Lee Chang-dong’s latest film is a slow, smouldering and atmospheric adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning,” which is itself an allusion to – if not quite an adaptation of – William Faulkner’s short story of the same name. Yet whereas Faulkner’s short story is novelistic in its ambition, and operates as a prequel to the Snopes trilogy comprising The Hamlet, The Town and The Mansion, Murakami’s piece is one of the shortest and most cryptic works of his career; a mere six or seven pages of narrative that could be transplanted to the big screen in any number of ways. In Lee’s hands, the action is relocated to contemporary Seoul, and expanded to encompass a love triangle, or something resembling a love triange, between three key characters. At the heart of the film is Jungsu, played by Ah-In Yoo, a farmer and student struggling to keep his family’s rural property afloat while his father faces charges for aggressive conduct towards a South Korean police official. We quickly learn that this is not a one-off, and that Jungsu has been living in the shadow of this aggressive behavior for years, and that it actually led his mother to abandon the family when he was only a small child, leaving him with the responsibility of caring for his younger sister and looking after the property during his father’s periodic bursts of rage.
From the very outset, the creates an oscillation between the rural backdrop of Jungsu’s property, which is right on the North Korean border, and the hustle and bustle of downtown Seoul, where the film opens in the midst of one of Jungsu’s trips to the capital. In a dreamy and distended opening scene, he runs into Haemi, played by Jong-seo Jeon, a girl who grew up in the same rural neighbourhood, but who is almost unrecognizable to him now after her time in the city, which apparently included a fairly intensive bout of plastic surgery. After a romantic afternoon together, Haemi meets up again with Jungsu and takes him to her apartment, in the wealthy Gangham district, where they sleep together before she asks him to take care of her cat while she takes a two week trip to Africa, in what Jungsu understandably assumes is the beginning of an affair. When he comes to pick her up from the airport a fortnight later, however, she’s accompanied by Ben, played by Steven Yeun, who has apparently been her boyfriend for some time. Yet while Jungsu may feel awkwardly relegated to a third wheel by this revelation, the presence of Ben just imbricates him deeper in Haemi’s life, partly at the insistence of Ben himself, who seems prescient of Jungsu’s original expectations regarding Haemi, but all the more anxious, for that reason, to turn him into a third party in their rapport, inviting him to partake in one shared outing after another.
From the very beginning of the film, it’s clear that Lee is determined to make the most of his opportunity to spread out a five page story to a two and a half hour film, as we’re treated to one lengthy scene after another, many of which are designed to establish atmosphere and mood more than anything else. Many of these focus on Jungsu alone, or Jungsu and Haemi together, and at first their import seems fairly clear, if luxuriously elaborated, but as the film proceeds the length of the scenes starts to unsettle and denature the tone of the film, especially once Ben comes into the picture. In fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the length of the scenes and the length of the film are required to accommodate Ben’s exotic and ambivalent presence, since his manner and bearing ensures that the scenes in which he appears never seem to be exactly about what they claim to be depicting, with the result that body language, and unspoken, inchoate intimations, play more and more of a role as the rapport between the three characters proceeds. Even the few moments of transparent dialogue are subsumed into sustained tableaux of dancing, movement and haptic communion, especially when it comes to Haemi, whose body never quite seems to conform to the demands of any one situation, even as Ben also appears to be perpetually coordinating and orchestrating it as well. In one particularly spectacular sequence, she demonstrates a dance in which the people of the Kalahari move from expressing “Little Hunger” (physical hunger) to “Great Hunger” (the hunger for knowledge), floating around a dinner paryt as Ben locks eyes with Jungsu presciently, only for Lee to abruptly cut to a night club sequence before we can fully process that glance, or exactly how Haemi mediates it.
The fact that Ben is well entrenched in the wealthy Gangnam neighbourhood, and that he has clearly made his fortune by the age of thirty, makes his agency even more mysterious, especially since he doesn’t seem to actually do any work or have any obligations, observing at one point to Jungsu that “nowadays there is no difference between working and playing.” In his hands, Gangnam becomes a moody and brooding repository of “mysterious people who are young and rich, even if you don’t know what they do,” as he triangulates his desire through Jungsu and Haemi in ways that all three of them compare to Jay’s rapport with Nick and Daisy in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The result is a kind of Gangnam noir, as the winding streets, tall apartment complexes and overwhelming hush of Seoul’s wealthiest district take on the same character that the Hollywood Hills play in classic noir, while the use of Miles Davis’ score from Elevator from the Gallows suffuses it with a slick New Wave taste for American genre cinema as well. Indeed, part of what makes Ben so slick is the way in which he manages to seamlessly fuse Korean and American panache – and it’s no coincidence that Steven Yeun is the only Korean-American actor in the main cast of the film.
