For me, one of the joys of my works being transformed into another language is that I can reread them in a new form. By having a work converted into another language by someone else’s hand, I can look back and reconsider it from a respectable distance and enjoy it coolly as a quasi-outsider, as it were, whereas I never would have read it again if it had remained only in Japanese. In so doing, I can also reevaluate myself from a different standpoint.
—Haruki Murakami, “To Translate and Be Translated” (1996)
Why do we write? It’s a question I routinely pose to my composition students on the first day of class, and with each passing semester, I find myself circling back to the same pair of guiding principles from Bruce Ballenger’s popular textbook The Curious Writer. According to the author, we write for two reasons: to communicate and to discover.
This writerly need both to express our feelings and to uncover hidden truths cuts to the very heart of Lee Chang-dong’s exquisite 2018 film, Burning. In a 2019 interview with Andrew Chan for the Criterion Collection, the South Korean director echoes Ballenger’s thoughts when discussing his own writerly impulses:
When I was growing up, my family had to move around a lot, from one boarding room to another. And so I was alone all the time and it wasn’t easy to make friends. I guess I wrote fiction out of a desire to communicate with all those certain somebodies out there, people whose names and faces I didn’t know. That’s the constant through all the genres that I’ve worked in—this desire to communicate.
Lee goes on to describe the protagonist of Burning as an artist who “looks at the world and wonders what kind of story would have meaning in it.” The search for meaning through the act of writing—for Lee’s character and perhaps for all writers—is a lot like playing detective. By putting pen to paper, we start uncovering clues, interpreting evidence, and making connections. In essence, we’re all just taking a stab at solving life’s little mysteries.
In a manner of speaking, that’s exactly what Burning’s protagonist, an aspiring writer named Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), does at the end of the film. However, as the movie opens, solving a mystery is probably the last thing on his mind. While working as a part-time deliveryman in Seoul, Jong-su crosses paths with Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a young woman who claims to hail from the same rural neighborhood. Although Jong-su doesn’t recognize her, the two hit it off and soon find themselves in bed together. Alas, this burgeoning romance must be put on hold because Hae-mi has already booked a soul-searching trip to Africa, leaving Jong-su no choice but to agree to feed Boil—her conspicuously shy, possibly nonexistent cat—as he awaits her return. When Hae-mi finally returns to Seoul, Jong-su goes to the airport to pick her up but is surprised to find her in the company of a wealthy stranger named Ben (Steven Yeun). Unsurprisingly, a love triangle ensues, one that culminates in a series of confessions, a shocking disappearance, and a brutal confrontation.
Prior to the explosive finale, Jong-su has grown increasingly suspicious of Ben to the point of stalking him everywhere he goes, believing that the mysterious interloper may be involved in Hae-mi’s unexplained disappearance that occurs midway through the film. When Ben catches Jong-su surveilling his posh Gangnam apartment, he asks his rival to come inside to join a small gathering of friends. Before any of the guests arrive, Ben enquires about Jong-su’s literary aspirations:
BEN: Jong-su, what kind of a story are you writing? If you don’t mind my asking.
JONG-SU: I don’t know what to write yet.
BEN: How come?
JONG-SU: To me, the world is a mystery.
In an interview with Diva Vélez for Screen Anarchy, Lee Chang-dong emphasizes the significance of that revealing exchange: “That line, ‘The world is a mystery to me,’ I feel like that not only encapsulates Jong-su’s character, but the entire film, as a whole…to Jong-su’s eyes, the entire world is a huge riddle to him.” In so many ways, this line exemplifies Burning’s preoccupation with the themes of communication and discovery, motivations that strike to the very heart of why we write—and perhaps why Jong-su, a would-be author, cannot bring himself to write for most of the film’s running time.
Lee Chang-dong himself was a novelist before becoming a filmmaker, and his film’s debt to other writers cannot be overestimated. In terms of inspiration, the movie adapts “Barn Burning,” a 1983 short story by the Japanese author Haruki Murakami, whose own writing style has been deeply influenced by key figures in the American literary tradition. Furthermore, the film makes specific—and narratively significant—allusions to at least two of those influences: William Faulkner’s 1939 short story “Barn Burning” and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby. These intertextual references center on conflicts involving region and class, two concerns that are mostly absent in Murakami’s original short story but ones that take on greater significance when transplanted to the more class-conscious South Korean setting.
