HKIFF: South Korea's Lee Chang-dong on the Many Mysteries of 'Burning'

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Lee Chang-dong during the shooting of 'Burning'

The celebrated auteur discusses the meaning behind his metaphysical thriller's enigmas, the Oscars' "strange" neglect of Korean filmmaking and that unforgettable sunset dance scene.

Seoul-based auteur Lee Chang-dong made a much anticipated return to the Cannes Film Festival in May with the world premiere of Burning, his sixth feature and first film in eight years. 

The metaphysical thriller is the third film by Lee selected by South Korea for the Oscar race, following Oasis in 2002 and Secret Sunshine in 2007, both considered high points of recent world cinema. Burning won the critics prize at Cannes and was nominated in the best foreign-language film category of the Critics' Choice Awards. Though it would land on the Oscar short list and appeared to be a frontrunner heading into the announcement of the nominees, it was inexplicably snubbed.

Burning begins with a fraught love triangle of sorts: Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in), a working-class aspiring writer, is seduced by a charismatic young woman from his youth, Haemi (newcomer Jun Jong-seo), who soon departs on a trip to Africa, only to return in the company of Ben (Steven Yeun), a Gatsby-esque young man of means who's as chillingly enigmatic as he is outwardly charming.

Almost imperceptibly, the film shifts into the mode of a metaphysical thriller, humming along between moments of arresting beauty and prolonged undertows of desire, angst and diffuse dread. One character goes missing, another tries to find out why, while the third reveals a hobby of disturbing moral implication — before it all ends in an effulgence of inexplicable violence.

Co-written by Lee and his regular screenwriting collaborator Oh Jung-mi, Burning is an adaptation and expansion of the short story Barn Burning by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, which was originally published in The New Yorker

Lee, 64, began his working life as a high-school teacher, later becoming an accomplished novelist before transitioning to screenwriting and directing, as well as making a brief, improbable foray into government, serving as South Korea's Minister of Culture and Tourism from 2003 to 2004. 

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Lee by phone and via a translator to unpack some of Burning's many mysteries. [The following interview contains spoilers.]

Burning is based on the Murakami's short story Barn Burning, which shares its title with another story, by William Faulkner, who is referenced in the film. What elements from each story inspired you? They are very different works. 

When I read Murakami's story, what really interested me was how it follows a singular mysterious event, manages to maintain that sense of ambiguity throughout the entire story and then ends without being resolved. I wanted to expand this mystery through cinematic means into a commentary on the mysteries of the times we are living through, and how ambiguous our lives actually are.

I had read Faulkner's story long before, but while delving into the Murakami story, I realized they shared the same English title. As you said, these two stories have completely different personalities and elements. Faulkner's story is about this man who has a very clear, unambiguous subject that gives him this sense of rage, and it's told from the perspective of his son, who sort of watches his father's rage unfold.

I thought precisely because these two stories are very different, I could connect them into a film. Ultimately, I wanted the combination of these two stories to discuss the ambiguities of the world we live in and how there seems to be no answer to the questions that we have today — especially for young people. I feel like young people these days have realized that there's something wrong in this world, but it's very difficult to figure out exactly what is causing the problems and what lies underneath. 

As you said, there are so many currents of mystery coursing through the film — questions of character, plot and theme, which all sort of intermingle. And then, in the background, grand issues like the unending Korean War and rising economic inequality are also presented as ineffable mysteries of a kind. 

So Murakami's original story follows one very simple mystery, but it's ambiguous. Because of that ambiguity, I felt it had the potential to be expanded into a story with multiple layers of mystery in the plot — but at the same time I wanted the film to present several issues and complex thematic questions, as you noted. I thought this story could sort of ask these questions that cross over several dimensions. The complexity of the mysteries in the plot and the themes are not at all different. I wanted to experiment to see if I could contain all of these complex layers in one movie and ask several questions of the audience at once.

To me it seems that films these days are becoming more and more simple, and the audience seems to desire simpler stories. Of course, films sort of shape the desires and the demands the audience makes, so I kind of wanted to go against this trend and see if a film can sort of throw endless questions at the audience. Endless questions about a larger mysterious world. This film is the result of that experiment.

With the many uncertainties of the plot, was the idea to put the viewer in a position similar to Jong-su's — so that we feel his pervading sense of confusion and wrongness?

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. I also wanted to make it clear that the emotions and the thoughts that Jong-su has may not be right. I wanted the audience to sort of feel that doubt and suspicion, and be aware of how unreliable this character may be. For example, when Hae-mi dances against the sunset, afterwards Jong-su tells her that she's a whore. In other scenes Jong-su shows a very passive attitude, and even in the last scene, where he commits the murder — that may or may not have been a part of reality, but I wanted the audience to follow Jong-su's narrative and put themselves in his perspective and feel his confusion and emotions, but at the same time distance themselves and look at him critically.

