“Burning” is a new South Korean mystery-drama directed by Lee Chang-dong, based on the short story, “Barn Burning,” by the hyper-popular Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. While the movie is beautifully realized, it’s perhaps too obviously an exercise on behalf of the director to stretch out his source material to the length of a feature film.
In the story, a disaffected and isolated struggling fiction writer, Jong-su, meets a mysterious young woman, Haemi. She affects a transient connection to her surroundings, illustrated by a scene in which she mimes eating a tangerine and claims it’s just as good as the real thing. The substance of the plot begins when Haemi comes back from a long trip to North Africa, now linked to her similarly mysterious wealthy boyfriend, Ben. Our protagonist, Jong-su, strikes up an odd rapport with the rich boyfriend (masterfully portrayed by Steven Yeun, of Walking Dead fame). Yeun’s Ben confides in Jong-su that he burns down disused barns as a kind of perverse, cathartic hobby.
A substantial point of divergence between Murakami’s story and the movie, other than its setting in South Korea rather than Japan, is that plastic greenhouses, instead of barns, are the subject of Ben’s arson in Chang-dong’s on-screen adaptation. The central mystery of the film obliquely ties together the progression of both men’s relationship to Haemi through their bizarre hobby, hinting that one may be a complex metaphor for the other. Whether or not this is actually the case remains critically ambiguous both in the movie and the story.
The film suffers from two critical problems. The first is that, while Murakami balances Haemi’s transience with substantive human characteristics and agency, the movie minimizes these qualities.This treatment, deliberate or not, brings Chang-dong’s Haemi too close to the Western rom-com trope viewers know as the ‘manic pixie dream girl’: it reduces Haemi to a quirky and superficially mysterious vessel for Jong-su and Ben’s mysterious and disparate desires. For Jong-su, she is a break from his life’s alienating monotony: a kind of unpredictable X-factor that brings him out of himself, working against his partially self-imposed isolation. For Ben, Haemi is an object of his desire to project power on to the world, and stands as either an analogy for, or the analogized-to, his barn-burning hobby. What she lacks, outside of a few scenes that feature her aloof but endearingly captivating eccentricity, is any kind of agency of her own.
Murakami’s fiction often includes female characters who walk this line, but they always have aspirations, agency, and are three-dimensional both in their backgrounds and in relation to the fictional worlds the author creates. The distinction is as follows: “Burning” fails because it too easily buys into the rather sickening male propensity to project onto and control women, while the story that is its source material merely portrays this desire in commentary.
It is perhaps because of the movie’s second fatal flaw that all of the above is a problem in the first place: “Barn Burning” is a short story. It doesn’t need to develop Haemi’s character more substantively because the story is very short, and the scenes in which she appears emphasize her agency and coherent self-hood by painting an impressionistic image of her. “Burning” stretches that source material into a two-and-a-half-hours-long slog, with extremely long scenes containing surprisingly undeveloped dialogue. Minutes upon minutes of sweeping countryscapes, Jong-su cleaning out his dad’s apartment, or feeding Haemi’s cat are cut with conversation that is bizarrely reductive and barely expansive on the original story. This all produces the effect of a plot line stretched far too thin over its visual medium, especially in the middle portions of the film.
Admittedly, Chang-dong’s movie is very well made. Yoo Ah-in perfectly encapsulates the aesthetic of Murakami’s fiction: the cinematography and choice of setting perfectly evokes the alienating anonymity of Murakami’s characters. The film includes the requisite Murakami-esque qualities: a cat with puzzling metaphysical status, a super-awkward sex scene, and a lethargic male protagonist with a throwaway attitude in the world who ends up becoming embroiled in a mystery of his own making. While the movie stands as an aesthetic story and a puzzling metaphorical mystery, it falls uncomfortably short of the nuance of Murakami’s fiction.