In many ways, adaptation is an act of translation and interpretation. When adapting a literary text, a filmmaker must take the author’s prose and translate it into the language of cinema, all in the hopes of communicating some essential truth from one type of text to another—and in this case, from one language to another. And yet, what a filmmaker chooses to retain, omit, or enhance from the original reveals their personal interpretation of the source text.
Burning is, fittingly enough, a film obsessed with interpretation. The plot hinges on the disappearance of a young woman, which suggests that the film should be classified as a mystery, the genre that most actively encourages viewers to interpret the evidence placed in front of them. But Burning is no simple whodunit. The ambiguity of human relationships—of what we see, of what we don’t see, and of what we choose to ignore—is the film’s biggest mystery. If we do indeed write to communicate and to discover, then Burning depicts a heartbreaking failure of voice and of vision by exposing the tragic flaws of its writer protagonist, Lee Jong-su.
MURAKAMI AND THE PRIVATE “I”
I sometimes think that people’s hearts are like deep wells. Nobody knows what’s at the bottom. All you can do is imagine by what comes floating to the surface every once in a while.
—Haruki Murakami, “Airplane” (2002)
Haruki Murakami’s “Barn Burning” (“Naya o yaku”) was translated into English by Philip Gabriel for the November 2, 1992 issue of The New Yorker and was retranslated by Alfred Birnbaum for inclusion in the Murakami collection The Elephant Vanishes the following year. Due to the tale’s narrative ambiguity, the central metaphor of “Barn Burning” could easily be missed. In 2002’s Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, translator Jay Rubin provides only a brief description of the story, remarking that “Murakami leaves so many loose threads hanging, not least the girl’s disappearance at the end, that the mood of the piece can hardly be anything but bewilderment.”
Curiously, in the two paragraphs Rubin dedicates to “Barn Burning,” he does not even hint at the story’s darker implications—namely, that the missing woman in the story has likely been killed and that the “barn burning” of the title serves as a euphemism for another character’s murderous impulses. In an interview with Amir Ganjavie of MovieMaker Magazine, Lee Chang-dong admits to missing this detail:
To be honest, when the writer that I worked with, Oh Jung-mi, suggested that I adapt this story, I didn’t quite see what she was seeing because the story seemed to be neither here nor there. It seemed like a play on words and a story about plays on words. At the very beginning, I didn’t even see the fact that the burning of the barns could be potentially symbolized as killing a woman…What stimulated me was when Oh Jung-mi told me about reading the part where the character in the short story says that he was burning “useless barns.” Oh Jung-mi said that expression enraged her because she was imagining that referring to people and especially a young woman. Her rage stimulated me into thinking past that. I thought that this “nothing story” could be expanded to talk about other, bigger mysteries.
To expand Murakami’s “nothing story” to feature length, Lee peppers his adaptation with numerous references to images and interests that recur in the author’s work: a missing cat; deep and dangerous wells; home-cooked pasta; a love of jazz; and a deep-seated desire to understand things that are not spelled out, hence Jong-su’s telling statement: “Life is a mystery.”
Despite these many allusions to the author’s larger oeuvre, one could also argue that Burning often feels nothing like a typical Murakami story. Yes, there is an obvious cultural difference between Japan and South Korea, but Lee changes Murakami’s unnamed protagonist in ways that both alter and enhance the meaning of the original text, particularly in respect to point of view, performance, and characterization.
Many of Murakami’s works—“Barn Burning” included—employ first-person narration. As Jay Rubin points out in the aforementioned Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, the personalities of the author’s nameless male narrators often bear a resemblance to “his own, with a generous fund of curiosity and a cool, detached, bemused acceptance of the inherent strangeness of life.” In certain respects, a typical Murakami protagonist also bears much in common with the narrators of two of the author’s all-time favorite novels: Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby and Philip Marlowe from Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye.
