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Burning (2018)

For November 2018, I will be exploring and revisiting the works of one of South Korea’s greatest cinematic storytellers - Lee Changdong - which will culminate in an assessment of his latest film, Burning.


As a literary adaptation of one of the most popular yet possibly most enigmatic writers to Western audiences Haruki Murakami, Burning, Lee Chang dong’s latest directorial effort, fleshes out far more than Murakami chose to. I specify Western audiences because I have heard that English translations of Murakami or any Japanese author for that matter have to leave out a lot of the complexity associated with the Japanese language, which is why a Murakami text may seem so sparse and possibly antiseptic on first read.

Lee Chang dong’s Burning is a personal drama that slowly reveals itself as an unsettling mystery and then a psychological thriller. Jong-su (Yoo Ah-In) is a disillusioned youth scrabbling to barely get by. He strikes up a sort of relationship with Hae-mi (Jeon Jeong-seo) who is similarly hard put economically. She goes away to Africa for a while and comes back with a sort-of boyfriend in tow, Ben (Steven Yeun), who is wealthy and clearly complacent in his luxurious lifestyle.

I have read many Western critics accurately describe the relationship between the three. Ben is somewhat older and is very formal with Jong-su whereas Hae-mi is supposed to be the same age as Jong-su and thus treats him more casually. The element that I locked in on the most was the use of language, which is obviously something someone not familiar with Korean would be able to incorporate in his or her interpretation. There is a formal tone in Korean (jeondaemal), which is used for talking to people older than you and also with people that you do not know very well. Ben and Jong-su’s conversations all take place in jeondaemal even as their relationship progresses. While jeondaemal is not always a sign of strained or formal relationships in Korean culture, here it is used effectively to not only characterize the relationship between these two men but also to characterize Ben as well.

Steven Yeun as a Korean-American is not unimportant to this film. While his Korean is quite good, there is a slight sense that he is used to speaking some other language (English) more frequently. His foreignness could also be read as entitlement in which the way he speaks is just one element. Other things, such as the way he carries himself, his facial expressions and relative lack of emotion are also important to how we are supposed to view this character. His Ben is an emotional vampire, seeming to find meaning and interest in people who are in more desperate straits such as Jong-su and Hae-mi, but have bigger personalities than he does.

Even after a month or so of seeing this film, Burning still lingers with me. Lee Chang dong is so good at making the metaphysical physical. Whether it is the unthinking bliss of Haemi’s character or the painful loneliness of Jong-su, their emotions feel real and tangible as they enrich his narrative. Burning may also be the perfect Murakami adaptation, so much so that I felt I got Murakami when I heard him in Korean. Korean and Japanese are like no other languages in the world and technically they aren’t really like each other, but they are more related to each other than they are to, say, Chinese or English. The nuances of Korean fit well within a story that depends so much on subtle turns of phrase. Bringing the cultural baggage of his society to a tabula rasa is Lee Chang dong’s masterstroke. Murakami has never been one to explain his stories quite rightfully and strategically since the popularity of his works depend on endless speculation and reflection on his words. Lee manages not only to make Burning his own but gives us enough beautiful ambiguity so that the story can have depth beyond measure.

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