Director Lee Chang-dong’s Burning takes the story of the youth of 2018 and tells it in a literary way. Based on Barn Burning, a short story by Japan’s Haruki Murakami, the film uses symbolic dialogue to etch in our minds the sad fate of today’s youth who live as have-nots in our capitalist societies. In addition, the drums of the soundtrack, composed by Mowg, are reminiscent of the drumbeats of Africa, a place one lead character had dreamed of traveling to, and Lee expands the geographic space of Paju into an inconcrete, symbolic place roamed by youth. Perhaps viewers who live elsewhere, or those not buried under the contemporariness of youth, will be able to make out the symbolism and ‘ontology’.
However, just as the youth of today find it difficult to pay attention to the heavy symbols and beauty of Korea’s literary language, so is it likely that Burning will struggle to connect with the public at large.
Burning vs Green Fish
About an hour into the film, a question popped into my mind. Will the youth of this age be able to relate to Jong-su (played by Yoo Ah-in) and Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), whom the director describes in such detail? And I recalled Green Fish, the film that established Lee as a social-issues filmmaker.
Green Fish was a noire based on similar relationships to those of Burning. Mak-dong (Han Suk-kyu), a young man recently out of the military, met Mi-ae (Shim Hye-jin) and entered the criminal underworld. The film centered on Mi-ae’s place of work, a night club ruled by gang boss Bae Tae-Gon (Moon Seong-geun), and the ensuing love triangle between Bae who wished to possess Mi-ae and Mak-dong who also loved her ended in a tragic murder.
Twenty years on, the gang boss who symbolized unethical wealth in Green Fish has become the mysterious Ben of Burning (Steven Yeun). The representative of ‘the youth of today’ has changed from Han Suk-kyu, who is now in his 50s, to thirty-something Yoo Ah-in, but the existence of this character has not changed. Just as in 1997, the young man of this film lacks a decent job and is unable to protect the woman he loves: a woman who is again objectified as a helpless sexual sacrifice between the man who has everything and the man who has nothing.
While Green Fish was not a hit in 1997, with only 160,000 viewers, it was selected as a film of the year and was praised by critics and audiences alike. The actor Han Suk-kyu came to represent the youth of the times and Koreans still recall Mak-dong, along with Yeong-ho, the protagonist of Lee’s follow-up, Peppermint Candy, as young men whose lives speak for their eras. Mak-dong stepped into the real world without knowing anything of it. He failed to escape the shadow of his Ilsan family and was ignorant of the materialism embodied by Bae Tae-gon. As a result, his attempt to make a living turned into a reckless failure that cost him his life. Even for people who didn’t see the film , the scene in which Mak-dong dies in a puddle of blood while talking to his brother on the phone echoed for years.
In 2018, the young man who was fresh out of the military and in search of a job at a night club has turned into a part-time worker who identifies with William Faulkner. The woman Jong-su loves also works temporary jobs, wearing revealing clothing to promote products. The youth who did not hesitate to work at a night club and even kill for money has become a youth who wishes to write but doesn’t know what to, who wants to make money but is unable to endure the world’s coercions, who is still helpless but still proud. And Hae-mi, his love, is not much different. Her life is also obscure, like the Africa she dreams of. This is the image of the youth of 2018 in the director’s eyes. The youth who were so tangible in 1997 are depicted as helpless and ambiguous in 2018.
But watching the scene in which Jong-su arrives at his part-time job only to leave without a word over the militaristic behavior of his boss, I wondered if perhaps it was the director that was ambiguous. Lee tries to explain these youths for over an hour, but the more he explains, the more abstract they become—and this abstraction feels rather disconnected from the youth of today. It feels as though the youths depicted in Burning are abstract still-life paintings of what should have been rough charcoal sketches. The public identified with Green Fish‘s Mak-dong, but Burning‘s Jong-su feels too vague and intangible for 2018. How many young people will relate to the abstract, vague presence of William Faulkner, with whom Jong-su identifies? The director tries to paint a picture of today’s youth, but will today’s youth identify with the image Lee has created of them?
Burning vs Paju
In its telling of helpless youth set in the city of Paju, Burning reminds me of Paju, a 2009 film starring Lee Sun-kyun, whose recent performance in the tvN drama My Mister left viewers with lingering memories. In Paju he played a helpless outsider, Jung-sik, perhaps involved in the suspicious death of a woman.