Yet having made those comparisons, it’s important to recognize the key difference in Lee’s narrative approach—while Jong-su is indeed the central character of Burning, the film does not employ voiceover narration to duplicate the first-person point of view of Murakami’s short story. Of course, this is all part of the director’s strategy as he revealed to Patrick Brzeski of The Hollywood Reporter: “So, while the audience is made to follow Jong-su throughout the film, I wanted the audience at the same time to distance themselves from this character and look at him from an objective point of view.” Aside from what Jong-su actually says or does, which is often very little, we have no access to his thoughts and thus no clear idea of what’s going on inside his head.
Further distancing Jong-su from the typical Murakami protagonist is actor Yoo Ah-in’s masterful performance. Throughout the film, the character is uncommunicative and awkward—a far cry from the eternally cool Murakami narrator. In numerous scenes, Yoo will often be seen with his mouth slightly agape, making Jong-su the very personification of the term “slack-jawed yokel.” When standing next to Steven Yeun’s handsome, impeccably groomed Ben, Jong-su sometimes looks as if he hails not just from a different class standing or regional background, but from an entirely different planet.
Another glaring difference between Jong-su and his literary predecessor involves their respective stations in life. Murakami’s original protagonist is 34 years old, married, a published writer, and comfortably middle class. Jong-su, on the other hand, is fresh out of college, single, unpublished, and struggling to find full-time work. As Burning’s plot unfolds, we also learn that he was a creative writing major with hopes of becoming a novelist. And yet, Jong-su spends the majority of the film not writing a single word of this purported novel. Unlike many films that focus on writers, there are no extended montages of Jong-su typing away at his laptop, scribbling observations into a leather-bound journal, or even staring at his computer screen in frustration, despite the character’s obvious writer’s block. In fact, the first time we even see Jong-su writing he isn’t actually working on his novel. However, you could say that he is writing fiction—a fiction about his father, one that ties directly to Burning’s second literary antecedent, William Faulkner.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
—William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (1951)
When Jong-su identifies William Faulkner as his favorite author, it is the first indication that the character possesses any real appreciation of literature. His explanation is simple: “When I read his work, I feel like I’m reading about myself.” And indeed, for any viewer familiar with Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” itself an influence on Murakami’s identically titled short story, the parallels become glaringly obvious.
Faulkner’s much-anthologized tale opens with Sarty, a 10-year-old boy sitting in a makeshift courtroom for the arson trial of his father, Abner Snopes. Called upon to testify, Sarty feels pressured to lie on Abner’s behalf. In Burning, Jong-su finds himself in a similar predicament, as his dad is being tried in a local court for property damage, obstruction of justice, and assaulting a civil servant. Later, we see Jong-su typing away on a laptop in his father’s home in rural Paju, which borders North Korea. Surprisingly, the often-expressionless Jong-su laughs and smiles to himself. Is he working on a piece of fiction and delighted with his handiwork? Not at all. When the camera cuts to the laptop screen, we learn the truth—Jong-su is writing a letter to the judge, asking for leniency. He writes, “Lee Yong-Seok was an honest farmer and our friendly neighbor.” This is nothing less than a bald-faced lie. When Jong-su later asks a local farmer to sign the petition, the man agrees but immediately takes issue with the wording. “Frankly,” the man says, “he was never friendly.” This, we soon learn, is quite the understatement.
Midway through the film, Ben and Hae-mi make an impromptu stop at Jong-su’s home in Paju. Towards the end of the visit, the two men find themselves alone on the porch. Without any prompting, Jong-su embarks on his longest sustained speech in the film, which not only reveals the truth about his father but hints at much greater depths than his blank exterior initially suggests:
I hate my father. My father has an anger disorder. He has rage bottled up inside of him. It goes off like a bomb. Once it goes off, everything gets destroyed. My mom left my sister and me because of it. The day my mom left I burned all her clothes. My father made a fire in the yard and made me burn them with my own hands. I still have dreams about that night.
