Saturday, August 25, 2018

Economic Emasculation: Lee Chang-dong Adapts Murakami in Burning

Burning (2018) - Lee
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The film revolves around Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a farm boy from a small town near the North-South border, doing menial jobs here and there in the outskirts of Seoul and dreaming of being a novelist. His father is in police custody for assault charges. His mom ran off when he was young because of dad's anger issues. He runs into a childhood friend Haemi (Jeong Jong-seo), who dances in costumes in front of a department store to lure the customers in. She teases him for not recognizing her. It's because she had a facelift. Haemi is one of those thoughtful, attractive girls who sometimes falls into pit of melancholy as she thinks about the big questions in life - Why are we here? What's our purpose? So obviously Jong-su falls for her. Haemi has a favor to ask. She's been saving up for a trip to Africa. She wants Jong-su to take care of her cat while she's gone. What cat? He never sees her cat in her tiny apartment which faces Namsan TV Tower (its presence to Seoul-lites is as synonymous with Empire State Building is to NYers or Space Needle is to Seattlelites). But he knows the cat is there because its food bowl gets emptied out and there is occasional poo in its litter box every time he visits. He masturbates thinking of her, looking out the window, facing the tower.

Things get complicated when Haemi returns from the trip. At the airport, Jong-su finds Haemi with her new friend, Benny (Steven Yeun), a mysterious yet affable man. He doesn't have a job. Seemingly extremely well off, he is chaperoning Hae-mi in his porche to nice restaurants and cafés while inviting Jong-su along. There is something off about Benny. His detached attitude, his nonchalance- it's as if he is gliding through life. Jong-su is also jealous that Haemi is smitten by the charming yet strange man. He doesn't seem to care about anything and anybody, including his well-to-do friends.

After his father gets sentenced, Jong-su goes back to his old house to sort through the mess. One day, Haemi and Benny visits the house unannounced. They drink and smoke pot and the two men watch Haemi dance topless. Her dance is so emotionally charged and beautiful, the two men blurts out their innermost thoughts after Haemi collapses on the couch. Ben likes to burn greenhouses down. It's thrilling because he doesn't get caught. In fact, the visit to his humble house was for scouting a new target. Jong-su angrily tells him that he loves Haemi. Then couple days later, Haemi disappears. And what about the cat?

Even though Burning is based on Haruki Murakami's short story Barn Burning, it's a very Korean film in every way. Yes, Murakami's typical - disaffected, nihilistic, don't-ever-have-to-worry-about-money hero is there, superbly embodied by Korean-American actor Steven Yeun- his slight otherness is perfect for the role. But Lee Chang-dong's emphasis is on the society's deep chasm between haves and have-nots, city vs countryside, living under the shadow of capitalism and the always imminent threat of war are all very Korean.

Burning is a slow-burn thriller that is utterly captivating from beginning to end. It's economic emasculation that brings inevitable violence at the end. Once again, it's Lee's script that shines: layered with hefty metaphors and symbolism, yet the film is surprisingly subtle and never loses its magnetism.