You mentioned the scene that takes place at dusk outside Jong-su's house where Hae-mi performs the "dance of the Great Hunger." Many critics have latched onto that scene as being both beautiful and pivotal to the film on many levels. Could you talk about what the different elements of the scene mean to you — the setting, the music, the time of day, what the characters are each doing and how they respond to each other?

The moment I thought of this image was when I first knew I could make this story into a film, even though this scene isn't in the original Murakami story at all.

A lot of elements from the entire movie are sort of implied and contained in this one scene. On the surface, this film presents a narrative of two men searching for a woman who has disappeared; but that's only, of course, the surface layer. The two young men in the film, Jong-su and Ben, are kind of the two sides of young people who live in the modern world today. Jong-su is very working-class and struggling, while Ben, of course, is a successful, almost psychopathic character.

Between these two extremes is Hae-mi. She also struggles through her life — she dances on the streets, she lives with credit card debt — but she's also the only character in the film who persistently pursues the meaning of life. The moment she disappears, I wanted the audience to sort of feel her absence and ask themselves what she represents and has been searching for — her presence in this film is very important, even when she's not there. The dancing in this scene really signifies her entire presence in the film.

How so? 

When she's dancing the Great Hunger dance, searching for the meaning of life and really seeking true freedom, you see her doing that dance surrounded by both the lies and natural beauty that we live in. The scene being set during sunset, you see light and darkness co-existing, and you see the moon in the sky and you also see the grass swaying in the wind, you see the livestock, the farm and, of course, the Korean national flag, which symbolizes politics. You see all these elements that represent aspects of our lives — even the Miles Davis tune. I thought that through this scene I could portray and combine all of these elements together in the most cinematic way possible, so that the audience can really feel the potential of cinema as a medium and the unique aesthetics of cinema. So from the beginning to the end of the scene, I didn't want it to feel like it was directed or staged; I wanted it to feel as if we were able to capture this slice of life very coincidentally, and to capture Hae-mi's pursuit of freedom.

How do you negotiate the process of conveying your ideas so that they can be mapped and interpreted intellectually in this way, while also ensuring that they are always so powerfully felt? Often, films that are as intellectual as yours tend to be rather austere and sort of emotionally remote. Your films are anything but that. 

Your question is basically what motivated me to start this film. To me, it seems that the world we live in continues to become more and more sophisticated, convenient and cool on the outside, but there are so many problems underneath that we can't really discern — and that's the nature of this post-modern world and its problems. I've always thought about how I can portray ambiguous issues of this kind in a film. I realized that Murakami's story connected with this question, which is something I had been asking myself for a very long time.

The mysterious events of the film are very ambiguous, but I didn't want this to become just a series of abstract questions thrown at the audience. I wanted the audience to have a very specific cinematic experience where they go inside a movie theater, sit down and sort of feel this movie as they watch it. How to do that was the biggest question throughout the entire process of making the film. To get to that point, I had many conversations with everyone involved in the film process: I talked endlessly with my screenwriter about these questions; when we were filming I shared so many conversations with the actors, the crew, the cinematographer and the music director. Even until the very end of editing and the post-production process, I never stopped talking with the everyone involved about this question of how to ensure that the audience meets this film as a cinematic experience and not just some intellectual thought experiment.

Should the film's ending be interpreted as a warning of a kind? The sudden explosion of violence as the potential outcome of this anger that young people are feeling today?

Yes, the last scene can be read as a warning about how rage can explode, but it can also ask for the meaning behind what happens when rage explodes in this way. I think that this last scene really shows the relationship — the various layers behind Jong-su and Ben's relationship — because when you see Jong-su kill Ben, you see that Ben doesn't really resist, he sort of lets Jong-su stab him as if he's waited for this all along, and Jong-su sort of shows something like sympathy as Ben dies.

It's quite different from what you normally see in a murder scene when someone explodes toward their object of rage — and I think this element could have really flustered the audience, but it could have also have given them a new perspective on the relationship. Also, you see Jong-su take off all his clothes. Of course, superficially, this is done to get rid of evidence of the murder, but at the same time it presents this very cinematic image, where Jong-su almost appears as a newborn baby but simultaneously this enraged monster. This image carries that sense of extreme duality within it. When he leaves and drives away in his truck with the burning Porsche in the background, I wanted the audience to sort of ask themselves, where is this character going? And what is he going to do next?

This last scene could have happened in reality, but at the same time it could have also been a part of this novel that Jong-su is newly writing, so I hope that this one scene sort of combines and contains all of the various layers that the film presents.

Ben is so profoundly enigmatic, even compared to the other two, very mysterious characters — can you share a little more about his layers?

You can say that the mysteries of Ben as a character are very much connected to the mysteries of the modern world. From what I've noticed, the audience seems to understand this differently depending on their own situation and culture. To me, Ben as a character symbolizes the quality of life that everyone seems to pursue nowadays. Everyone wants a more sophisticated, more convenient life. Ben always appears as a very understanding and humane character, as well, and I think that's what everyone seems to want in their lives as well. At the same time, I wanted to point out that underneath all that there may be a horrible consequence — another side to that life that we all pursue, even if we don't really realize it.