What motivates his father’s destructive rage? In Faulkner’s original story, Sarty thinks that his father “couldn’t help but be” what he is, but it’s clear that class resentment fuels the proverbial and literal fire of Abner’s hatred towards others, and the implication remains the same in Burning. Both texts share a rural setting, which Lee Chang-dong expounded upon for Daniel Kasman of MUBI:
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 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.1
Jong-su’s father represents a dying way of life, and the revelation by his lawyer that he chose to become a farmer out of pride despite having the means to pursue more lucrative opportunities in real estate—in Gangnam, no less—makes the resultant dissolution of the Lee family all the more tragic.
Faulkner’s story ends with Sarty finally breaking free from the thrall of his dysfunctional family, a choice which culminates in Abner’s probable death by gunfire—a sign that the sins of the father shall not be visited upon the son but will instead remain buried with him. Curiously, the resolution to Burning’s analogous father-son plot is far less dramatic. Jong-su’s father is found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in prison with nary a word uttered between the two men. The anticlimactic nature of this outcome, coupled with Jong-su’s sale of the last remaining cow on the farm, suggests that he, like Sarty before him, has found his freedom from the cycle of violence. However, Jong-su is more like his father than he knows or wishes to be, as his obvious resentment toward Ben threatens to boil to the surface at any time.
Still, Jong-su’s recognition of his father’s “anger disorder” and professed hatred for all that he represents would suggest that our protagonist will avoid a similar fate. After all, if you accept the famous logic of George Santayana—that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”—then the inverse must be true. However, to the supposition that knowledge inoculates us from the repetition of past mistakes, I would offer a rebuttal through a line of dialogue from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the film’s third and final literary influence. To twist the words of Jay Gatsby to my purpose, I would say, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”
“THERE ARE SO MANY GATSBYS IN KOREA”
When someone asks, “Which three books have meant the most to you?” I can answer without having to think: The Great Gatsby, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. All three have been indispensable to me (both as a reader and as a writer); yet if I were forced to select only one, I would unhesitatingly choose Gatsby. Had it not been for Fitzgerald’s novel, I would not be writing the kind of literature I am today (indeed, it is possible that I would not be writing at all, although that is neither here nor there).
—Haruki Murakami, “As Translator, as Novelist” (2013)
In response to Jong-su’s painful, personal admission about his father, Ben does not offer any words of comfort or understanding. Instead, he responds with a confession of his own. However, to understand the significance of this odd disclosure, we must first discuss the relationship between Haruki Murakami’s “Barn Burning” and The Great Gatsby.
Murakami’s love of Fitzgerald’s most famous book is well-documented. After all, he not only translated the novel into Japanese but included references to Gatsby in everything from 1987’s Norwegian Wood to 2017’s Killing Commendatore. Readers like myself, who had only read Arthur Birnbaum’s translation of “Barn Burning” in The Elephant Vanishes prior to seeing Burning, might assume that the Gatsby reference is yet another added flourish by Lee Chang-dong. In fact, both Murakami’s original 1983 and revised 1990 publications of “Barn Burning” in Japan include a reference to The Great Gatsby, and the Philip Gabriel translation in The New Yorker does as well. Two different Korean translations of “Barn Burning” exist based on the 1983 and 1990 versions, and Lee Chang-dong and co-writer Oh Jung-mi seem to have consulted both, considering that aspects exclusive to these two variants appear in the film.2
In the Philip Gabriel translation, the Japanese equivalents of Jong-su and Hae-mi have a conversation about how Murakami’s analogue for Ben makes a living:
“He must be pretty well off, don’t you think?” I asked her once.
“Yeah,” she answered without much interest. “Guess so.”
“I wonder if you can make that much in foreign trade.”
“That’s what he told me. Said he was in foreign trade.”
“Well, I guess he must be. But I don’t know. He doesn’t seem to be working anywhere. He meets a lot of people and makes a lot of phone calls, but he doesn’t seem to be too wrapped up in it.”
Just like Gatsby, I thought. A young man who’s a riddle: you have no idea what he does, really, but he never seems to be hurting for money.
Lee Chang-dong replicates this scene in Burning, but with a South Korean twist. Prior to the porch confession, Jong-su visits Ben’s Gangnam apartment for the first time and finds a stolen moment alone with Hae-mi. As he smokes on the balcony, he remarks, “He’s the Great Gatsby.” Hae-mi doesn’t seem to understand, so he clarifies his meaning: “Mysterious people who are young and rich, but you don’t know what they really do. There are so many Gatsbys in Korea.”
