Some people make too many films; Lee Chang-dong doesn’t make enough. His latest feature, Burning (in cinemas April 18), arrives a full eight years after its predecessor, the sublime, astringent Poetry. He’s now 64, no longer a young man, and I confess to feeling slightly anxious, greedy for the movies he has yet to make. The last time I felt this way was with Edward Yang, and he died of cancer at just 59, with four masterpieces to his credit: Taipei Story, Terrorizers, A Brighter Summer Day and Yi Yi. As with Kieślowski, his untimely passing left his admirers with a lingering sense of loss – not only for the man but also for the great works we’ll never get to see.
Though adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami, Burning feels rather more indebted to Patricia Highsmith. For one thing, there’s the duality of the male antagonists, as reciprocal and ultimately destructive as that between Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf (The Talented Mr Ripley) or Guy Haines and Charles Bruno (Strangers on a Train). For another, there’s the same uneasy mood, and the sense, consistent across both Highsmith’s and Lee’s work, that social etiquette is merely a veil drawn across violence and chaos.
Burning begins with Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a part-time deliveryman with vague inclinations to become a writer. One day, while on his rounds, he bumps into Shin Hae-mi ( Jeon Jong-seo), a woman who claims to have known him when they were kids. But Jong-su can’t remember her, and his confusion – did they really go to school together? – represents the first of the narrative’s deliberate, destabilising ambiguities. (She claims to have had plastic surgery, a detail which in any other culture might provoke suspicion, but which in South Korea seems not only plausible, but inevitable.)
Before long they’re in bed, shortly after that they’re a couple – or at least, they seem to be – and before Jong-su knows it, he’s promising to look after her cat while she travels to Africa. A cat that, like their shared past, may or may not actually exist.
At this point, the story seems to incline towards the metaphysical. The scenes of Jong-su in Hae-mi’s empty apartment, masturbating in her bed and searching in vain for her (never-glimpsed) pet, have the feel of a ghost story – though, intriguingly, we’re never quite sure who may be haunting whom. But Lee, who also wrote the screenplay, takes care to ground the action in precise details of environment and routine. South Korea feels powerfully real here, its textures precisely and deftly delineated. In addition, the director pairs Jong-su’s story with a parallel plot to do with certain legal difficulties faced by his ageing father, related to the family farm in Paju, a dismal town near the North Korean border.
When Hae-mi returns to Seoul a few weeks later, it’s with an unexpected companion. Somehow, while away, she’s managed to find herself a boyfriend – a real one, this time: unlike her liaison with Jong-su, there’s no doubt as to the materiality of this relationship. He’s another Korean, Ben, with whom she found herself stranded at Nairobi airport following a terror warning. And as played by Korean-American actor Steven Yeun (best known for the television series The Walking Dead), he’s a remarkable creation: entitled, faintly mocking, a handsome, Gatsby-esque lug whose ready smile may or may not conceal an amoral void.
He’s also (of course) the binary opposite of Jong-su: wealthy, where his predecessor is lower working class; cosmopolitan, where the deliveryman is provincial and gauche. Highsmith described Ripley as envying Dickie “with a heartbreaking surge of envy and self-pity”, and that is equally true for our poor protagonist, whose resentment hardens into suspicion when, a few weeks later, Hae-mi abruptly, inexplicably disappears.
Highsmith typically set her novels in decaying European capitals – Venice, for example, or Athens – or in WASP-y enclaves in Connecticut or New York. Part of their kick lay in savouring the breakdown of the old order, as social hierarchies crumbled and appetites – for money, for sex – broke the bounds of traditional propriety. But there’s something thrilling about seeing the same dynamics play out in an East Asian context, in the emergent rather than the declining world. And every detail here, every signifier, is absolutely right. Even from the single year I spent living in Seoul, I knew within seconds of encountering Ben exactly where he lived, what his apartment would look like, how his friends would dress and what they would talk about. Billed as a psychological thriller, the film actually provides as forensic a dissection of contemporary social mores as Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence.
