The modulated screams from across the border fade with the sun. Even tyranny must rest for the night. The loudspeakers are unplugged. The workers go home. Over the DMZ in South Korea, three very different young people gather on a humble farmstead. Quiet like a blanket settles across the countryside, and the border between these divided nations and individual souls, wherever it was moments ago, is gone.
This is the liminal world of Burning, a film based on the short story “Barn Burning” by Haruki Murakami (and also inspired, in many ways, by the William Faulkner story of the same name). It is a film that undulates in genre and form to showcase a society in sexual, economic, and generational chaos. In response to the unknown rhythms of the modern world, the film offers oneiric quicksand rather than ideological concrete. Director Lee Chang-dong has spoken in many interviews about how Burning was birthed from young people’s rage in South Korea and beyond. He has pegged the wellspring of this rage as a mysterious and ever-present unknowing—or, as his character Hae-mi calls it within the film, a Great Hunger for the meaning of life.
One might call Burning a coming-of-age film; stories in that genre usually operate in a specific mode, as young characters run a gauntlet of challenges that ultimately lead to their betterment, or at least to a place of greater understanding. The literary definition of this genre, known as the bildungsroman, cites spiritual education as the goal. These are stories that present the confusion and mystery of growing up as a symptom, not a cause, of maturity. However strait the gate, the other side promises clarity of purpose.
Lee Chang-dong reorients, or better yet, disorients his characters’ relationship to this promised clarity. While Burning could still be considered filmic bildungsroman, the real centerpiece of the work is the eerie in-between state that overtakes the characters’ lives, derailing their search for meaning and stranding them in the wilds—the transitory period that’s known in anthropology as liminality. The cinematic alchemy of Burning transforms this abstract theory into something that an audience can feel in the pulse of every scene and then, perhaps, in their own world outside of the theatre.
Burning begins as a meandering and seemingly self-indulgent riff on romance’s most common refrain: the love triangle. Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is a laborer who wants to be a writer, while Ben (Steven Yeun) is a rich playboy with no need for work. They both circle around Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo), a shop model who dreams of better things. It works well enough as a darkly comedic view of class in South Korea—as the poor Hae-mi alters her physical appearance through plastic surgery and the equally poor Jong-su falls entranced before the sprawling sight of Seoul from a shabby apartment complex’s window, the omnipotent Ben contents himself through “play” in this infinite fun-land for the wealthy (as Jong-su observes, Ben is one of the many Gatsbys of modern South Korea, whose inherited wealth and investment acumen free them from any committed career, let alone working hours). In a more traditional story, Jong-su’s work ethic and troubled background would lead him toward a hardier moral framework that would eventually topple the emptier Ben. Of course, he would also accomplish his twin dreams of becoming a writer and winning Hae-mi’s affection, too.
Yet, even from the beginning, something is askew. A traditional frame never fits this story, nor these characters. Ben, the rich devil, is overwhelmingly benign and friendly toward his supposed romantic rival. On the other hand, Jong-su’s infatuation with Hae-mi is quite perverse. Their courtship begins when Hae-mi reminds Jong-su that they grew up together in the countryside, though he doesn’t seem to recall much about her at all. Their single sexual encounter (heavily implied to be Jong-su’s first in general) launches off when Hae-mi recalls a memory of young Jong-su calling her ugly. When Hae-mi departs for Namibia and leaves Jong-su behind to feed her unseen cat, he develops a habit of compulsively masturbating every time he visits her small apartment.
Finally, there’s Hae-mi herself. Even as the girl who will supposedly reawaken Jong-su to the world, she has a tenuous grip on reality. She comes alive in the presence of the unseen and untouchable. She schools herself in the art of mime and eats invisible tangerines to satisfy her little hungers, but her bigger void cannot even be filled by a sunset over an exotic country. Jong-su cannot bring himself to hold onto anything in his life, as he lives day to day in a besotted land of slippery literary metaphors. In contrast, Ben claims that he can will himself further than the real, projecting himself, as he tells Jong-su, into “simultaneous existence” across all possible realities. What could this impossible statement even mean to someone like Jong-su? Until the full shape of Ben’s psychology comes into focus, this just seems like more evidence that Ben inhabits a completely separate world than his poorer compatriots. In his weird, alternate reality, he is the be-all, end-all.
