Burning: A Textual Mindset within a Cinematic World

Illustration by Simone Eligon

In Haruki Murakami’s short story, “Barn Burning,” the narrator describes his girlfriend mime-eating tangerines, explaining as he watches her that “the sense of reality is sucked right out of everything around you.” In Burning, director Lee Chang-Dong’s 2018 cinematic adaptation of the short story, the sense of a stable reality never quite returns after this scene of tangerine-eating is depicted on-screen. Instead, subsequent layers of mystery transform the film into a vast field of uncertainties that continues to unfold within the viewers’ mind long after the credit rolls. Examine the film’s questions under a microscope and you will only find more questions; try to stick to one interpretation and you will start to second-guess yourself within the hour. Yet our inquiry itself is intoxicating, in part because our questions are reflected back to us by the protagonist’s own search for meaning within the mystery of his world. Jong-Su, whose romantic interest, Hae-mi, has mysteriously disappeared, suspects an unfamiliar man named Ben to have murdered her. The clash between reality and appearance in Jong-Su’s pursuit of the truth parallels the clash between reality and appearance that we experience as filmgoers. Does Ben only seem suspicious, or did he really murder Hae-mi? Chang-Dong’s suggestion is that the world lacks any such answers, but that we must commit to a worldview in order to escape the paralysis of uncertainty. 

Unlike the film’s two loose source texts, Chang Dong’s Burning is a sort of coming-of-age story. While Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” depicts its protagonist as a young child and Murakami’s “Barn Burning” transforms him into a middle-aged man, Chang Dong chooses to make Jong-Su a young adult, the very age at which one is trapped between childhood and adulthood. Jong-Su’s inability to get a job, writer’s block, sexual immaturity, and attempt to succeed his father in taking care of the family barn all demonstrate his stagnant position in life. Unlike Hae-Mi, who appears to be driven throughout the film by her search for meaning (reflected in her interest in the bushmans’ existential “Great Hunger” dance), Jong-Su seems satisfied with his stagnation until Haemi’s disappearance, which challenges not only his understanding of Ben, but his entire conception of the world. His obsessive search for the truth of Haemi’s fate becomes an embodiment of his search for life’s meaning. These two searches culminate at the same point of the film—Jong-Su kills Ben on the same day he sells his father’s cow, moves into the city, and seemingly begins his life as a writer.

This search parallels our experience as viewers of the film—our search for an objective truth when there is none. We cannot help but search for answers, a search Chang-Dong makes ever more intoxicating by ostensibly creating a murder mystery with no solution. It is natural to come away from the film and immediately ask “so… do you think he did it?” And for this reason, many of the discussions surrounding Burning have focused on these concrete questions of the film—interviews with the film’s cast are full of inquiries like “was the cat real?” or “do you think the ‘well story’ happened?” 

These sorts of questions are inherent to any film. We ask ourselves what the characters intend, feel, and think, and though the medium of film makes such interior knowledge impossible, we nonetheless attach our meanings and interpretations, taking them for fact. Chang-Dong himself expresses this view in an interview on Burning: 

“If we were to say metaphor is a concept or meaning, the worn-out greenhouse in the film is an image which goes beyond concept or meaning. It has a physical form, but it is transparent and has nothing inside… Nonetheless, the audience take in the empty illusions, giving them a meaning and a concept of their own. With this film, I wanted to show such mystique that underlies cinema as a medium.” 

Just as Lee Chang-Dong brings text into this quote as a point of comparison, he brings it into the film by making Jong-Su a novelist. His occupation as a writer within a film reflects his search for an answer within a world lacking them. Jong-Su’s desire to write throughout the film reflects a desire to “get behind” the disguise, to “[balance] out appearance and reality.” Throughout most of the film, Jong-Su is not able to write, reflecting his inability to balance out these two forces. When Ben asks Jong-Su why he hasn’t written anything, Jong-Su tells him it is because the world is a big mystery to him that he can’t figure out, suggesting that in order to write one has to have solved this mystery of the world. And, indeed, Jong-Su only becomes able to write once he makes up his mind about the mystery of Hae-Mi’s disappearance and decides Ben was truly culpable. This is reflected in the sequence of scenes after Jong-Su realizes the cat hiding in the garage responds to the name “boil,” after which Jong-Su tells Ben he “no longer has to talk about Hae-mi”—in other words, he has found his answer: Ben is culpable. It is after this that he finally becomes able to write, which we see him doing intently in his apartment on the dawn of the day that he will kill Ben. 

Only two scenes of the movie don’t feature Jong-Su—writing and the murder of Ben. These are the scenes which most clearly incriminate Ben; one features him taking lipstick (perhaps Haemi’s) from his restroom, and the other features him applying lipstick to his newest girlfriend, presumably in anticipation of killing her. The placement of these scenes right after Jong-Su writes in his apartment suggests that they are imagined, drawing a link between the two catharses in the film— Jong-Su’s murder of Ben and his breakthrough in his writing. To write is to interpret mystery. 

In the short stories of Faulkner and Murakami, we are faced with mystery and moral quandary, and questions of loyalty, culpability and justice. But the nature of text is necessarily interpretive, and in engaging with these works, we must transfer the words on the page through our understandings of language, grammar, life, politics, nature, and so on. The story filters through us, contingent on representing the author’s words within our minds. Therefore, when we read the short stories of Murakami and Faulkner, we witness their characters confront mystery, but we do not truly confront it ourselves. We experience their conflicts vicariously but are ultimately safe within our own minds.

When Chang-Dong brings their stories into film, however, these mysteries become external to us. Film exists as rays of light on a screen, completely independent of our interpretation. We can choose simply to observe, somewhat like Jong-Su does in the first half of the film, floating through life more as an audience member than an active participant. His actions seem entirely void of his own will until he begins to search for the truth of Hae-mi’s disappearance, at which point he begins to take on an interpretive “textual” approach. 

Yet as his approach becomes more and more textual, we are still within our “cinematic” mindset, confronted with a void of reason. The film’s final lines of dialogue (Ben: Where’s Hae-mi? You asked me to join you and Hae-mi. Isn’t she with you?) cause us to doubt Ben’s culpability and feel that perhaps, Jong-Su is making the wrong choice. The effectiveness of Chang-Dong’s choice to tell these stories within film is reflected in this uncertainty of the ending; through the contrast of our “cinematic” mindset and Jong-Su’s “textual” one, we are faced with the simultaneous necessity and danger of committing to a worldview. 

In Burning, Lee Chang-Dong pairs two stories of struggling for meaning into a medium which evades it. The parallel between searching for meaning within life and searching for the culprit of Hae-Mi’s murder thereby finds a third equivalent: searching for an interpretation of a film. All three of these searches are never completed with any sort of certainty; there is no confirmation that one has found the answer. Yet Lee Chang-Dong also illustrates that resigning ourselves to uncertainty makes us stagnant, while the act of searching animates and moves us. If Burning is a coming of age story, then to become an adult means to search for, and ultimately commit to, an answer to life’s mysteries.

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