Beyond being a shadowy figure of mysterious wealth, Ben shares a number of other similarities with Fitzgerald’s character. First, just as Gatsby wishes to confide in Nick Carraway about his past, so too does Ben seek out Jong-su as a potential confidante. During their first meeting, he says outright, “I want to tell you my story.” In addition, Gatsby adopts a mannered way of speaking, which is replicated in Steven Yeun’s performance, as the actor explained to Nick Chen of Dazed magazine: “Ben speaks the most exact Korean…Rather, it’s not colloquial. He’s very on point in his Korean, and it sounds weird, because you’re like, ‘People don’t talk like that.’” When Lee Chang-dong spoke to Screen Anarchy, he concurred with Yeun’s take on the character: “He says [his lines] in perfect Korean, but there’s that different something that you just can’t put your finger on. There’s something different, even though it is perfect Korean.”
In Fitzgerald’s novel, Gatsby’s odd speech patterns reflect a desire to appear as if he belongs among the upper-class elites of East Egg, but affectations like “old sport” immediately expose him as an outsider. Why does Ben speak in “perfect Korean?” Is he trying to maintain a strict barrier between himself and others, in particular, the working class Jong-su and Hae-mi? Or is he trying to fit into Korean high society by speaking precisely (even pronouncing Faulkner in a Korean rather than American way) but still unintentionally telegraphing that something is amiss?
Whatever his many similarities with Gatsby may be, Ben is no carbon copy of Fitzgerald’s most famous character. Despite his immature desire to repeat the past and make everything as it once was, Gatsby at the very least possesses a dream, one based in love. Ben has no such dream—his desires, whether literal or metaphorical, seek only to destroy.
After Jong-su admits to hating his father, Ben responds with a non sequitur: “Sometimes I burn down greenhouses.”3 This strange confession, whether literal or metaphorical, immediately captures Jong-su’s attention. Ben, if we accept the interpretation suggested to us by Jong-su’s actions, is secretly an amoral sociopath whose privileged lifestyle affords him the cover to hurt those in our society who are most vulnerable. But even if Ben played no part in Hae-mi’s disappearance, he remains the perfect foil for Jong-su. However, the contrast between the two men is not simply an issue of class. If we look closely at the faces they present to the world, we see Jong-su as dull and expressionless yet containing hidden emotional depths, while Ben is handsome and expressive but perhaps all surface. What lies beneath that facade, if anything at all, becomes an all-consuming mystery for Jong-su to solve.
WRITING HIS OWN ENDING
I don’t like to explain the meaning of my films. Being a director is exhausting because I have to promote the film as if I were a World Cup Publicity Ambassador. I can’t say no. The problem is I keep explaining things. I used to be a teacher so I’m good at explaining—that’s my specialty. But the more I explain, the less accurate I feel. If I could explain it in words, why make a film? I would rather write a column at home if I could. But since I can’t, I make films. It’s a drag to have to explain them.
—Lee Chang-dong in Kim Young-Jin’s Lee Chang-Dong (2007)
After Jong-su admits to his rival that “the world is a mystery” towards the end of the film, he excuses himself to the restroom. During his earlier visit to Ben’s apartment with Hae-mi, he snuck a peek inside the bathroom cabinet and noticed a makeup kit and a drawer filled with various feminine accessories—earrings, bracelets, a keychain, a coin purse, and more. The viewer is left to wonder whether they belong to the same woman or multiple past girlfriends (one bracelet reads “Michaella”), not to mention whether they have been left behind by accident or if Ben somehow stole them from their previous owners. During Jong-su’s second and final visit to Ben’s bathroom, he once again opens this drawer and sitting prominently among these items is a pink watch, the very same type that belonged to Hae-mi. Jong-su’s reaction to this discovery suggests a dawning epiphany—the bitter realization that Hae-mi’s time is likely up.
