Burning is dark, ambiguous and a layered creation with Faulkner’s rage and struggles coupled with the strange, unspoken mysteries of Murakami.
Haruki Murakami’s narratives are not the easiest ones to be adapted into films. Often his fictions would have a very relaxed pace, with details of everyday life such as cooking and choice of music that the protagonist prefers. This does not necessarily make for an exciting script that the mainstream moviegoers often look for. The mysteries that his works do contain are mostly of a fantastic nature — it is quite normal to encounter characters like talking cats and plotting frogs. Even in stories without such fantastic elements the narrative often includes seemingly banal conversations and actions which often turn out to be not so mundane after all. People (specifically women) vanish without a trace, there are wells that are deep, dark and mysterious.
Some of his stories have been adapted into feature length films a few times, perhaps the two most well-known ones being Tony Takitani (2004), directed by Jun Ichikawa and Norwegian Wood (2010), directed by Tran Anh Hung. Although most of his novels and short stories contain elements of mystery, they are mostly open-ended. This makes it even more difficult to turn them into popular films as in many thrillers or mystery movies the viewer often expects a satisfying resolution — unsolved mysteries tend to leave a sense of incompleteness that may not be what a casual moviegoer is always expecting.
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South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong whose film Burning is based on Murakami’s short story ‘Barn Burning’ had won the award for Best Screenplay at the Cannes film festival in 2010 for his film Poetry, the Special Director’s Award and the FIPRESCI (Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique) prize, as well as the Netpac Award (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) for his film Oasis at the Venice film festival (2002), among others.
He had decided to adapt a Haruki Murkami’s short story ‘Barn Burning’ into another FIPRESCI prize winning film called Burning (2018). Murakami’s ‘Barn Burning’ is a short story (1993) inspired by another famous short story by the same name (‘Barn Burning,’ 1939) by William Faulkner.
Although the stories have the same title, the plots are quite different. Faulkner’s story is about rage, a moral dilemma between loyalty to family and the law, while Murakami’s ‘Barn Burning’ is an ambiguous story about a pyromaniac and a girl who goes missing suddenly. The mystery is left unresolved, leaving the readers to wonder if a crime has really taken place. There is one uniting element between the stories, the act of burning.
Lee Chang-dong, the director of the film, combines both the premises and creates a psychological thriller/mystery that questions the social and economic imbalance that continue to reign supreme even in the modern world. In an interview in the online magazine Little White Lies, Chang-dong observes that Burning is “…a Faulkner story set in Murakami’s world.” Murakami’s short story is the bedrock of the film.
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The two male characters of the story are named here as Jong-su and Ben, and the girl is Hae-mi. These three characters are very different from one another. Jong-su is a creative writer who is yet to find a story, while Ben is wealthy and drives a Porsche. Hae-mi dances part time for publicity companies, earning meagre little. The actual nature of Ben’s job is left a mystery. It could be anything from a stock broker to an industrialist. When asked by Jong-su, his answer is condescending and unclear. He informs that his work is that he ‘plays’ and that ‘nowadays, there is no distinction between working and playing’. Suffice it to say, earning money is not a hard day’s work for him.
The social stratification is starkly presented in the film. Jong-su’ drives a rusty old mini truck while Ben drives around in a flashy Porsche. He lives in Gangnam, a well-known wealthy neighbourhood in Korea. Ben lives for fun and for things that tickle his curiosity; he comes from a privileged class. Jong-su’s father is a war veteran with a rage disorder, currently being sentenced to eighteen-month imprisonment for inflicting physical harm to another person. His mother deserted him when he was young. He lives in an old house in the countryside where loud propaganda can be heard from across the border with North Korea. Hae-mi who comes from the same village asserts that Jong-su rescued her from a deep, dry well in their childhood. This forms a bond between them.
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Hae-mi searches for a meaning in life, she travels to Africa. She falls in love with the ‘hunger dance’ that the bushmen of Kalahari perform there. It’s an ancient form of dance that starts with ‘Little Hunger’, that is the expression of physical hunger and turns into the dance of “Big Hunger” that represents the search for meaning in life.
Ben’s fascination for Hae-mi is evidently frivolous. Jong-su catches him yawning when Hae-mi performs the dance earnestly. Here the director inserts an element in the story that is in keeping with Murakami’s spirit. Jong-su and his family background are clearly inspired by Faulkner. In Faulkner’s short story one finds a family ruled by an iron fist by Abner Snope, the father. He poses as a civil war veteran, when in truth he is a thief. His son Sarty is terrified of him but is very loyal, as Abner preaches the values of being loyal to one’s blood. They are poor, perhaps destined to remain poor. More often than not, sharecroppers are caught in a cycle of economic and social stagnation.