Through Ben, then, Gangnam quickly takes on a heightened and hyperreal quality, especially when set against the rural backdrop of Jungsu’s farm. Yet the proximity of the North Korean border also offsets any sense of naturalism there too, not least because Haemi claims to remember a series of features, particularly a well, that have since been engulfed by the border. While trying to confirm the existence of this well becomes an important strategy for Jungsu in terms of getting a handle on Haemi’s veracity, it also forms part of a wider effort to gauge how the exact threshold between North and South Korea has become muddier over the previous decade, making it especially important for South Koreans to get a sense of how much the North has changed or encroached upon their land. If the depiction of Gangnam is hyperreal, then the depiction of these border zones is more properly surreal, as the North Korean propaganda broadcasts that waft across Jungsu’s farm gradually disrupt the tone and reality field of all the scenes that occur there, culminating with the centerpiece of the film, and the crux of Murakami’s short story. This takes place as a haunting interlude in which Ben and Haemi unexpectedly turn up on Jungu’s doorstep, paving the way for an evening of dancing, drinking and smoking pot that seems to distend and warp the twilight against which it takes place into an indefinite hallucinatory experience, whose only points of continuity are the interludes in which all three stare, fixated, at the border in the distance.
Within that surreal flux, Ben provides the confession that gives the film, and Murakami’s story its name, confiding to Jungsu that he takes particular pleasure in burning greenhouses every couple of months, and that he has his eye on a greenhouse “very close” to Jungsu’s house for his next target. This is the closest Ben ever comes to acknowledging that he does any kind of work, so it seems like a critical clue to his identity, and to his agenda regarding Haemi, but its true significance is left to hang, unresolved, over the remainder of the film, since this turns out to be the last time that Jungsu ever sees Haemi, or ever experiences Haemi and Ben as a couple. When he calls her the next day, he’s greeted with a garbled series of noises and, from there, she appears to have vanished off the face of the planet. It’s only a matter of time before he encounters Ben, who warmly confides, with a new girlfriend in tow, that it was always Jungsu that Haemi was interested in anyway, conceding, like a good sport, that he played second fiddle during their entire ambiguous threesome, even as his tone and manner suggests he had something critical to do with her disappearance too.
This takes us into the third part of the film proper, in which Lee intensifies the noirish aspects of the screenplay, as Jungsu starts to watch Haemi’s apartment and Ben’s apartment, and trail Ben and his new girlfriend all over Seoul, even as he scours the countryside around his farm for evidence of the greenhouse that Ben has burned down, or possible targets that he might be planning to burn down. During his confession to Jungsu, Ben observed that part of the pleasure of burning down these structures was that of enjoying a “simultaneous existence” in which he performed his regular self during the day, and a more anarchic self at night, and over the course of this third act that simultaneous existence starts to take on a more spatial component as well, as Jungu’s insatiable wanderings aim to discern some kind of bridge between Gangnam and the North Korean border where he lives. Between these two spaces, a version of South Korea emerges that is enthralled, and imprisoned, by fantasies projected upon it by the Western world, whether it’s the ultra-wealthy extravagances of Gangnam immortalized by Psy, or the threshold of North Korea that has become a synecdoche for the limits of Western control over the region, leaving Jungsu in a strange and unsettling space in which even the effort to traverse these fantastic coordinates has to be framed in Western genre terms, with most of the trailing, tracking and surveilling sequences coming straight from the classic noir playbook.
Yet what makes this last part of the film so eerie is the way in which these gestures of noir mapping never quite attain their target, and never quite manage to discern a satisfactory spatial continuity between Gangnam and the North Korean border, despite their insatiable spatial curiosity. At a general level, Jungsu’s trailing is never quite focused, since while he’s half following Ben, he’s always half following his instinct as well, torn between his particular mission and a broader and more elusive spatial imperative. Nor do the individual tableaux that comprise this mission ever quite arrive at a spatial conclusion, as evinced in a stunning sustained sequence in which Jungsu trails Ben deep into the foothills north of Seoul, losing him before finding him on his own tail in turn. Panicking, Jungsu takes refuge in an old barn and then follows his target more cautiously on foot, only to discover that Ben appeared to have been unaware that he was following him, or that he was even present, and that he has simply taken this trip to repose by the side of a massive dam, whose blankness in the impending twilight undoes all of the conspiratorial spatiality of the preceding sequence, even as it reiterates the unformed and unsettling agency that underscores his every move.
