Busan: Lee Chang-dong on Why 'Burning' Isn't an "Audience-Friendly" Story

Cannes - IN COMPETITION – FEATURE FILMS - Burning Still 1 - Publicity -H 2018
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

The South Korean filmmaker wanted to allow viewers to distance themselves from the narrative rather than offer an immersive film experience through the film, starring Steven Yeun.

Burning, a film starring Steven Yeun that competed for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May, has been called an unconventional thriller, as characters and events became more mystifying as the film progresses. During a talk session at the 23rd Busan International Film Festival on Saturday, director Lee Chang-dong said the film's unconventional approach to plot was intentional — and designed to challenge a dominating trend in cinema.

“Movies these days, from Hollywood blockbusters to experimental art house films, are all about immersive experiences, whether it be about hunting for a bear or about World War II,” said Lee. The ways in which filmmakers produce movies and viewers consume them have “become rather simplified” as a result, he added.

Lee believes that the emergence of immersive video games and other virtual reality experiences have contributed to the phenomenon. “Of course, it’s important for films to allow viewers to emotionally connect with the story and to empathize with it. But the concentration of such immersive films is too extreme," he said. "I wished to allow viewers to distance themselves from the narrative rather than being plunged into it, to experience the film as an outside observer."

Burning centers on a frustrated and alienated young aspiring novelist, Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), living near the North Korean border. His already difficult life is further complicated when he meets Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), an assertive young woman claiming to be his childhood friend. He develops romantic feelings for Hae-mi, but one day she returns from an overseas trip with an older, affluent man named Ben (Steven Yeun).

“There is a certain rage that we all feel living through this age, especially youths who feel pressured about their self-worth in a hyper-competitive environment. In this post-modern age everything has become ultra sophisticated, convenient and cool, but beneath the surface there is pain, class conflict and pressure to compete,” Lee said.

Due to the unconventional way in which the auteur chose to tell the story, viewers become more confounded about the truth about things that may have or not have happened as the story progresses.

“Unlike conventional mystery thrillers that allows viewers to piece together parts of a puzzle, Burning makes you question the puzzle itself. It’s a film that is meant to be inexplicable, and it’s ironic how I am trying to explain this,” Lee added.

Lee explained that he also found inspiration in a William Faulkner short story, also coincidentally titled Barn Burning, for his film. “There is an intense realism in Faulkner but also a quality that goes beyond realism, while Murakami demonstrates an incredible sense of freedom in both his imagination and language.”

Lee said Burning, in its exploration of human rage, portrays the reality of a “Faulknerian life in a Murakami world.”

He was, moreover, concerned about how the actors would grasp the obscure nature of the script, which is based on a short story, Barn Burning, by internationally acclaimed Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. Lee was delighted, however, when Yeun demonstrated a thorough understanding of Murakami's original text when the two met for the first time.

"[Steven] understood [his character] very well. He was able to discern an emptiness and solitude in him, something he had personally experienced. He was born in Korea but left for the U.S. at a very young age. He emigrated to the U.S. when he was about 2 and grew up with a sense of alienation as an immigrant and faced hardships as an obscure actor. But he went to through an existential crisis of sorts with the sudden wealth and fame he attained [through his breakout role in The Walking Dead]," the filmmaker said. "This is something that cannot be explained to an actor."

In spite of the alternative nature of the film, however, the auteur emphasized that he has always been a “commercial filmmaker.”

“I’ve always worked within the framework of South Korea’s commercial film industry, following an investment, production and distribution process that makes it hard to ignore commercial success. But Burning is a project first proposed by Japanese broadcaster NHK, so I was able to shake off the pressure of box-office sales a little," he explained. "Even so, however, I knew that it was not going to be an audience-friendly story."