Both before and immediately after this revelation, Jong-su cannot help but notice a few curious facts that seemingly connect Ben to Hae-mi’s disappearance. For example, Hae-mi’s cat Boil is also missing, and Jong-su is surprised to discover that Ben suddenly owns a cat. When the supposed stray escapes the apartment, a small search party is dispatched to the parking lot, and Jong-su is able to corner the cat one-on-one. Out of earshot of Ben, our protagonist finally has the opportunity to voice his suspicions aloud, as he calls out the name “Boil” in a whisper. In what appears to be the film’s final damning piece of evidence against Ben, not only does the cat seem to recognize the name, but it also walks over to Jong-su when called. With this final reveal, Ben’s culpability in Hae-mi’s disappearance seems all but confirmed. However, unlike many other mystery films, Lee Chang-dong does not allow Jong-su the opportunity to verbalize his theories for the audience nor does he enhance the viewer’s comprehension by giving us a montage of flashbacks or imagined scenes to help sort through all the clues.
Nevertheless, anyone who has ever read a mystery novel or seen an episode of Law & Order would be able to piece this puzzle together—Ben is a serial killer who targets young, working-class women who don’t have close family or friends. He takes trophies from each of his kills, which now includes Hae-mi’s watch and her cat. According to this logic, Ben has already moved on to his next target: Yeon-ju (Kim Soo-kyung), another vulnerable girl with the same naive disposition as Hae-mi. In a typical mystery, it would be up to the amateur sleuth to save the day, either by going to the police or taking the law into his own hands. While Jong-su decides to act, but not without first making a stop at Hae-mi’s apartment.
In each of his previous three visits to her cramped home, Jong-su has masturbated: twice while looking out the window at Namsan Tower, once on the bed in a fantasy involving Hae-mi, the only time that the film overtly breaks from reality. As a result, the viewer might expect Jong-su to once again engage in a moment of self-pleasure—his back is to the camera, and soft sounds can be heard. But this is all misdirection. He’s actually typing on his laptop. In this wry commentary on wannabe writers, Jong-su’s masturbatory days are seemingly over, and he’s finally ready to do it for real again—writing, that is. But we can’t see what he’s written.
Up until this point, there is not a single scene in Burning in which Jong-su is not present—in a dream sequence that doubles as half-memory, half-fantasy, we see Jong-su as a child. Later, even as we watch Ben work out in a high-rise gym, the camera pans and then cuts to show Jong-su looking up from the streets below. However, everything changes after he writes on his laptop—the camera pans out to see the larger cityscape, and then the film cuts to Ben alone in his bathroom, putting on his contacts, taking a makeup case from the bathroom cabinet, and applying it to his new girlfriend. Ben’s cell phone rings, and he looks at the caller, before continuing with the makeover. Jong-su is not in this scene at all. Does that mean the film has gone to an omniscient, rather than subjective point of view? Or does that break in perspective indicate a break in reality? Even Lee Chang-dong seems willing to entertain the possibility, saying to Patrick Brzeski of The Hollywood Reporter “that [the last scene] may or may not have been a part of reality.”
Whatever the truth, it seems that Jong-su has discovered the plot. Are all the so-called clues about Hae-mi’s disappearance simply random coincidences? Or do they add up to something bigger? As a creative writer, Jong-su opts for the latter course, constructing a meaningful sequence out of these still potentially coincidental events. The world is no longer a mystery to him, and his writer’s block is gone.
Whether what we see at the end of the film happens in real life or in Jong-su’s novel remains unclear. What is clear is that Jong-su has decided to write an ending of his own—he lures Ben out to the countryside and stabs him to death, using a blade from his father’s elaborate knife collection (among the more overt examples of Chekov’s gun in recent memory). He drags Ben’s body back to his car and sets it on fire, becoming an arsonist in the process. Jong-su has avenged his love, but he’s also condemned himself. Ben’s rich friends will be unlikely to forget their encounters with the odd, out-of-place Jong-su, and the driver of a passing truck during the murder will most assuredly remember their two incongruous vehicles—a Porsche 911 Carrera S and a Kia Bongo Frontier—parked on the side of that lonely country road. Like his father before him, the Jong-su we see at the end of the film will likely end up incarcerated and alone.
