations of the thinly written characters from the story around the details that were most vivid in his imagination. For example, one of the most arresting details in Barn Burning is one of the most minute, the female character (named only as “she” in the source material) miming the peeling of tangerines in an intensely prepared demonstration. This proves to be a crucial detail for a character whom we never truly get to know outside of the apparent truths she tells the other characters. She has given herself completely to the act of mime, and Lee’s later paranoia regarding her disappearances all stem from an inability to comprehend any semblance of truth beneath her mysterious facade.
There has been some criticism of the character of Shin, although considering her literary counterpart wasn’t even named by the author, it’s significantly less problematic than a more faithful adaptation of the prose would have been. Shin isn’t quite a manic pixie dream girl, but some have argued that her actions are entirely defined in the film by how the male characters respond to them, rather than help give her agency of her own. I agree with this to a certain extent, but I do think there is an undercurrent of criticism inherent in Chang-dong and Jung-mi’s screenplay; we are witnessing her disappearance through the foggy lens of the main character, who himself isn’t a trustworthy, reliable source of information for the audience. His increasing obsession with the mysteries forged by strangers who have spontaneously entered his life sees him repeatedly going against good judgement, refusing to find work and support the few family members he’s in contact with during a time of crisis. He’s every bit the impulsive person he perceives Shin as being - which just makes viewing this story through his warped perception all the more fascinating.
The casting of Yoo Ah-in in this role also adds an air of controversy. The actor - an outspoken supporter of feminist (and LGBTQ+) causes - made headlines in Korea after being erroneously accused of misogyny. It’s unclear as to whether this was intentional, but casting the actor in such a role so problematic by definition (falling in love with a woman who presents herself as more of an ideal than a grounded personality, belittling her agency by masturbating every time he visits her apartment when she isn't there) is certainly a bold move by the director. As for Steven Yeun’s supporting role, the first time the former Walking Dead star has appeared in a fully Korean language drama, the actor exudes a quiet, peculiar menace that remains all the more terrifying due to the lack of clarity regarding his intentions.