Director Lee Chang-dong’s new film, “Burning,” adapted from the Haruki Murakami short story “Barn Burning,” centers on a would-be writer who doesn’t seem to do much writing. Granted, he has a lot going on: a recent college graduate, Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is working as a delivery boy when his father’s arrest over a violent outburst forces him to return home and tend to the family farm outside Seoul. Between meeting with his father’s lawyer and caring for a calf he just can’t seem to sell, Jong-su also finds himself shuttling back and forth between the farm and the city to see Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo), a childhood neighbor with whom he has become reacquainted after a chance encounter. Hae-mi is a young woman who pantomimes eating fruit, asks Jong-su to feed a cat that may or may not exist while she’s out of town, and travels to Africa to learn more about what she calls the “Big Hunger”—the human drive for truth, for understanding. Jong-su is, in no time, totally enamored.
All of this is to say that while Lee depicts Jong-su engaged in any number of activities, he does not depict him writing—because he isn’t. How could he be? Writing fiction requires a certain clarity of intent, of events, of people and their motivations. It necessitates a coherent narrative, a grasp of what is true and what is not true. An author understands their characters’ reality and that their subsequent actions stem from that reality—simple cause and effect. Jong-su, Lee makes it abundantly clear, does not have the privilege of perceiving the world around him in any way but fragmentarily; the causes are obscured to him, so he cannot predict the effects.
What Jong-su has are facts, but the questions that stem from these facts are, to him, unanswerable. His father’s violent temper drove his mother away. Is Jong-su free to decide his own fate, or has he inherited some quality from his father that has preordained a future of loneliness? He has had no contact with his mother since childhood. Wherever she is, does she ache with the pain of their separation the way he still does? His phone rings again and again. He answers, only to be met with silence. Has somebody simply called the wrong number, or does somebody want to speak to him but can’t find the words?
Jong-su is not the only one who is confused, who is unable to distinguish between all of the competing narratives available to him. The only English sentences in the film are spoken by Donald Trump, on a television news program that is playing in the background. While Jong-su goes about his day, too busy to stop and read the Korean subtitles, the President of the United States is telling lies about his administration’s accomplishments to an international audience. Truth as a concept has been destabilized. Here is a man who does not experience the “Big Hunger.” He has money and power and, as far as he’s concerned, he gets to dictate the narrative by which the entire world must abide, consequences be damned.
Jong-su, on the other hand, has neither money nor power. When Hae-mi returns from Africa with a fellow traveler and new friend, Ben (Steven Yeun), in tow, the introduction of this character seems to be as a foil to the protagonist. Where Jong-su is guarded and nervous, Ben is calm and sure. Where Jong-su must on a daily basis navigate the myriad challenges of poverty, Ben is inexplicably rich and a gregarious host—like “The Great Gatsby,” Jong-su notes. The way in which Lee portrays poverty and wealth is a visual lesson in contrasts: Jong-su’s house and truck are paradoxically characterized by abundance, full to the brim with objects collected over the years. He and his father have not had the luxury of being able to discard their possessions, do not have the time or space to organize. Ben’s apartment is sleek, minimalist, practically empty. He has established control over the space he inhabits. Jong-su looks upon Ben warily, and not only because he perceives him as a competitor for Hae-mi’s affections. As far as he’s concerned, Ben is from another planet entirely.
Ben, however, is no simple inversion of Jong-su. His entrance into the film’s narrative has a destabilizing effect on Jong-su—or rather, he opens Jong-su’s eyes to a preexisting lack of stability of which Jong-su would prefer to remain ignorant. Even in the midst of the chaos constituted by his familial situation and the question of his future as a writer—or perhaps because of it—Jong-su is drawn to Hae-mi because he willfully believes he can hold their relationship in the palm of his hand, see it from all sides, understand it and be comfortable with it. When he meets her at her apartment, Hae-mi tells him that a glint of light shines off of the Seoul Tower directly into her room. They begin to have sex when Jong-su sees it: the light on the wall, just like she said. She has told the truth. At last, someone he can simply trust.
It’s possible, though, that Hae-mi is just a better storyteller than Jong-su. At one point she asks what a metaphor is, and yet she can perhaps be said to have constructed her life in metaphor, in pantomime, in the space between what is real and a mere representation of what is real. The way she presents herself is inherently performative, even in terms of the words she speaks, the truths she insists upon. She recounts childhood memories to Jong-su that he has no memory of—him insulting her in junior high, him saving her from the bottom of a well when they were even younger. And yet certain characters cast doubt upon the existence of a well at all. Jong-su is eventually forced to decide whether he’s been living as a character within Hae-mi’s fiction or whether something even more sinister is afoot.
That tension is what ultimately carries the film forward into increasingly unnerving territory. When Ben reveals that he burns down greenhouses as a hobby, Jong-su is uneasy but his interest is piqued. When he begins to suspect that Ben’s revelation may itself be a metaphor for something darker still, a second tension is introduced—between the pull of these two competing narratives, the fabric of Jong-su’s very reality is at risk of tearing.
Even as Jong-su initially feels threatened by Hae-mi’s interest in Ben, he perhaps also feels threatened by the way in which he himself is being magnetically drawn into Ben’s orbit, complicating the simplicity of his desired monogamous, heterosexual narrative. Ironically, by resisting whatever attraction pulls him toward Ben, Jong-su feeds a paranoid obsession with Ben that becomes dangerous—though it isn’t clear exactly for whom. Jong-su has been saddled with ambiguity rather than understanding from the beginning, but as the film tips toward its conclusion it becomes clear that he cannot, is not willing to, dwell in that middle space any longer.
“Burning” is not just a film whose narrative is shaded with ambiguity—it is a film that examines and dissects ambiguity itself, both its maddening inescapability and also the consequences of rejecting it, of the leap required to commit to any truth. What is one to do upon realizing that their “Big Hunger” will never be fully satiated? One can make oneself comfortable within ambiguity, accepting the accompanying sorrow and pain of not knowing as a necessary facet of life. Or one can commit to a narrative, thereby rejecting all contrary evidence and competing narratives, all nuance, and act accordingly. This is the choice Lee presents—both to Jong-su and to the audience.
When you possess power, like Donald Trump, you can utilize a narrative to steamroll the world around you into accord with your whims. When you lack power, the temptation to seize control in any way possible, to commit to a narrative that shrinks the world until it’s at last comprehensible, can prove just as tantalizing. It’s as simple and as dangerous as wading into a river and letting the current sweep you away, as striking a match and letting the flames do their work. As Hae-mi says early in the film, while explaining pantomime to Jong-su, “What you do isn’t make yourself believe that there are tangerines there. You forget that the tangerines are not there. That’s all.”