Abner has an intense grudge against the upper class. At the slightest provocation he burns down a barn and intends to do so again. Fire is perhaps the only way he can assert his authority on those whom he cannot control. At the residence of a new landlord Sarty begins to realise that poverty is not a universal condition and perhaps feels a new hope stirring in him. At the same time he is destined to face a severe moral conflict between loyalty and truth/justice.
In the end the truth triumphs, with Faulkner hinting at a new beginning. In the film the creation of the character of Hae-mi, on the other hand, is inspired by Murakami and fleshed out by Lee Chang-dong’s own imagination.
Burning presents many layers for the audience to peel back to the core. It questions what is real and what is not. For most of the film, we get to hear about a cat that is there but is not shown. There are hints scattered around to suggest that there is one. Hae-mi’s story about her being rescued by Jong-su in her childhood is equally ambiguous. Towards the end of the film one gets to know that there was indeed a well, but nobody related to her can remember such an incident. Jong-su is also obsessed with her. He has fallen in love but cannot get the courage to act on that feeling. He feels an impotent jealousy when he sees her riding in Ben’s car or relaxing at Ben’s immaculately adorned house.
There is a rage bottled up, maybe not unlike that of his father. Then there is the burning of the greenhouse. In a sequence where both of them visits Jong-su’s home, it is revealed that Ben is a self-confessed pyromaniac. He burns greenhouses. He is also evidently not afraid of the legal repercussions as his privileged position in the society affords him some degree of freedom from suspicion.
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The cinematography is tight and brilliantly executed. It captures the almost surreal feel of the story. One may be impressed by the particularly memorable scene of Hae-mi performing the hunger dance against the backdrop of a serene countryside, with smooth jazz as the soundtrack, while the darkness descends.
The music of the film is minimal, but when it exists it captures the mood of the shot perfectly.
The pace of the film never falters. A slow building up of fear and anger in Jong-su’s character is clearly felt. Ben’s statement that he has never shed a single tear, coupled with his strange collection of used women’s accessories pushes the audience towards the conclusion that Ben is a psychopath. Then true to Murakami plot twists, Hae-mi disappears completely. All Jong-su hears from her is a disturbing phone call with strange sounds. She has not taken a vacation, that much is made clear. Her unseen cat is also missing! Jong-su is seemingly sure that Ben has done something wrong to her when he finds a cat in Ben’s house that responds to its name. The camera shows Jong-su typing something in Hae-mi’s empty room – perhaps he has found his elusive story.
The end comes later in the winter when he stabs Ben in a very disturbing climax. Jong-su strips himself naked and burns his clothes together with the car and drives away. The scene is entirely devoid of dialogue. The audience is left wondering at this ‘birth’ of a new character – a Jong-su who is completely unpredictable and violent. The director cleverly presents the viewer with many options. The ending maybe a fictional creation of Jong-su himself. Or it can be the rage and jealousy that finally tips the scale when Jong-su perhaps assumes that she is murdered by Ben. Lee Chang-dong never presents a clear answer.
Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is a smouldering depiction of the inequalities that exist in the class structure of the modern and mostly westernised society of South Korea. The viewer gets to see Jong-su’s decrepit house in the village and Hae-mi’s claustrophobic flat in the city. On the other hand, the film also portrays the modern and swanky house that Ben lives in. Even in the chase scenes one cannot but notice the old and battered truck of Jong-su unable to keep up with Ben’s fast and costly Porsche, which is quite symbolic considering how Ben’s lifestyle and his newfound superficial closeness to Hae-mi quietly irritates Jong-su. It is also perhaps significant that the director shows Jong-su’s truck being suspiciously eyed by a police car as he waits to follow Ben’s car, while Ben is apparently unaware of any such suspicion from the keepers of the law.
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The helplessness and jealousy of Jong-su, who is unable to express his unspoken love for Hae-mi, is sure to strike a chord with the viewers, especially when it is clear that he feels belittled by Ben’s wealth. The film picks up pace slowly but surely, helped on by the cinematography and tense music. The director presents the audience with layers of mysteries left unsolved. Ben tells Jong-su that he has indeed burned down a greenhouse, one very close to his home. The actual burning is never shown. It might be pyromania or it might be even a symbolic act of burning down other people’s lives, reducing a potential relationship to cinders by a possible act of murder. Almost everything is implied, very little is shown.
The final act of murder maybe the accumulation of these unsolved, unresolved feelings and mysteries that transform Jong-su from a quiet young man to a violent one.
Burning is dark, ambiguous and a layered creation with Faulkner’s rage and struggles coupled with the strange, unspoken mysteries of Murakami. It is bound to linger on in the mind of the viewer for a long time.
By Hiranmoy Lahiri
Hiranmoy Lahiri is a writer who studied video editing at Kolkata Film and Television Institute, India. A postgraduate in English Literature, he has published articles in The Statesman, The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, the Offscreen website and Asiatic: IIUM Journal of English Language and Literature.