Hae-mi, however, is much more sensitive to the war raging on the borderlands of society’s perception. She can be moved to a fit of weeping or a dance of longing at the slightest touch of the metaphysical breeze. She hopes she can navigate out of life’s stormy weather, and believes that people like Jong-su or Ben might want to join her on the other side—not comprehending that they have already settled into their respective coping mechanisms for life. Paradoxically, it is her great sensitivity that numbs her to the danger that swarms around someone so open to any and all change.
All of these unnerving warning flares set the stage for Burning’s momentous midpoint shift into psychodrama, as the three characters converge at Jong-su’s farmhouse on the border of North Korea and light up a joint as the sun yet again falls from the sky. With subtle sleight of hand, Lee Chang-dong shifts the central subject of this not-love triangle from Hae-mi to Jong-su. This lost and confused young man will be presented with a choice that will drag him from his self-protected shell of “little hungers” into a confrontation with the Greater one. Hae-mi offers him one path, and Ben another. Jong-su will make his choice without any attempt at understanding these offers, blinded by his imagined inequities and unacknowledged insecurities. He will grasp too late that he strove to understand the wrong person.
Murakami’s protagonists are almost always men. They run the gamut from foolish idlers to hopeless wretches. Their goals are vague, ill-defined, and often limited by the indulgences and distractions of everyday life—a cooked meal, a smoked cigarette, half a glass of beer. Murakami’s stories can be divisive because these men often seem to encounter magical women who shock them into moments of transcendent reverie, horror, or ecstasy. Almost as often, these women tend to vanish after fulfilling this purpose.
It’s not illogical, then, to describe these female characters as plot devices. However, where other authors, especially in the bildungsroman tradition, elevate their male characters through these female functionaries, Murakami often takes a subversive route. In fact, this reader would argue these protagonists’ indulgent reveries never lead them anywhere all that great. In fact, any triumph these so-called heroes experience often signals a coming dissolution. They move from uncertainty to crazed romantic obsession and back again into uncertainty. The forgetful remember only to forget once more.
As the critic Walter Chaw put it, Lee Chang-dong crafts his loose adaptation of Murakami with a near “biological” understanding of what makes the author’s stories compelling to so many people. He shoots with that subjective sense of confusion that engulfs Murakami’s protagonists. When the director first read the story, he didn’t see the connection between burning barns and killing women. It was his female co-writer, Oh Jung-mi, who brought this second interpretation to his attention. Lee Chang-dong sensed his writing partner’s rage at the flippancy of the barn burner’s words, and from that, the potential coalesced for expanding Murakami’s slim parable into something grander. Lee Chang-dong found a parallel between Murakami’s wandering men and the modern world’s liminal state of being.
The first theory of liminality was defined by the French anthropologist Arnold van Gennep in his 1909 work, “Les Rites de Passage.” As the title states, he envisioned the liminal through cultural constructs in tribal communities, generational experiences that helped youths move into adulthood. They involved a metaphorical death, followed by a transitional journey of sorts, and finally an incorporation back into the community. Interestingly, his three stages of liminal experience directly mirror both the traditional three acts of story structure and that structure’s prototypical form in the Campbellian Hero’s Journey—a story theory that describes a hero’s departure from childhood, their subsequent initiation rites and challenges, and triumphant return as a wiser adult. In the theory of liminality though, the emphasis is on the middle stage, full of questioning and uncertainty. Here, Gennep describes the characteristics of the liminal experience, and its subject, the “initiand:”
“[T]he initiands live outside their normal environment and are brought to question their self and the existing social order through a series of rituals that often involve acts of pain: the initiands come to feel nameless, spatio-temporally dislocated and socially unstructured.”
He described these liminal processes as both “constructive” and “destructive.” It is a coming-of-age gauntlet, and an act of seeking. Of hunger. And although Gennep’s research did not catch on in his own time, the scope of liminality studies has grown significantly since then.
British anthropologist Victor Turner rediscovered Gennep’s work in the 1960s and expanded upon it in his 1967 essay Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage. Turner believed “[liminality] served not only to identify the importance of in-between periods, but also to understand the human reactions to liminal experiences: the way liminality shaped personality, the sudden foregrounding of agency, and the sometimes dramatic tying together of thought and experience.” In other words, the importance of liminality lies less in the results than the process itself. It is the source of our unconscious decisions and transfigurations, and, therefore, the fuel that shapes the world around us.
