With 'Burning,' Lee Chang-dong makes a triumphant return
“It’s not a question of making yourself believe there is an orange there, you have to forget there isn’t one. That’s all.”
This line of dialogue from Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning” is repeated, almost verbatim, in Lee Chang-dong’s new film Burning – a loose adaptation of the Murakami story.
The story’s protagonist, Jong-soo, watches his childhood friend and romantic interest Hae-mi mime peeling and eating an orange. She tells him that if she repeats the motions again and again, it will start to feel real. She tells him that he need not believe that she is actually eating an orange, he simply needs to forget there isn’t one there at all.
Just forget there isn’t one.
Burning marks Lee Chang-dong’s triumphant return, eight years after his last film Poetry premiered at Cannes. If you’re wondering if it was worth the wait, look up “abso-fucking-lutely” in a thesaurus and you’ll come across several serviceable answers.
What begins as a fairly straightforward story of a boy falling in love with a girl quickly escalates into something far more profound. What might have been a retread of stories about romantic fixation turns into a confounding tale of obsession and deceit.
Jong-soo, newly graduated with a degree in creative writing, returns to his hometown to care for his family’s farm after his father’s arrest. He reconnects with a childhood friend, Hae-mi, for whom he feels a powerful attraction. She later leaves for a vacation to North Africa returning with a new boyfriend, Ben. Unlike Jong-soo, Ben is wealthy, self-assured, and enigmatic. Ben’s presence offers the perfect counterbalance to Jong-soo and his confession that he burns down barns as a hobby disrupts the story for the better.
While Ben’s confession to Jong-soo is rather innocuous, as if he were reciting a grocery list, it marks a substantive turning point in the film. At this moment, Jong-soo’s interest in Ben eclipses his desire for Hae-mi. Ben tells Jong-soo that the next barn he plans to burn down is very close by and Jong-soo becomes preoccupied with finding it. Ben’s confession ignites an obsession in Jong-soo. What begins as an obsession with finding the burned barn turns into an obsession with Ben himself. This obsession evokes a similar feeling achieved in Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Burning develops Jong-soo’s obsession with Ben in tandem with his search for the truth. He is a character enveloped by deceit and rejection; Hae-mi, Ben, his mother and his father all deceive and destabilize him in various ways. As such, he seeks to discover the truth wherever and whenever possible. But for Jong-soo, the truth is always obscured by some greater, unseeable force.
Adapted from a short story, Burning is naturally limited by its source material. This may sound like a critique, but it’s not intended to be; Lee understands the limitations of adapting a short story to the big screen and, rather than seek to challenge those limits, he accepts them. In doing so, Burning assumes a deeply meditative tone, one that will no doubt be considered “too slow” or “boring” for some viewers.
However, while Burning may present an external façade that is slow and contemplative, those that allow themselves to become a part of the journey will find the film to be full of heart pounding and thrilling intensity. Jong-soo’s pursuit – of Hae-mi, of Ben, of a greater truth obscured by deceit – is deeply captivating. Lee Chang-dong’s refusal to bring concrete definition to the film’s more ambiguous elements allows for the mystery to form more organically, giving the audience greater freedom to engage with the story.
Burning is a captivating interrogation of “truth” and “reality” – concepts that, for better or worse, defy adherence to any single definition. One of my college professors had a rule that no one in his class use the words “real” or “true” in an essay. He would rant about how they are concepts with no meaning in fiction.
Burning appears to adhere to this same school of thought as the film reinforces this idea over and over again. The film inhabits spaces of defined by ambiguity and obfuscation; as we the audience follow Jong-soo on his quest to discern the truth, to discover what is real, we are confronted by greater and greater obscurity.
In the end, Burning gives you enough clues to come to a satisfying conclusion, but its genius lies in how those clues amount to multiple conclusions that all conflict with one another. Regardless of the truth you accept, it’s impossible to deny the nagging sense that there is more that you will never know or understand. The film dares us to accept that there is no truth, only perception. Just forget there isn’t one.
If nothing else, watching Burning is something akin to replaying a memory; its edges are blurry, the details are sparse, but the feelings are immense. Lee leans into this quality, allowing the images in the film to speak far louder than any line of dialogue – Jong-soo’s look of desperation as he searches for a burned barn, Hae-mi dancing to jazz against a beautiful sunset, the look on Ben’s face as he reveals his secret to Jong-soo. These images are beautifully composed, vibrant with vulnerability, and sincerely heartbreaking; they make up the mystery and despair at the heart of Burning.
Lee tells this story through Jong-soo’s eyes only and it’s that rigidity and singularity that makes the film feel so personal and profound. By the end of the film, Lee has allowed the audience to inhabit this character in a way that is deeply affecting. It’s a testament to his ability to craft character that I would gladly watch two sequels to Burning that would tell the same story from the perspective of the other characters.
Lee Chang-dong’s return is well worth the wait, a testament to his immense skill as a storyteller. Short story adaptations are never easy to pull off, but to see one like this – made with such grace and insight – is a true rarity. Burning is an incredible and confounding installment in Lee’s career that will age well as we wait for his next film.