There are few genuine auteurs in today’s cinema but Korea’s Lee Chang-dong is one of them. It’s a word favoured by French new wave critics when referring to a director whose work has its own distinctive artistry. Only a true artist could have made films such as Secret Sunshine (2007) and Oasis (2002), filled with scenes that have stayed lodged in my mind.
The problem with being an artist in today’s cinema is that one may be showered with critical accolades but the general public will cry: “Borrrring!” In this respect South Korea is going the same way as the rest of the world, making big-budget thrillers, lame comedies and sentimental dramas while a handful of arty directors seem more and more isolated. At least one of those, Kim Ki-duk, has made life difficult for himself with some dubious sexual politics. Another, Hong Sang-soo, is so avant-garde it’s as if he just turns on the camera and asks his actors to say the first thing that comes into their heads.
Lee’s new film, Burning, runs for 148 minutes and has long passages when nothing much seems to be happening. This will put a strain on those viewers who don’t feel a night at the movies is complete without a steady stream of car chases, explosions and martial arts sequences. By way of compensation Lee gives us a sex scene, a bit of topless dancing and a smidgeon of ultra-violence, but not enough to please anyone who felt that Avengers: Infinity Warwas a life-enhancing experience.
Burning is a movie that lives up to its name, but it’s a long slow fuse of a story that grows inexorably more mysterious and disturbing. Lee took his inspiration from ‘Barn Burning’, a short story by Haruki Murakami, from his collection, The Elephant Vanishes. Murakami in turn was inspired by a tale of the same name by William Faulkner. This allows for plenty of discreet literary references, especially as the lead character, Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is a writer, or is at least trying to be a writer.
We meet Jong-su in Seoul, where he is working at a delivery job to earn a few won. During a drop-off he is approached by a girl dancing in front of the store, promoting a raffle. It turns out she’s from his home town of Paju, near the North Korean border. Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) was a schoolfriend and neighbour. She says she’s had plastic surgery to look prettier.
Jong-su is a man of few words and deep, anxious silences, but he’s happy to agree that Hae-mi is pretty. They drink a lot of beer, she shows him how to mime eating a tangerine, and they consummate their friendship in her tiny apartment. Almost immediately Hae-mi is off to West Africa, explaining to Jong-su that the people there have two kinds of hunger: ‘little hunger’, which means they want food, and ‘great hunger’, which refers to a search for the meaning of life.
When Hae-mi goes to look for the ‘great hunger’ Jong-su gets the task of looking after her cat, which remains defiantly invisible, just like the tangerine she peeled in the restaurant. To feed the cat Jong-su has to drive in from Paju, where he has relocated, following his father’s arrest for assaulting a council inspector. The father, a brooding, violent man, has left a scar on Jong-su’s psyche. Does he love his father or hate him? Does he recognise anything of his father in himself?
When Hae-mi eventually gets back from Africa, Jong-su rushes to the airport, only to find she’s acquired a new love interest: a wealthy, handsome fellow called Ben (Steven Yeun), who drives a Porsche, lives in a ritzy apartment, and tells Jongsu that for him, work and play are the same thing. Jong-su will go on to compare Ben to Jay Gatsby. The difference is that Jong-su is no Nick Carraway. He doesn’t admire Ben’s riches and sophistication, and has no wish to write his story.
Stoical beyond all reckoning, Jong-su soon adjusts to Ben’s presence in Hae-mi’s life. One day the couple drive out to pay Jong-su a surprise vist in Paju. They smoke a joint, and Hae-mi dances topless to Miles Davis’s music from Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Scaffold(1958) – another sixpence in the pudding for cinema buffs. At this point Ben discusses his curious hobby of burning down abandoned greenhouses.
The conversation stays in Jong-su’s mind and becomes an obsession. He seeks out all the greenhouses in his neighbourhood and monitors them daily. In the meantime, Hae-mi seems to have disappeared. Ben says he hasn’t heard from her either, but Jong-su – his head full of burning greenhouses – thinks that can’t be true. He begins to follow Ben everywhere, creeping along behind the Porsche in his old farm truck.
That’s enough of the story. Jongsu’s amateur detective work is clumsy but effective in getting us closer to the truth. Being a literary type he’s figured out that “burning greenhouses” is a metaphor. At one point in the story Hae-mi had even asked: “What’s a metaphor?”. Lee provides the answer.
Burning is a film about the seen and the unseen; a film of small details, some of them obvious plot devices, others so subtle they could be easily missed. No object is introduced without a purpose but it takes time to pull all the threads together. The lines between the characters are constantly blurred – by Jong-su’s introverted nature, by Hae-mi’s flakeiness, and Ben’s air of smiling indifference. The burning happens below the surface where volcanic emotions are stirring.
Directed by Lee Chang-dong
Written by Oh Jungmi & Lee Chang-dong, after a story by Haruki Murakami
Starring Yoo Ah-in, Jun Jeong-seo, Steven Yeun, Kim Soo-Kyung, Choi Seung-ho, Mun Seong-kun, Ben Hye-ra
South Korea, rated M, 148 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 20 April, 2019