Premiering last week in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, South Korean director Lee Chang-dong (Poetry) has made his first film in eight years, Burning, an adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story. Triangulating Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in), a poor, aspiring writer, with Haemi (Jun Jong-seo), a forgotten high school classmate now grown into a beautiful young woman ("I've had plastic surgery"), and Ben (Steven Yuen), a rich yuppie Haemi meets while traveling, Lee's drama of frustrated dreams explores the simmering tensions of life outlook and class lurking behind young Koreans' aspirations of success and happiness.
We spoke with Lee Chang-dong at the festival about the mysteries of the source story, his relocation of part of Murakami's tale to the city of Paju, and class conflict in Korea. Special thanks to Kelley Dong for her assistance with translation.
NOTEBOOK: Where did you want to depart from Haruki Murakami’s short story, "Barn Burning"? Your film goes much further than that story does.
LEE CHANG-DONG: Rather than try to find what was lacking from the story, I was really focusing on the minimalistic storytelling of Murakami’s text, as well as its mysterious elements. I was attracted to it because it gave me a lot of room to develop and expand into the cinematic medium. I thought about how I might be able to cinematically connect these existing elements to other mysterious stories. The possibilities were very attractive to me.
NOTEBOOK: You of course relocate the story to South Korea, and Jongsu’s home to the town of Paju. How did you settle on Paju as a specific location?
LEE: I chose Paju because it is what you might call a typical Korean location. As urbanization progresses in Korea, the farms are increasingly disappearing. There are also are very few young people who live in rural areas today. But our protagonist, Jongsu, lives in Paju because of his father, within a reality that he wishes to escape. Though this location is only an hour from Seoul, it is near enough to North Korea that you can hear the North Korean propaganda broadcasts. It is a space that well reflects the nature of South Korea’s closeness to the North.
NOTEBOOK: You spoke earlier of the mysterious qualities of Murakiami’s story. A lot of people seem to be characterizing Burning as a thriller, but I’m wondering if you also see it as a ghost story. Not literally one with ghosts, but figuratively—about Jongsu being haunted by his love for Haemi.
LEE: It’s possible to interpret it as a ghost story. There is an unknown substance, though it is one that you still believe to be physically present. It is a story that follows something you do not know.
NOTEBOOK: That unknonwn is Haemi, a character I found very carefully defined. She’s at once seems an idiosyncratic and individual person, but there is also something idealized about her. How did you go about creating this character that seems both real and fictionalized?
LEE: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that she never existed from the beginning, though you may interpret it as such. I feel that she is a realistic character. When you see her, she is a person who struggles while still searching for the meaning of life, even travelling to Africa to do so. Unlike many young people, she is a serious and intent woman.
NOTEBOOK: So you don’t seen Jongsu’s desire to write and create fiction as something that affects the story? That what we see happen in the story may in fact be a product of his writing?
LEE: Jongsu is an aspiring writer. But those who write novels often turn to those around and the mysterious world surrounding them and from there, ask the question, “What story can I and will I tell?” They are actually not looking at the world, but looking for a story in the world, and determining what words to say. But Haemi is a woman who lives and seeks the meaning of life in a very different way. In some ways, her qualities as a person are much more pure and sincere than Jongsu’s writerly qualities.
NOTEBOOK: The dichotomy between Jongsu and Ben, his rival, is very clear and timeless: Poor and rich, from the countryside and from the city. But you characterize these men, both the same age but living very different lives, particularly of the moment. Do you feel like these are two different paths we’re seeing of a generation in Korea?
LEE: I think their dichotomy is not exclusive to Korea, but is a global trend. Jongsu in Paju, and Ben in Gangnam—the wealthiest, quietest, and most clean district of Korea—the two of them exist on opposite ends of the spectrum. But a lot of young people today live somewhere between these two poles. Many feel the helplessness that Jongsu feels, but they want to live like Ben. Some even assume that they are currently living like Ben.
NOTEBOOK: In that sense, is the final, violent gesture your film ends on not just an act of frustrated love, but also an act of frustrated privilege, class privilege?
LEE: Yes, it could be seen as a frustration, an overcoming of the class gap today. That is the moment that the rage explodes. The film is a mystery that regards the question, “Who is Ben?” as it follows its suspicions of Ben’s character. But in the conclusion, we transition into the question, “Who is Jongsu?” Jongsu is a young person who carries rage. We see how the originally seemingly pure Jongsu evolves into a different person, and witness what Jongsu’s naked body has become.