So even if Ben is indeed Hae-mi’s murderer, this is not a victory for Jong-su. He doesn’t get any answers about Hae-mi; he never even asks a question. In fact, he doesn’t say a single word. Although he may believe he has discovered the truth, Jong-su has no idea how many clues he’s missed along the way about a much bigger mystery that’s constantly eluded him—Hae-mi’s feelings towards him. And it’s this last touch, unremarked upon by Lee Chang-dong, that makes Burning a Murakami adaptation in the truest sense.
MISSING THE MARK
O the generations of men
the dying generations—adding the total
of all your lives I find they come to nothing…
does there exist, is there a man on earth
who seizes more joy than just a dream, a vision?
And the vision no sooner dawns than dies blazing into oblivion.
―Sophocles, Oedipus Rex
I cannot be sure, but I have a hunch why Lee Chang-dong did not connect the burning of barns with the murder of women when he first read Haruki Murakami’s “Barn Burning.” The answer is quite simple actually—it’s because the protagonist of the story doesn’t make that connection either. True, the narrator becomes obsessed with finding a single burned-down barn in his neighborhood, but he never finds it and remains baffled by the arsonist’s insistence that he did indeed set fire to one nearby. Of course, what the narrator doesn’t know is that the so-called “barn” that the stranger torched is the story’s equivalent to Hae-mi. This somewhat covert form of dramatic irony—one in which the reader has the opportunity to comprehend a truth that the character does not—is truly an unheralded aspect of many of Murakami’s works.
A prime example of the author’s use of dramatic irony is his 2013 novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, which centers on the title character’s quest to solve the central mystery of his life: the inexplicable dissolution of his high school friend group. Without giving away the novel’s ending, I can say that Tsukuru’s investigation reveals that his perception of his teenage years cannot be completely trusted—his memories of high school are colored by his youthful insecurities, thus blinding him to an otherwise obvious truth.
While Tsukuru receives some measure of catharsis before the novel concludes, another mystery lingers. In a dangling subplot, a similar event occurs during Tsukuru’s college days when his newest friend Haida suddenly disappears, never to be heard from again. No goodbye. No forwarding address. No note. Nothing. While Tsukuru embarks on an amateur investigation, his best friend’s disappearance is eventually chalked up as a baffling mystery without a solution. Haida is never mentioned again, and the novel does not attempt to resolve the mystery of his current whereabouts. While one might dismiss this frustrating bit of ambiguity as an example of Murakami’s taste for absurdism, attentive readers might recognize both the naivety of Tsukuru’s account and a truth about his relationship with Haida that he is unable and perhaps unwilling to see—one that I won’t spoil here.
What I find most fascinating about Lee Chang-dong’s adaptation of “Barn Burning” is that he changes a significant aspect of the plot but still retains the central plight of Murakami’s protagonist, one that has echoes in works like Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. While Burning lifts many scenes almost verbatim from Murakami’s original story, the major difference between the two texts is that Jong-su figures it all out—or so he thinks.
It’s tempting then to view Hae-mi’s sudden disappearance as Burning’s central unresolved mystery. After all, Jong-su’s frantic search for her whereabouts and the clues he puts together to determine Ben’s guilt are hallmarks of the detective genre. However, Lee’s film shows—but does not explicitly direct the viewer to see—that Jong-su is not very perceptive, especially when it comes to Hae-mi. Of course, the viewer has a number of advantages over our hapless protagonist—most notably, we can view Hae-mi’s reactions, even when they are hidden from Jong-su.
From the very beginning, Hae-mi is alternatively flirtatious, affectionate, and assertive; none of what she says to Jong-su is subtle, yet he doesn’t seem to catch her meaning, sometimes looking-—literally—in the wrong direction. In a highly symbolic scene, Jong-su has difficulty maintaining eye contact with Hae-mi when they make love for the first time, as he becomes increasingly distracted by a ray of light reflected from just outside her window. Ironically, in this most intimate of moments, Jong-su refuses to see what’s right in front of him.
