Burning: Lee Chang-Dong’s Thriller Explores Masculinity, Rage, and Korean Identity
A new thriller inspired by Murakami investigates post-grad longing, generational trauma, and national identity.
At first glance, Burning (2018), by the prolific director Lee Chang-Dong, seems languid. It invites us to immerse ourselves in the depressive monotony of the life of Jong-Su (Ah-In Yoo), a recent creative writing college graduate, who returns to his family’s empty country home located at the edge of the DMZ. Jong-Su’s father, who we never meet, has recently been jailed for aggravated assault of a police officer. By chance, Jong-Su meets a childhood friend, Hae-Mi (Jong-Seo Jun), while she is working as a sexy storefront girl. After the former friends grab their first drink, Hae-Mi asks Jong-Su to look after her cat while she vacations in Africa in search of self-discovery. When Jong-Su accepts the request, Hae-Mi brings him to her apartment, and the pair have awkward sex, a scene that establishes their coupling as not quite believable. Typical of Haruki Murakami stories, (the film is loosely inspired by Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning”) Burning paints its female protagonist as something of a mystery, with an interiority that evades view. When she returns from her trip, she has a mysteriously rich and handsome man named Ben (Steven Yeun), in tow. As the three young adults start to spend more time together, Jong-su becomes increasingly uncomfortable with Ben’s suave cosmopolitan presence, which is a direct foil to Jong-Su’s fumbling country-side masculinity. Not only is Ben rich, but his lifestyle leans towards Western interests. He listens to classical music and Miles Davis, he drives a Porsche and makes pasta for dinner. Time, always suffocatingly slow throughout the film, reaches a complete standstill when Ben tells Jong-su about his penchant for burning down greenhouses. Ben’s opaque past and personality takes on a sinister undertone. If Jong-su is troublingly muted, Ben is carelessly volatile. Ultimately, the story is about the two men, Hae-Mi, as with the liminal essence of the spaces the characters inhabit, seems strangely unreal.
Burning indulges in monotony with distinct intention. Every long take is a test of breath, where filmic air has somehow penetrated the 4th wall, and its tension engulfs the theater. Even as the film lives in life’s lull–post-college anxiety, waiting for a lover to come home from vacation, sharing a joint while looking out into the wide expanse of a korean countryside–the viewer is filled with an undeniable feeling of dread. This dread has history that is generational, in family and in nation.
Burning, Han, and Hwabyung
Steven Yeun, the actor who plays Ben, tells Entertainment Weekly his first attraction to the script was its ability to “hit a deep emotion that you can’t explain,” and references Han as a strong undercurrent this film and much of korean cinema. Han is a Korean concept widely regarded as a collective national memory of trauma inflicted by thousands of years of invasion, colonization and imperialism by Korea’s neighbors and beyond. Undergirding this trauma is an intense well of emotion, developed in a bond of victimhood that is expressed in sadness, or indelibly, anger. Han is associated with the concept of trapped heat, a kind of rising tension that can manifest in extreme feeling. A result of Han induced anger is called Hwabyung, a fatal, medically recognized disease where one can quite literally die from rage. If Han is inherently tied to Korean national identity and its people, then it stands that the divide between Jong-su and Ben extends beyond class anxiety, as has been discussed in reviews by the New York Times and Washington Post, and is profoundly activated by their uneven containment of Han.
Jong-Su lives by the border of North and South Korea. Every day, he wakes and hears the blaring of North Korean propaganda announcements that bleed into the Paju landscape, where he resides in his childhood home. Though it is clear that these announcements are coming from another place, the film’s sprawling shots of the Paju countryside show no recognizable border between the North and South. North Korea’s proximity is only felt in the abstract, yet the country’s presence is embedded in the film’s consciousness, felt as a constant, haunting threat of an inexplicable national divide. Similarly, modern politics enter the world of the film through spectral sounds. In one scene, we see Donald Trump’s face glowing obliquely but recognizably from the screen of Jong-su’s TV. In parallel to Jong-Su’s physical and aural proximity to a border, the TV reminds us of Trump’s violent immigration policies. It is evident here that the DMZ does not only signal the trauma of national split, but also heavily references the imperialistic US border violence that was inflicted during the Korean War, and continues its legacy today. The Korean War is not over, the film shows us, and the sounds of North Korean propaganda serves as a constant reminder of the instability of the relationship between the North and South– ultimately speaking to the instability of South Korea’s national identity.
