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Please note: this article contains spoilers. 

When Japanese TV station NHK suggested to Lee Chang-dong that he adapt a book, his co-writer Oh Jung-mi proposed he read Haruki Murakami’s Barn Burning, a short story about a man who meets a beguiling woman and her arsonist boyfriend. Lee was intrigued, not least by how little happens in the book, but also by Murakami’s evocation of mystery, leaving the reader to second guess everything.[i] That approach ties in nicely with Lee’s own work, which often demonstrates a preoccupation with ambiguity and uncertainty. “I don’t offer solutions or answers. I want to question things,” he says about his filmmaking.[ii]

Murakami’s work is itself based on a William Faulkner story of the same name. Lee picked up on a common theme which fascinated him – that of rage and powerlessness in both stories’ young male protagonists.[iii] Setting Burning in modern-day South Korea, he combines these elements of ambiguity and male rage in the context of a society seeing high rates of unemployment and underemployment amongst young people.[iv] The film’s protagonist Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo), as well as his love interest Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon in her screen debut), are victims of the alienation that capitalism and a failing economy cause for those less privileged.

The gaping holes in the chain of events – the missing piece from which we can never know the truth – alludes to the mysterious world we live in now; the world in which we sense that something is wrong but cannot quite put a finger on what the problem is.

Lee Chang-dong[v]

The repressed, working-class Jong-su, an aspiring writer, reconnects with his childhood acquaintance Hae-mi over a prize raffle that she rigs in his favour. He easily falls for the vibrant young woman, someone who still dares to dream. Hae-mi’s character embodies the question of what is real and what isn’t, whether it be through plastic surgery (Jong-su called her ugly as a child, she says), her invisible cat whose existence is only proven by its faeces, or her new passion for learning pantomime. “Look, I can eat tangerines whenever I want,” she states as she pretends to eat invisible fruit in front of Jong-su. It’s a tragic resourcefulness in light of a young generation’s disillusionment. 

In another scene toeing the line between the real and surreal, playing with audiences’ perceptions, Hae-mi dances half-naked to jazz – Miles Davis’s soundtrack from Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold (1958) – forming a bird with her hands. What starts as poetic and hopeful shifts when the music cuts and what is revealed is inherent sadness. It is this uncertainty about reality that drives the film’s larger narrative, and ultimately leads to its climax.

Unable to identify the target at which [young people] can direct their rage, they feel helpless. Yet the world looks as if it is becoming more sophisticated and convenient, a perfectly functioning place on the surface.

Lee Chang-dong[vi]

When Hae-mi returns from a trip to Africa with the charismatic and wealthy Ben (Steven Yeun), it fuels Jong-su’s resentment over his disadvantage in the world. A privileged yuppie exuding urban confidence, Ben is the polar opposite of him. He drives a Porsche and lives in a bright luxury flat in one of Seoul’s nicest districts. When Jong-su questions this lifestyle, Ben only says he ‘plays’ for work. The rich can play. They can exist without needing to justify their reality, therefore Ben’s character equally bathes in ambiguity. “I’m in Paju, and I’m in Banpo. I’m in Seoul, at the same time I’m Africa,” he ponders. Existentialism is reserved for the few.

Lee makes clear that the working class isn’t afforded this privilege, as we see when Jong-su moves into his father’s home in the rural town of Paju, not far out of Seoul near the North Korean border. In contrast with Ben’s flat, Jong-su’s surroundings are dark and oppressive, without relief, reflecting his social outlook as well as his inner turmoil. We learn about his complex relationship with his father, who is in prison. Consumed by envy, loss, and conflicted masculinity turned toxic, Jong-su’s rage is increasingly palpable, eventually alienating himself from Hae-mi by calling her a whore.

[The greenhouse] has a physical form, but it is transparent and has nothing inside. (…) It is purely cinematic in the sense that it cannot be fully explained with a concept or an idea.

Lee Chang-dong[vii]

The most solidifying moment of Ben’s – and the film’s – enigma is when he tells Jong-su that he burns greenhouses for pleasure, calling them needless and useless. “You can make it disappear as if it never existed,” he says, while admitting he’s planning to burn one down near Jong-su’s home very soon. Jong-su turns obsessive in checking every greenhouse around. However, a subsequent turn of events implies that the fragile constructions might have been a metaphor, and it is here that Lee masterfully ties together the perpetual inability to know what is real.

The end of Burning culminates in a decision fuelled by alienation and anger, based on what to Jong-su seems like a certain reality. The audience’s interpretation is informed by the character’s connecting of the dots, yet the truth is inconclusive. Rather than finding certainty, Jong-su’s interpretation and final act say more about the rage, hopelessness and confusion of a disillusioned generation. As Peter Debruge wrote for Variety: “Truth and meaning are virtual impossibilities in Lee’s oeuvre.”[viii]

Sanne Jehoul

GSFF Producer/Programmer
January 2019



[i] Niels Ruëll, ‘Lee Chang-dong over Burning’, Focus Knack (21/08/2018)

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Claire Lee, ‘Youth unemployment reaches 19-year high in South Korea’, The Korea Herald (22/08/2018) [accessed 29/01/2019]

[v] ‘A Dance That Seeks Meaning of Life: A Short Conversation with Director Lee Chang-dong by Oh Jung-mi’, Burning EPK, Thunderbird Releasing

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Peter Debruge, ‘Film Review: Burning’, Variety (16/05/2018) [accessed 29/01/2019]

All Monday to Friday shows before 5pm have capacity capped at 50% (unless otherwise stated). All other screenings have full unlimited seating capacity (unless otherwise stated).

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