Again, the nerve endings of liminality and narrative touch one another and transfer electricity. Perhaps they are part of one greater structure. Both liminal experiences and narrative journeys toss people into a forge of conflict, with a promise of hope on the other side. A liminal journey is a hero’s journey. When viewed from an even grander historical scale, liminality can also be seen in the philosopher Karl Jaspers’ conception of “axial ages” of history, when the “unquestioned grasp on life is loosened” and human thinking and operation undergo dramatic renaissance and transformation thanks to a “deep breath [that brings] the most lucid consciousness.” Similar lines of questioning led modern anthropologists like Arpad Szakolczai, Agnes Horvath, and Bjørn Thomassen to envision our present-day, globalizing world as a liminal society.
Global anxieties, such as immigration, climate change, the rise of artificial intelligence, and the shifting economic tides all those processes bring to bear could be felt as shade beneath the liminal dome. Victor Turner described this long-term period of questioning as an “institutionalization of liminality,” while Szakolczai deemed it “permanent liminality.” In other words, wherever we are in the world, however wealthy or poor we may be, whoever we may be to ourselves and those around us…we all walk in the shadows now.
The individual, the tribal, the global—Burning traffics in all things liminal. However, as Bjørn Thomassen writes, “liminal experiences [can] become intensified as the personal, group, and societal levels converge…over extended periods of time, and even within several spatial ‘coordinates.’” This brings us back to Jong-su, Hae-mi, and Ben’s fateful sunset on the edge of the DMZ, as Lee Chang-dong allows all elements of liminality to take over the sequence and define the heart of the film. The characters have reached the crux of their story together. They sit on the edge of their country, gazing into an existential funhouse mirror of their nation’s ideals and progress. A rung above that is the very rotation of the Earth, as it slowly shifts into a darker gear.
Speaking with Film Comment, Lee Chang-dong calls this sequence “the central image in this movie.” Even shooting the sequence proved to be a liminal struggle—filmmaking at the so-called “magic hour” of dusk is often prohibitively difficult to pull off, as the very minutiae of planetary time becomes the filmmakers’ direct adversary. This sunset sequence took over a week to shoot, as the filmmakers balanced daylight, darkness, and the actual North Korean propaganda that would interrupt their work. Witnessing the film pull it off adds a subconscious layer of eerie inexplicability to the sequence, while the seams remain hidden from direct sight—even if it wasn’t captured in real time, it feels as natural as any Linklater evening.
Liminality is initially evoked in the three-act structure of this sunset. The three young people sit in a row on Jong-su’s ramshackle porch as the daylight goes soft tangerine around them. For just a moment, confusion and imbalance vanish from the film. Jong-su, Hae-mi, and Ben appear at peace with themselves and one another. Hae-mi declares it her best ever day. This moment seems to directly oppose her earlier description of the lonely sunset she experienced while traveling near the Kalahari Desert.
Ben, the eldest of the three, leans into this perfection and produces a joint. Here arrives the inciting point of their journey together through the sunset. Just as the tribes Gennep studied sometimes utilized intoxicants as a gateway into the liminal, Ben acts as that portal here. Even to a suspicious Jong-su, the gesture seems like outreach. Only someone with privilege like Ben could be so casual about an illegal object like this joint, and Ben seems to be making an offering to Jong-su and Hae-mi through this medium. It is an invitation to a higher plane and a communal act—a rare and unique event coming from someone as cool and reserved as Ben. Here ends act one of this sunset. Gennep’s “preliminal rites” spark off as these young people get stoned.
Hae-mi stands up. The warmth of the orange sunlight dims to tungsten, and a softly melancholic violet overtakes the scene. Hae-mi walks through this transition, and Ben once again operates as M.C. by turning on a Miles Davies cue from his Porsche’s sound system. Lee Chang-dong’s camera follows Hae-mi until she is perpendicular with the far horizon. She wavers and shakes like tree branches in a storm, yet she remains rooted to the ground. She strips off her shirt and bares herself to the world. Her hands rise into the air, imitating the Kalahari tribesmen she idolized on her travels, and stretch out in a dance of Great Hunger.
In a conversation published in the film’s program at Cannes, Lee Chang-dong and Oh Jung-mi described the entire film as “a dance in search of the meaning of life.” This central tenet is literalized in Hae-mi’s liminal dance. She moves between Jong-su and Ben, but not for them. Where Ben might see empty foolishness and Jong-su needless promiscuity (and where perhaps audiences could see either as well), Hae-mi briefly escapes their gaze and their definition. The frame is solely hers and we are solely hers for the briefest, most beautiful moment in the entire film.
