Given the explosion of Korean cinema onto the global platform in the last twenty-odd years, the Koreans have positioned themselves as fine craftsmen. Unease, or what surrounds it, has become their domain, the genre that they have perfected in delivering to the world. A sense of squeamishness that is set on the table with the server dictating when and whether you get a tickle of relief that doesn’t seem inappropriate. Burning, by culminating a long line of forerunners, is a formidable landmark of what has come to represent their cinema. But Lee Chang-Dong has other ambitions – some falling outside this construct – that tend to perhaps dilute what he wishes to pass on to the viewer.
Nonetheless, let’s begin with appreciating what has since its release been deemed, almost unequivocally, the greatest Korean film of all time. Burning, cinematically, is astounding in constructing a tone and displacing it with ease. In the opening passages, we are mirroring the writer’s block of Lee Jong-Su; there’s an aimlessness that preoccupies the camerawork, which alternates between shots and reverse shots and handhelds. We are made to see that his chance encounter with Hae-Mi doesn’t rekindle anything more than an ephemeral fascination and the off-chance possibility to ignite something sexual. As she – playing by the rules of a writer’s muse – disappears, the fascination peels off into a mild obsession. We, understanding the film’s title, dwell along in this changed state of mind for the protagonist almost as if we’re stuck in a loop of syncopated notes that detain him. Upon her return, there’s a slow recoil from the abstraction into tangible jealousy and the framing attains meaning through choreographed class contrasts. Yet, we are made to wait for her full disappearance for the former tone to burn down completely. Within Jong-Su, there’s now an obsession that hungers for catharsis. The paradigm of the film is narratively, metaphorically (to the title, of course), and tonally consistent.
Subtext, too, is laced in without obstruction. Overt, but noticeably soft as opposed to hard contrasts – which we would later see in Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite. “There are many Gatsbys in Korea,” Jong-Su puffs out with smoke. He probingly asks her what she thinks Ben sees in her, knowing well that she’s a weekly fancy that gets culled as a token trophy. His arrogance in believing that she would nonetheless revert to him and break free from Ben and his wealth forestalls his obsession. For all his worth, he still believes that he possesses her and that his claim on her matters more than herself. He tails them with these hopes, privy to their exchanges and Ben’s social circles – all, unsurprisingly, condescending – to see if she flinches awake. Barging out from the smoke and strobe lights, Chang-Dong even cuts us to him mockingly serenading his Dad’s calf. There’s a latent disgust for the other mode of life, but a silent arrogance that prevents him from acting on it. Almost as if he embraces the contrarian mode – of barns and fields – only to spite his competitor.
One comes to expect these frictions given the repeatedly established classist landscape of Korea in their cinema. But how does the film fare as a Murakami adaptation? Having not yet reached his verses, I have, at the least, reached his other adaptations – notably Drive My Car which features as one of my favourite watches this year. With reason, there are parallels in their ability to capture the often noted elusiveness in his writings. Somehow, that elusiveness figures more appropriately in Hamaguchi’s film than it does in Chang-Dong’s Burning. In the former, there’s a chase for closure – one that is equally slow yet enriched by the turn of events. For both Misaki and Yusuke, their frozen loss wallows until they find the means to break it through each other. For Jong-Su, the loss of Hae-Mi is also unacceptable, but more in the sense of a personal defeat. It’s the loss of an intangible claim which has largely been a given for us, the viewers. We are made to extrapolate it, often with the very little access we’re given to Jong-Su himself. Perhaps, in a similar geography and genre, Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of Murder could serve as a better parallel. There, despite a different narrative line, the attachment of Detective Seo to the schoolgirl victim feels a stronger violation that justifies his spite as one that wishes to avenge. Their relationship, albeit short-lived, was palpable as the bearings that put it into place are rooted in the real world, not the ideal.
It raises an interesting question about a character being married to the idea of another character as opposed to their actual persona. In Burning’s case, it transpires to do both. What begins as a very arbitrary lust for her is precipitated to transform into a claim of sorts. It is unspoken, unsaid, but assumed with much vigor by him. Despite the dimensions that Chang-Dong wishes to give Hae-Mi’s character – as when she aimlessly traipses around in frontal nudity – his inability to straddle it with Jong-Su’s flailing ego dents his conclusion. The role of a muse misfits her as neither she nor Jong-Su himself intended for it through their rushed sexual embrace. “You’re really ugly,” she recounts his own words to him said during the days of their junior high. The sex that follows is then an act of retribution, but this foreplay serves no end. When Jong-Su does ultimately lose her, the loss still resonates as one that is constructed without deriving much from her persona. Though I don’t criticize the placement of such a relationship in the film, it constructs itself as a bridge of strings while inviting us to engage with it.
Given that particular genres expect both revelations and confirmations from their participants, does some unspoken need – perhaps on Chang-Dong’s part – to do the latter prevent the film from moving beyond a clever lacework of mood and subtext? The passages that lead to the film’s ultimate catharsis as when Jong-Su trails Ben incessantly are stretching the very weak dynamic between them that is only being pinned together by a mutual class disgust. But it almost feels as if Chang-Dong has tied himself into a knot by trying to repeat the displacement of mood but with a central dimension – Hae-Mi, in this instance – that has only been waning since the start. As the frosty highway remains indifferent to Jong-Su driving a knife into Ben, there is only the understanding as a viewer that a closure has been delivered, all while never realizing what truly instigated it. You are left to wonder if you’ve witnessed vengeance or liberation, neither seemingly befitting the complexities of a writer nor the simple anger of an unemployed farmhand.
Chang-Dong’s few ambitions within the scope of his narrative, as in contriving to achieve over-arching consistencies, are accomplished. The placement of mood, the teasing of unease, and the sublime voicing of non-verbal disgust are remarkable achievements. Yet, his biggest ambition of placing the writer as one who is equally present in both the real and the ideal world fails. Even if it were to be that Parasite were to upstage its achievements with even more precision in the year to follow, isn’t this a testament to how Korean cinema evolves and would like to evolve? “Great hunger is a person who is hungry for the meaning of life,” Hae-Mi says. More than being an evocative genre piece, Burning hungers to seek out what flickers in the souls of Korea’s static youth.