This willful lack of vision carries over to Jong-su’s immediate feelings of jealousy when he meets Ben at the airport. Upon first viewing, one might share Jong-su’s interpretation of the scene: Hae-mi has found someone new. However, upon repeated viewings, Jong-su’s jealousy appears, if not entirely unfounded then at least misguided. For example, when Ben asks Hae-mi if she wants him to take her home at the end of the night, she says nothing and turns to Jong-su. In an act of immediate surrender, our hero actually volunteers to let Ben give her a ride and even goes so far as to unload Hae-mi’s suitcase. Jong-su appears crestfallen at the disparity in their respective classes made plain by Ben’s Porsche and his own rusted delivery truck. And yet, everything about Hae-mi’s body language suggests that she wants to go home with Jong-su. Of course, he doesn’t see it, as he’s too focused on his own feelings of jealousy to properly interpret the situation. The rest of the film proceeds in the same manner. Numerous clues should be signaling to Jong-su that Hae-mi really likes him and that her relationship with Ben may not be as intimate as it appears.
To make matters worse, Jong-su never tells Hae-mi how he feels about her. His obsession with Ben distracts him from the cold, sometimes cruel things he does and says. There is no better illustration of Jong-su’s callousness than when he chastises Hae-mi for dancing topless: “Only whores do that.” Hurt by his words, she cannot bear to look at him, walking directly to Ben’s car. Jong-su, however, seems unaffected by his own behavior, simply telling Ben, “I’ll keep an eye out for the greenhouses,” not realizing that the greenhouse in question may just be in the passenger seat of Ben’s Porsche. Jong-su’s parting words to Hae-mi will be the last he ever speaks to her, marking an emotionally brutal ending to a once-promising romantic relationship. By the next morning, Hae-mi is nowhere to be found.
Although it’s tempting to view the film’s title as a direct reference to either Ben’s professed love of arson or Jong-su’s climactic rage, I would argue that Hae-mi’s desire for love and acceptance burns no less bright. But the question remains, was her flame snuffed out by Ben, the film’s alleged serial killer, as Jong-su believes? Or was it actually extinguished the night before through Jong-su’s unthinking cruelty?
Like the tragic hero Oedipus, if Jong-su truly wishes to find the killer he seeks, he would need only to look in a mirror—at least from a certain point of view. Yes, Hae-mi did not disappear or die by his hand, but considering Jong-su’s many reflexive cruelties throughout the film, she died numerous little deaths unbeknownst to him. When discussing Greek tragedies, the notion of a “tragic flaw” has come to mean a kind of personal failing or weakness, and Jong-su’s jealous rage would certainly qualify in that regard. But if we return to Aristotle’s Poetics, we can recall that hamartia, the word from which we get the term “tragic flaw,” actually means “to miss the mark.” And missing the mark is exactly what Jong-su does time and time again in Burning. If he had simply told Hae-mi how he felt and paid closer attention to her, the outcome of this story might have been different. In losing Hae-mi and murdering Ben, Jong-su undoubtedly suffers, but in many respects, he is the author of his own pain.
As both a writer and a teacher, I have long agreed with Bruce Ballenger’s assertion that we write in an effort to communicate our thoughts to others and to discover more about the world and about ourselves. I suspect that these same dual motives inspired Jong-su to become a writer in the first place. However, he proves to be a tragic failure when it comes to the subjects of communication and discovery. Jong-su never once shares with Hae-mi his true feelings and thus fails to discover that the chance for love had been staring him in the face the entire time. By story’s end, he may believe that he’s solved the mystery of Hae-mi’s disappearance, but when it comes to Hae-mi herself, to love, and even to life, Jong-su remains utterly clueless—the world is still a mystery to him, whether he knows it or not.
- This quote has been edited slightly for clarity.
- I am indebted to scholar Kosuke Fujiki for outlining the different extant versions of Haruki Murakami’s “Barn Burning” during our panel on Korean transnationalism at the 13th Asian Cinema Studies Society Conference in Singapore in 2019.
- In an interview with Patrick Frater of Variety, Lee Chang-dong explains the change to greenhouses: “The barn in the original story has been changed to a greenhouse. That was because greenhouses are much more commonly found than barns in Korea.”