This instability presents itself in Jong-su and Ben’s dynamic in a scene where Ben and Hae-Mi spontaneously visit Jong-su in Paju, bringing with them expensive food, wine and weed. As they pull up in Ben’s Porsche, a vague EDM beat thumps out the open windows, contrasting drastically with the pastoral landscape. But as soon as Ben switches off his engine, the rumble of the North Korean propaganda announcements replace the vibrations of the bass. When Ben is told what the announcements are, he simply replies, “how fun,” displaying his casual indifference to the presence of the border. Ben’s class difference–his Porsche, his accent, and his apartment in Gangnam (a district known for its extreme concentration of wealth) lends itself to a larger discomfort in how it relates to his western interests and idiosyncrasies. Not only does Ben like classical music and eat pasta, but his name itself, Ben, lends the character a mysteriously foreign flavor, as director Chang-dong acknowledges in an interview with KWRC. The casting of Steven Yeun as the Westernized Ben was also deliberate. As a well-known actor for both American and Korean audiences, Yeun’s foreignness and hyphenated identity, signifies Ben’s position as a man with no country and no past. Yeun, who did not grow up speaking fluent Korean, had to be coached to speak impeccable Korean, but his character has a slight unplaceable accent. Ben’s ineffable otherness speaks to the dynamics of a foreign Western invader who does not seem to know of his counterparts’ historical trauma. Rather, he carries only a singular identity of bottomless wealth. Where Ben’s otherness intersects with Han is in his distinct lack of it through his wealth (some South Koreans say Han has diminished, and attributes this decline to increased access to consumerism). Ben’s lack of Han, and, more generally, a lack of identifiable emotion, gives the character a sociopathic quality.
As evening settles in Paju and Hae-Mi falls into a weed-induced slumber indoors, Jong-su and Ben light another joint, igniting one of the most important moments in the 2 hour and 28 minute film. As Ben sits back, lounging and smoking in front of Jong-su’s house without a sense of intrusion, his self-assured, quiet entitlement sharply contrasts with Jong-su’s huddled presence, uncomfortable even in his own home. The film’s sense of boredom and languidity reaches the pinnacle of its tension. As night falls, Ben callously tells Jong-Su that he enjoys burning down greenhouses every couple of months. Ben casually likens his crimes to nature’s ruthlessness: “There’s no right or wrong, just the morals of nature.” In an effort to fill a void– perhaps left by sociopathy, entitlement, or total apathy– Ben desires to burn and destroy. This revelation thrusts Jong-su into a vivid childhood memory of his father setting his mother’s clothes on fire. The inferno of the burning clothes mirrors the image of a burning greenhouse. As Jong-su remembers his father’s anger and his mother’s departure, he imagines himself in a burning greenhouse. At last, the tension breaks, and we see manifestation of Jong-Su’s internalized Han. Han maintains its grip on the national Korean consciousness not only through the legacy of war, but also through collective and intergenerational memory. We can see a paternal legacy of rage in Jong-su’s father, whose anger first drove Jong-Su’s mother out of the home, and has now led to his arrest for the aggravated assault of a police officer. Jong-su represents a distinctly Korean masculinity in crisis, contained within a body brimming with collective feeling. He stands in direct contrast to Ben, whose confident but vacuous masculinity is the product of historical amnesia and capitalist voraciousness. As this is a story about the two men and ultimately, the formations of their masculinities under a nation in constant flux, we must understand that this flux is stoked by agitation and inflammation. Ben–in turn a foreign invader, apathetic destroyer, a symbol of sexual virility marked by wealth–is a direct aggravator of Jong-su’s blatant incompetence. His unstable sense of direction, geographic location, and desirability is further destabilized by Ben’s presence. When Hae-Mi disappears, there is no more buffer between the two men’s furtive and sly gazes, and tension explodes.
Durga Chew-Bose, a writer and editor for SSENSE, sums up Burning’s indulgent allure in a recent tweet: “so much yawning napping & snacking which is why it feels so perfect for winter. The only movie I’ve ever seen where those hibernating qualities appear suspenseful. Where the sweetness of yawning, snacking and napping seem foreboding too.” The film’s final scene does nothing to relieve this suspense. Somehow, the filmic air becomes even thicker. We can only hear Jong-su’s breathing, which is somehow louder than any word he has uttered throughout the film. It is labored, desperate and frightening, yet his expression remains unchanged and affectless. The burning inferno that happens in the last sequence is hardly a spectacle. The viewer may hope for a release of tension in the film’s final moments, but Burning gives us none of that. Ben says that burning down a greenhouse only takes ten minutes, in one moment it exists, and in another it ceases to exist. Burning ends by troubling Ben’s statement. Tension is still taut, where a sharp burst of violence and rage offers no release. Trauma and the Han that follows will always leave a lingering trace, a rage that is constantly stoked will perpetually explode.
-Sheenie Yip 2/1/2019