But then the music fades, and Hae-mi’s steps falter. Once again, it seems that no one has answered her call. Crumpled sweater grasped against her breast, she stumbles back toward Jong-su and Ben. The camera allows this exit, but remains fixated on the distant landscape and sky for a noticeable amount of time. The evening sounds of rustling leaves, whistling birds, and purring bugs become the sole soundtrack element. Visible light dips away, and only its navy echoes hold off the night. According to Gennep’s structure, a postliminal state should now emerge for our characters. There is potential energy whirling in the air, waiting for great change.
Hae-mi passes out, and Jong-su can only laugh in disbelief at what he’s witnessed. Ben remains passive as they cart the sleeping Hae-mi inside before returning to the porch. Hae-mi, like so many Murakamian women, has become a medium of transformation. Her dance unlocked something inside of Jong-su, but he can’t quite feel it out. There is a sudden intimacy between these two men, and Jong-su, for the first time in the story, opens up. He reminisces about the night his mother abandoned his father and him on this farm, and how his enraged father ordered Jong-su to set her leftover belongings ablaze on the front lawn—exactly where Hae-mi just lit her own burning flare for hope. And suddenly, out of nowhere, Jong-su puts his finger on the strange feeling in his heart. “I love Hae-mi.”
And like any perfect narcissist, Ben cuts into Jong-su’s path to revelation with surgical precision. “Sometimes I burn down greenhouses.” Where momentarily there was clarity, a shroud of confusion returns to Jong-su’s features. Instead of following Hae-mi, Jong-su’s obsession turns toward Ben. As the rich man describes his habit of selfish arson, Jong-su, like any initiand, finds himself still loosed from temporal and moral reality. He is not out of the liminal after all.
Ben speaks of the fire’s thrill, and the deep rhythm it sends reverberating into his bones. There are two moments in Burning where Ben shows genuine emotion. This is the first, as he beats his fist against his chest, and mist clouds the rim of his eyes. Here is an answer to Jong-su’s question, “Who is Ben?” He is a man who lives for pure experience, not meaning. He is a modern man.
Ben’s preferred type of experience was also catalogued by Victor Turner in his examination of liminality. He distinguished them from pure liminal experiences, and instead deemed them “liminoid.” Bjørn Thomassen summarizes Turner’s thoughts on the matter as such: “The liminoid is a break from normality, a playful as-if experience, but it loses the key feature of liminality: transition.” So as Hae-mi seeks to traverse the liminal in search of real transformation and great meaning, Ben contents himself with liminoid existence. He believes he has perceived all the useful lessons of life through “the morals of nature.” There are no boundaries left for him to cross. He is free to worship himself as Creator and Destroyer, existing in both states at once.
In this, perhaps Lee Chang-dong and Oh Jung-Mi suggest the key differential in this existence equation is gender. Others might argue class. In any case, the privileged are the ones who can choose not to commit. They can flirt with the boundaries, but remain forever excused from permanent position or stance. They can fluctuate with their feeling and define their existence only by the beating of their own heart. In their world there are only little hungers, and even those can be satiated with the proper existential diet. That is what Ben tells Jong-su when the topic of love arises. He argues there is no certainty or comfort to be found in love. Ben tells Jong-su to follow fear and desire instead. Keep his eyes peeled for the flames. Seek them out. That is the path to rapture.
The sun’s light recedes, but Jong-su remains trapped within the liminal zone of this sequence for the rest of the film. Twisted up inside, he insults Hae-mi one last time and degrades her dance of hope as nothing but reprobate desperation before Ben drives her off into the night. Jong-su will never see her again. Taunted by Ben’s claim that he will soon burn down a greenhouse near Jong-su’s farm, Jong-su searches in vain for this destroyed property—but when Hae-mi vanishes without a trace, Jong-su begins to suspect Ben wasn’t being quite so literal about the greenhouses in their sunset conversation. Is Ben a killer, or is Jong-su slowly losing his mind? Each potential answer has evidence in its favor, but Burning is less concerned with those answers than it is with Jong-su’s new preoccupation with his own Great Hunger.
Jong-su has lost his chance to be satisfied. Hae-mi is now far out of reach, as is the man he might have become in her presence. There is nowhere to return. What looks like postliminality is really permanent liminality in disguise. Rage is the only response to muster. The sun sets. The ritual ends. Life is but a mystery. Feed a fire, Jong-su, for the darkness has come.