So, is Burning, as one critic insisted to me after its premiere in Cannes, simply a study of “toxic masculinity”? In fact, the film is primarily about class – and, specifically, how South Korea’s economic boom, impressive but unevenly distributed, has deformed each of these men and their attitudes. (In a superbly edited film, perhaps the most telling moment here comes when Lee cuts abruptly from a nightclub dance floor in Gangnam – through which Jong-su, badly out of his depth, wanders like a wraith – to a shit-strewn cow enclosure at his father’s farm.)
At least some of this can be attributed to the filmmaker’s own background. Lee grew up not in Seoul but in the southern city of Daegu, a bastion of conservatism, to lower-middle-class leftist parents descended from the country’s ancient aristocracy. And these tensions, between modernity and tradition, left and right, recur throughout his work and career. (He even abandoned filmmaking for two years, in 2003, to serve as minister of culture and tourism in the ill-fated “participatory government” of Roh Moo-hyun.)
Few contemporary directors seem so finely attuned to the working details of their culture. There are certain “prestige” filmmakers of his generation (I’m thinking specifically, though not exclusively, of Lars von Trier) who seem to exist in a little bubble of solipsism; you don’t get the sense that the Dane could explain how a reverse mortgage works, for example – or even renew his own driver’s licence. Lee is emphatically not one of them: he’s worldly, practical, mature. And perhaps, as a result, he also manages to portray sexuality with a refreshing candour, neither pervily exploitative nor squeamishly detached. One sequence here, of Hae-mi dancing topless at dusk as the two men sit watching her, achieves the kind of erotic charge most other filmmakers could only dream of.
It’s become somewhat axiomatic to note that storytelling, at least in that grown-up sense of the term, has migrated from the large screen to the small. Film does “spectacle”, the conventional wisdom now has it, while television does “characters”. Given the barren state of our multiplexes, it’s hard to argue. Yet, while I don’t agree that cinema is dying (though it’s undeniably becoming far less central to the cultural conversation), I’ll happily concede that television does possess inherent advantages over the more circumscribed limits of the feature film. The so-called “deep breath” of television storytelling – the greater length afforded by even a limited series – is a gift to screenwriters, who can drill down into the backstories and idiosyncrasies of their characters, to offer greater context, nuance, surprise.
How can a feature film compete? One answer is duration. Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s last feature, The Wild Pear Tree, ran to 188 not-especially-urgent minutes, most of it in the form of furious dialogues between two or three of its characters. (Few people write arguments better than Ceylan.) In this sense, he seems indebted to the late Indian master Satyajit Ray: you could, in fact, trace a clear line of descent from Ray classics such as Days and Nights in the Forest and The Home and the World to Ceylan’s recent output. But The Wild Pear Tree also offered its actors roles worthy of a great novelist. Its protagonist’s father, in particular – a ne’er-do-well with a sly, crooked smile and a neat line in passive aggression – was the most fascinating and fully conceived character I’ve seen onscreen in years; Dickens could hardly have sketched him more precisely.
But then you have a film like Can You Ever Forgive Me?, coming in at a relatively brisk 106 minutes, and offering as meticulous a study of dysfunctional empathy as any novel by Paula Fox or Mary Gaitskill (to name just two fellow New Yorkers). It did so thanks to Marielle Heller’s sensitive direction, sure … but also because of the concision and acuity of Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s script – a feast devoured by Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, each doing some of the best work of their not-inconsiderable careers.
We make much of directors – this is, for better or worse, the legacy of auteurist theory – but great filmmaking, whether in long-form or short, usually begins with a great script; without this strong foundation, the entire structure is weak. And Lee Chang-dong is nothing if not a superb screenwriter. In interviews, he’s described his directing style as non-obtrusive, almost to the point of invisibility: “I’m never really about giving any sort of strict direction, especially when it comes to working with the actors … I’m not someone to tell them, or to instruct them how to express whatever in a certain sort of situation.”
I’m not in the least surprised by this admission. He’s already given his cast so much on the page, so much consideration and care – and space, too, to find their own way forward. He’s crafted something astonishing, rich with ambiguities and associations, with possibilities and contradictions, and then handed it to others, to inhabit and make their own.
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