While Ben and Haemi’s agenda is never explained, then, it does retrospectively take on a certain spatial logic in this closing act. Their methods may have been very different, and they may not have always been acting in tandem, but their impact on Jungsu, both individually and together, amounts to the same thing – forcing him to inhabit fantasy spaces and structures only to make him realise there is nothing inside. One of the key moments, in that respect, occurs early in the film, when Haemi brings Ben back to her apartment and sleeps with him before asking him to house-sit while she’s in Africa. During this sequence, she observes that her north-facing bedroom only receives light for a brief moment every afternoon when the sun’s rays reflect off the Seoul Tower looming above. At the very moment at which he is about to achieve orgasm, Ben looks up and sees this momentary fragment of light, which comes to encapsulate Haemi’s presence when he looks after the apartment in her absence – brilliant, to be sure, but also fleeting, fragmentary and inchoate. The more time he spends in the apartment, the more he mediates his erotic rapport with Haemi through this patch of light, to the point where he is able to masturbate simply by looking up at the Seoul Tower and waiting for the sun’s rays to align at just the right point.
Between the sparseness of Haemi’s apartment, and the brooding presence of the Seoul Tower, a space emerges that is so notional that it’s almost inevitable that, by the time Jungsu returns to try and locate Haemi, the apartment has been stripped of all personal accoutrements. The most pressing reason for Jungsu’s house-sitting is to feed Haemi’s cat, and yet he never once sees her cat in all this time, just as her landlady insists that no cat ever existed, begging the question of whether the whole point of Haemi’s exercise was to envelop him in a space whose coordinates could be collapsed at a moment’s notice. To be sure, her cat seems to show up in Ben’s apartment in the third act, but its presence is totally undercut by the way in which this scene unfolds, as we follow Ben, and then his new girlfriend, as they flee the apartment in search of the cat as it bolts downstairs, leaving Jungsu alone in the space that once seemed most inextricable from his own inextricability from Ben and Haemi’s rapport, only to find it oddly blank and resistant to signification. In the same way, the final result of Ben’s elusive greenhouse project is to force Jungsu to inhabit and occupy one abandoned and empty space after another, as he moves from greenhouse to greenhouse to try to discern which of them is going to be Ben’s next target.
In other words, both Haemi and Ben erect fantasy structures around Jungsu, and turn him into a part of their fantasies, in ways that he can’t ultimately fathom. Moreover, they do so in quite a literal way, through actual physical structures, from the greenhouses of the North Korean border to the upscale apartments of Gangnam, producing a uncanny slippage between physical and fantasmatic architecture, physical and fantasmatic space, that suggests that no direct depiction of the South Korean landscape and Seoul cityscape can ever be quite commensurate to the overdetermined status that it now holds within the new world order. Every effort that Jungsu makes to map those spaces, and every genre cue that he invokes to do so, simply contributes to that sense of overdetermination, until the simultaneous existence of South and North Korea itself becomes something that feels impossible to fathom in terms of direct depictions of physical space and architecture alone.
In the very first scene, Jungsu reveals to Haemi that he aspires to be a writer, and she responds with a lesson from her own career as an actor, pretending to eat a tangerine before telling him that the secret is not to “think that there is a tangerine” but to “forget that there isn’t one.” In the end, that’s what Burning does as well, never quite allowing itself to think that there is a version of Seoul that exists outside of the overdetermined fantasies of the West, but setting out to forget that there isn’t one. If the film as a whole is an eerie act of forgetting, then Jungsu’s own writing practice, and his whole vocation as a writer, is one desperate effort after another to remember a city and landscape that can never quite come into existence or focus. Instead, Seoul, percolates through its own streets and spaces as a notional or hypothetical entity that even Jungsu’s final act of shocking violence ends up affirming, rather than puncturing – an appropriate conclusion for a film that progressively displaces itself from its putative subject matter as it proceeds, as if this were the only way to “represent” the unthinkable tensions that constitute South Korea at this moment in time.