Burning: A Tale of Mystery and Loneliness

Director Lee Chang-dong returns with his latest movie, Burning, starring renowned actors Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun, and debut actress Jeon Jong-seo.  After eight years since his last work, Lee’s movie has been the center of attention for film festival enthusiasts and critics alike. With built up buzz over critical acclaim at international and domestic showings prior to the New York Film Festival screening, Burning sets the competition ablaze and leads the way for the Korean New Wave.

Three characters from South Korea are weaved together by a slow burning set of events that leave the audience transfixed at how things could’ve gone so wrong. The film is an adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s Barn Burning, as well as William Faulkner’s short story with the same name. Ben (Steven Yeun) gives an explicit nod to Faulkner as he reads it at a café, shortly before being approached by Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in). Jong-su, a young man from the countryside, reunites with his childhood friend Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), who he doesn’t recognize until after she reminds him.

Once the story establishes the relationship between the two, Hae-mi leaves on a trip to Kenya, and later returns with Ben, a rich businessman whom she met on her way back to South Korea. After this meeting, a fuse is lit within Jong-su, paralleling his father’s current trial for his actions towards a government official. His father, a veteran, had a history of violence which supposedly drove away Jong-su’s mother. Every action, every perspective of Jong-su’s life plays in perfect juxtaposition of Ben; everything he lacks, Ben has. However, much like Jong-su, Ben is also a man of few words. The glimpses of Ben’s character are fleeting, and similar throughout each shot. He’s always smiling, yet maintains an air of mystery.

Director Lee sheds light on the divide between the urban and rural through the tension between Jong-su and Ben, brilliantly reflecting the unrest of South Korean youth. Just as a flame is slowly suffocated by a lack of oxygen, Jong-su’s own spirit and energy is steadily snuffed out, as he’s pushed to the fringes of Hae-mi’s life by Ben’s mere presence and display of wealth. Until one day, Hae-mi and Ben pay a visit to Jong-su’s house and Ben shares that he enjoys burning greenhouses. Ben tells Jong-su that he’s actually there to scout his next greenhouse, and he’s been eyeing one close to Jong-su’s house. Not long after, Jong-su receives a call from Hae-mi, but he only hears a chilling set of car noises. She goes missing from that point on, with no one, other than Jong-su, questioning where she is.

Ambiguity and the exploration of existence are at the core of Burning. The film works in gray areas, where the line between truth and falsehood are blurred despite the realities presented to the audience. Are the greenhouses real or just metaphorical? Although Ben claims to have burnt a greenhouse, Jong-su fails to find it. Much like the disappearance of non-maintained greenhouses, people disappear without a trace in a large city like Paju.

There’s a lot of information to unpack in this two and a half hour movie, but its beautifully crafted world gives insight into a multi-faceted, complex relationship. It’s an enjoyable ride, and the simmering anger ultimately erupts in the film’s ending.

After the New York Film Festival screening, Steven Yeun participated in a short Q&A session with the NYFF organizers and the audience.

When you started working on the project with Lee Chang-dong, were you the first or last to be cast as one of the main characters?

Steven Yeun: I think I was cast second. Yoo Ah-in was always attached and he’s phenomenal. There was an actor who was supposed to play my part and somehow they found me. After I joined, they found Jeon Jong‑seo, and as you saw, she’s amazing.

The film was roughly based on Falkner and Murakami’s short stories. Is it something that Lee Chang-dong discussed on set?

Steven Yeun: Yes, and even before we were on set. I think where Director Lee, in my opinion, made sense of the adaptation and was commenting on Murakami within the confines of his own work. There’s a perfect juxtaposition between both of their works, and that sets the tone of the work.

When you were shooting, would you do several takes with different interpretations of your characters?

Steven Yeun: He gave me a lot of freedom. I wasn’t in a position where I had to please the director. Instead it became, let’s keep mining until we get the performance that we’re all looking for. He and I would talk about when we would want to show flashes of Ben in one light and in another. We discussed and sometimes we disagreed about our conclusions, but for someone of his caliber to let me feel like I had that freedom was really wonderful.

APA: When you were filming in Korea, did you feel a sense of loneliness?

Steven Yeun: Yeah, I had like double. It was a strange experience to go back to South Korea. Obviously being Korean American and being born there while growing up here…it’s loaded. Also, being known for a show that’s global, it was a strange situation. I felt very lonely and it was incredibly useful. I think that was a mixture of a lot of things. One, it was actors getting to know each other. It was systems combining. All of us knew that’s what we wanted out of the experience. The three of us, how we connected, was loneliness. As people and as characters. I was staying at the Grand Hyatt, where it’s Americanized and I felt comfortable there. But when I go out, I felt othered, maybe because someone might recognize me, so I’d stay in my room. I apologized to most of my friends, who are expats, because I couldn’t go out to see them. And within the actors, we were just letting the process of the film play out. I remember talking to Ah-in after we all got really tight, I told them, “Man, I was so lonely for the past three months.” He was like, “I’m so sorry, but we had to.” But I wasn’t saying “Why did you leave me dry?” and instead I was thinking, “Yeah, it was awesome.”

How did you feel playing an almost completely bad guy? Was it more because of Director Lee or from your own creation?

Steven Yeun: I remember Director Lee telling me the thing that he enjoyed was that I understood the character closer than he did. I think that was because of the preparation I did beforehand. Like what would create a person such as this. I had some ideas and concepts to build a backstory for him. It was coming more of a place from understanding his reality. For me, he very well could be a bad guy but you saw a version of him through Jong-su. That’s part of the mystery of our world. We come up with the things we want to believe and sometimes they’re true. We don’t know. My own personal approach was almost a high level of self-actualization through means of money, power, etc. He had the opportunity to not worry about the Little Hunger. He was worried about what it means to exist and in some ways, he’s probably the most present character. Maybe the sad part is that he’s the only one there and the others are off creating their own realities. And that’s lonely too.

Burning opens in the US on October 26, 2018. Currently, the film is about 148 minutes and contains nudity, violence, and some content not suitable for general audiences.

Kalai Chik

Pop culture writer focusing on animation, music, and games. Los Angeles native, USC alumni, and contributor for Asia Pacific Arts since 2015. Follow me on Twitter, @kalai_chik.

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