Directed by Park Chan-ok, the 2009 film portrayed Paju as a rural city being destroyed by the construction of high-rise apartments. The entwined loves of two women and a man were fated to be resolved at the site of a sit-in protest held by the residents of old buildings. The film symbolized the relationship between the youth of that era and their locations.
The urbanizing Paju of 2009 returns to the screen in Burning‘s 2018 as a rural town in decline, sidelined by the development of the neighboring Ilsan and littered with abandoned greenhouses. Lee Chang-dong aims to depict the neglected of a highly capitalist society. In Lee’s perspective, today’s youth are not the type to strive for capitalism, as in Green Fish, or to struggle to face its shadow from within, as in Paju. Lee’s idea of the youth of 2018 are people of an even more capitalist society, yet they are neglected by it and completely lost.
The title Burning refers to an internet slang word for when someone is obsessed. But Jong-su is aimless. He has quit his part-time job and found himself in the dilemma of being unable to write, his dream since graduating with a degree in creative writing. Unexpectedly, he meets and becomes involved with his ex-girlfriend and a mysterious man who seems to possess her. In doing so, he confirms the meaninglessness of his life.
In Lee Chang-dong’s films, gender is an important mechanism that mediates the themes that the director wishes to explore. Burning is no different. The woman, in whom Jong-su becomes absorbed but Ben does not, is the one that awakens the warrior in him. And while his choice at the end of the film is explosive, it simultaneously seems too contrived to justify the nature of his character. It is likewise too contrived to be a condemnation of the wealthy symbolized by Ben. And his agonizing burning is as superficial as Ben himself, who only appears in Jung-su’s life by complete chance.
Burning vs Return
The reason Green Fish became such a talking point was the gang boss Bae Tae-gon, who made the life of the young Mak-dong even more tragic. The brutal evil embodied in this character, who ruthlessly eliminated anyone he could not possess, highlighted the goodness of Mak-dong. In Burning, the same role is given to Ben. It is unclear how Ben makes a living, but he lives in a villa in Gangnam, drives a luxury car, smokes marijuana like cigarettes, and burns down abandoned greenhouses for fun. He symbolizes the immorality or post-morality of this age. However, the ‘axis of evil’ represented by Ben is not destructive. Nor is it new.
The moral anomie of the children of chaebol or powerful and prestigious families—like Ben— was recently presented, and lavishly, in Return, an SBS series. Actually, not only in Return. Ben is a continuation of the characters who frequent films and television shows, such as Jo Tae-o played by Yoo Ah-in himself in the film Veteran. In this aspect, Burning begins without any narrative novelty by replicating the trite love triangle between a wealthy immoral man, a woman he has fun with, and an innocent man who once loved her.
This narrative cliché can be offset by the subject the director wishes to discuss. That is why our society keeps churning out stories that paint the unethical wealthy as an axis of evil.
Burning vs Poetry
So, has Lee Chang-dong succeeded in presenting the contradictions of our society and tormented youth?
At this point, I’m reminded of another of Lee’s films, Poetry. That film told the sorrowful story of an elderly woman, Mi-ja (Yun Jeong-hee), who raised her grandson by working in her old age. Also explored were the awareness she gained of the world through a poetry course and the reality in which she found herself. The plain concreteness of her reality and that of her grandson made the awareness she arrived at all the more heartbreaking. Could there be a more felicitous way to explain the weight of awareness and responsibility that come with the humanistic notions of knowing, realizing, and seeing.
The concreteness of the elderly woman’s situation (a story which began with an immoral incident involving youths) made the sad ending shine all the more brightly. Which is why I feel there is something lacking in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning. It’s not that I didn’t understand the symbolism Lee tries to express through the film. It’s that I cannot erase the feeling that the symbols he depicts in the film are too vague for the youth of 2018, unlike those of Poetry, which reached the reality of Mi-ja’s life. Just as our ‘literary’ literature is not easily communicated to the youth of today, this familiar, symbol-ridden story about a man who has everything and another who has nothing does not seem approachable, despite the persistence of its exploration.
It is a shame that the symbolism in Poetry did not resonate with audiences, but it seems that Burning never even had them in mind. Thirty-year-old Yoo Ah-in’s Jong-su feels like a time traveler who came to 2018 from the 1980s or 1990s. Today’s youth enjoy Haruki Murakami’s literature but they do not live it. To the youth who have been forced to participate in battle, Jong-su’s war might be a luxury.
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