So whether Ben is a serial killer or just a cultured, rich friend, the distinction is actually not that important. If you see a lot of young people with money these days, they are disconnected from the other realities of human life that are in fact connected to their wealth and actions in this very complex way. Maybe they make money through real estate, or fund management, and the moment they type things on their keyboard, it may lead to mass layoffs, or depriving many people of their own incomes. Meanwhile, to the people who actually make the money, they are just sitting behind a desk and tapping away on their keyboards, so everything just becomes a number, and they don't even really carry a sense of guilt over the consequences of what they do. That's sort of the structure of the world and the lives that we live right now. I just wanted to suggest that this life that we pursue and want so much may not be the most appropriate one in its entirety — it may also be monstrous.

I read that you completed a couple of other scripts during the years between the release of Poetry and Burning, but that you didn't feel they needed to be films, so you abandoned them. What convinces you that a script is worth making?

To be honest, it's very difficult to explain what stories I see fit to become a film or not. I have several people I regularly work with — producers, actors, crew members — and it's always very difficult to explain why this story can or can't be a film. It often puts me in trouble, as well. I can find it hard to explain myself. Whether the story is fun or moving or might receive good reviews is honestly not that important to me. It's a very intuitive feeling that I have — mainly about whether the story is worth reaching out to the audience to communicate with them at this point in time. Is the story worth the effort of bringing it to the audience? It's sort of a very sensitive and intuitive decision-making process that happens within me.

Who do you make films for?

When I used to write novels, I always wrote for one person, for this person who thought and felt the same way as I do. It almost felt like I was writing a love letter to this very specific person who would understand what I'm writing and share the same feelings and thoughts. A film audience is much higher in number and it's much less specific, but I still create films for that certain audience — that certain person who I can communicate with and who would understand these films. If you ask me how many people are in that group and where they are, I honestly can't answer that. Sometimes I feel like I'm creating films for audiences that are not of this time period but maybe some time in the future. While I don't have a very specific group in mind, I'm always making films for that person, or that group of people, who I can communicate with.

All three of the lead actors in Burning give unforgettable performances. Could you share a little about how you selected each of them and how you went about shaping the performances with them — especially since the characters are so multidimensional?

Ah-In Yoo, who plays Jong-su, you could say he's one of the biggest celebrities in Korea, and until now he's played very intense characters. In his performances, you often see him explode with rage, and that's precisely why I thought it would be really interesting for this actor to play this role, because Jong-su is a character that is pretty extreme in hiding his emotions, and he's very passive.

And with Steven Yeun, who plays Ben, he's obviously a Korean-American actor, and before this film I didn't know him personally. But once I met with him and talked about this film, I thought he had a great understanding of the character. At first, we didn't have an English version of the script yet, so he read the original Murakami story. He told me he thought that at the center of the character of Ben is emptiness — and that he had experienced this sense of emptiness himself, so he clearly felt where this character was coming from. I could tell that Steven not only understood this character in an abstract, logical sense, but he actually understood Ben through his body. In a flash, I started to feel as if the character of Ben, who even I didn't fully understand, was sitting right in front of me.

And Jong-seo Jeon, who plays Hae-mi?

She's actually a new actor, and this was her first audition. When I saw her, she seemed to have this very childlike sense of innocence, but at the same time, she carried this sense of duality — as if something much bigger was on the other side of that innocence. So I thought she would be great to give Hae-mi the presence that is so central for the film — conveying that inner depth that this character has.

I didn't really give these three actors direct direction. I just had a lot of conversations with them and helped them reach that level of understanding so that they could perform their characters accordingly. In particular, it was very important for the film to maintain that sense of ambiguity with the characters, especially Ben. So after every scene, every shot, every cut, I talked with the actors to ensure that we maintained this sense of ambiguity, and also the tension that comes from the ambiguity, in every single scene.

You mentioned earlier that you think films are, in general, becoming simpler. Why do you think that is happening?

It's just a trend that I've been feeling these days. For example, the many Marvel films and superhero films that are really popular with the public. I think it sort of stems from this desire we all have of wanting to believe that the world can be saved by a singular superhero. But unfortunately the world is not becoming any simpler; it's actually becoming much more complicated, and it's becoming more and more difficult to discern what the future holds. The world's problems are immensely complicated and interconnected. I think that's partly why the films that you see in theaters, these big commercial films that reach the general public, become simpler and hold out this narrative of easy resolution and salvation.

No Korean film has ever even been nominated for an Oscar. That's a pretty astounding fact, considering how much unforgettable filmmaking South Korea has produced over the years.

If you think about how much interest Korean films have received from all over the world — especially from passionate film lovers — it is a little strange that a Korean film hasn't been nominated for an Oscar yet. But it's never easy to open the door for the first time.

Have you begun thinking about new projects yet?

There are three projects I'm currently considering. I will pick one and proceed with it soon. What I can say for certain is that it will not take another eight years — I'm going to create films at a faster pace.