Eight years after critical hit Poetry, Korean director Chang-dong Lee translates a very brief and quarter-century old story by Japanese master novelist Haruki Murakami into something distinctly Korean, distinctly contemporary (spoiler warning: there’s a news clip of Trump) and distinctly Chang-dong Lee. But also: into something that utterly captures the essence of Murakami. Thought the harmony between Lee’s film and Murakami’s text, even as different as they are, is something of a paradox—Lee makes notable changes to the protagonist; fleshes out Murakami’s story to create the film’s first two acts, adding a powerful third—Burning belies the notion that auteurs in different mediums can’t fully co-exist in the same work.
Lee Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo) is an aspiring young writer who quits his menial job to tend to his incarcerated father’s farm (a storyline the film takes from William Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning,” after which Murakami—as referential as ever—named his own story). Jong-su encounters a childhood acquaintance, Shin Hae-mi (Jong-seo Joon), who apparently he interacted with just once as a kid by calling her “ugly.” Anyways, Hae-mi’s all grown up and claims to have had plastic surgery; she and Jong-su strike up a relationship. It’s unusual and unnerving: Hae-mi is erratic and inscrutable, possibly a compulsive liar, while Jong-su can barely do more than gape and breathe. Nonetheless, Lee couches this set-up in exquisite details and rich observation. During first consummation Jong-su stares at a wall in Hae-mi’s cell of an apartment, focused on a fading streak of light reflected from a nearby tower. It means nothing and everything, at once.
Spontaneously (as is her wont), Hae-mi asks Jong-su to watch her perhaps imaginary cat while she takes a trip to Africa to learn about physical (“small”) hunger and existential (”great”) hunger. That’s not critical embellishment, that’s an actual plot-point. While she’s gone, Jong-su goes to her apartment to feed the cat, which he finds evidence of via its droppings; then he fantasizes about Hae-mi while looking at the gleaming tower through her window. When Hae-mi returns to Korea, she—to Jong-su’s suppressed chagrin—has a rich new boyfriend in tow. His name is Ben, and he’s played as a bored but semi-cheerful sociopath by Steven Yeun (who has never been better). When Jong-su asks Ben what he does for a living, Ben responds that he “plays.” Later, Jong-su tells Hae-mi that Ben’s a Gatsby. He says it with venom in his voice.
The way the film’s story flows into uncharted terrain is part of its spell. Something of a love triangle develops, some disturbing idiosyncrasies are revealed (not just about Ben) and some bad stuff happens. Meanwhile, Lee seems intent on framing the story in socio-political context; Hae-mi and Ben come to visit Jong-su at his father farm’s, near the border of South and North Korea. Loudspeaker propaganda messages echo from the hilly distance; “How fun,” chimes Ben. This context works best when integrated smoothly into such scenes that stay focused on the story of these three characters. Other scenes that lean too hard on the Faulkner storyline or that seem to exist solely to portray the Korean nation’s dichotomy and class struggle (at one point Jong-su goes to a joke of a job “interview”) add to the film’s hefty run-time, perhaps somewhat unnecessarily.
This is a small complaint in the glowing light of what Burning does right. The three principal actors find nuance in their characters as the film goes on, and the relational dynamic between them is never less than fascinating. Thematically, the film pointedly questions truth and morality and then shows us images that magnify those questions a hundred times over. To wit, Lee and cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hyung deliver some astounding sequences. A “great hunger” dance at dusk marries Jong-seo Joon’s physical performance with a balletic camera to achieve epiphany, set to Miles Davis’ “Generique” playing from Ben’s Porsche. The film’s conclusion fulfills its title in a way that is both unexpected and inevitable, haunting and yet grounded in a startling clarity of pragmatic choice with poetic consequence.
But the one thing that Burning gets incomparably right is the essence of Murakami. “Best Murakami adaptation” seems like faint praise given the quality of most of them (2010’s Norwegian Wood is the only prior that comes close to “good”). What Burning understands better than the rest is that Murakami is not about trying to be oblique or weird; his writing merely conveys the incomprehensibility of pretty much anything and everything that happens—and the incomprehensibility of other human beings, even with social and psychological insight in play. In Murakami you also have the surreal incursions that come from steeping in the metaphysical, the dreams and nightmares that lie in wait on the peripheries of our lives. Burning gets that right, too. There’s a moment where a bare-chested, dripping-wet boy—presumably a young Jong-su—stares at a greenhouse ablaze. There’s no sound; it’s fearful and rapturous. Another scene details Jong-su following Ben into the wilderness; it’s too real, a chase that borders on mundane. And yet it ends with a cut to Jong-su waking up.
There’s a telling line towards the end of the film’s second act, a moment not in Murakami’s story but a moment that conjures Murakami with an unrivaled elegance. Knowing that Jong-su is a writer, Ben asks Jong-su what he’s writing about. Jong-su says he isn’t writing at the moment. Ben asks him why not. Jong-su says he’s not sure what to write because, to him, “the world is a mystery.” Jong-su has earlier told Ben that his favorite author is Faulkner because—wink wink—he feels like Faulkner’s writing describes his life. In Jong-su’s confession to Ben that his writing is stifled because he can’t understand the world, Chang-dong Lee finds the perfect summation not just for his own film, but for his debt to Murakami in it.
Murakami writes about that which he can not grasp; he embraces the ineffable, inhaling and exhaling a cloud of unknowing. So, too, does Burning, while also managing to give us Chang-dong Lee’s signatures: visual lucidity and artful morality. It’s the rare symbiotic triumph between singular source material and singular cinematic vision. And while the film is a slow-burn, it expands the meaning of the term: You might never quench the flames it sparks within you, flames that send fumes up and away to a thundering, obscuring cloud.
Director: Chang-dong Lee
Writers: Jungmi Oh and Chang-dong Lee (screenplay); Haruki Murakami (short story)
Starring: Ah-in Yoo, Jong-seo Jeon, Steven Yeun
Release Date: October 26, 2018