Doubling Down:
An Interview with Lee Chang-dong
By Adam Nayman

A critical sensation at Cannes—where it surprisingly and inexplicably went home empty-handed in terms of official jury prizes—Lee Chang-dong’s muscularly metaphysical thriller Burning has emerged as one of the fall’s breakout art-house hits. Skillfully mixing elements of Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning” with the spacious existentialism of his earlier movies—especially 2007’s Secret Sunshine, which deals with similar themes of guilt and obsession—Burning concerns a farmer’s son, Jongsoo (Yoo Ah-in) who becomes romantic rivals with a rich kid from one of Seoul’s poshest neighborhoods; his name is Ben (Steven Yeun), and as the film goes on, Jongsoo’s frustration shifts from wondering why Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo) is so entranced by him to fearing that he’s capable of doing her harm. Beneath the sturdy vertices of its central melodrama, however, Burning doubles as a bleak, persuasive allegory of economic disparity, using the gulf between Jongsoo and Ben to speak to issues of class, privilege, desire and, especially, a latent, homicidal rage that is all too easy to perceive (if not necessarily evaluate) in a real-world context. Despite its unforeseen brevity, the following interview hints at the surface and subtextual pleasures of a superb movie, while also—perhaps happily—preserving much of its mystery.

Reverse Shot: Can you talk about shifting the setting of Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning” from Japan to South Korea? What effect did that have on the material or the subtext of the characters and their relationships?

Lee Chang-dong: I have to say that I didn’t really find any difficulty in transposing the story, because I didn’t think the source material was based in any detailed or specific reality. I felt that the events of “Barn Burning” could be taken out of its original context and applied to a story about young people in Korea, but also anywhere in the world.

RS: It seems to me that that idea of a globalized world comes through in a few small touches, like having Trump appear briefly on television, or even the use of the North/South Korean border as a backdrop. These feel like gestures towards a larger, contemporary context.

LC: I think that on the surface, the story follows the small mysteries of everyday life. But it doesn’t stop there—it goes beyond that and expands to deal with some bigger mysteries about the world we live in. The phone call that Jongsoo receives in the middle of the night is an example of an everyday mystery. But the images of Donald Trump on television or the North Korean radio broadcasts are the same—I think they are mysteries.

RS: I connected the Trump cameo to the main character’s rage—his sense of being on the margins in a country where the rich are getting richer, and the gap between rich and poor is growing. This is the same anger that’s burning at the core of so many conflicts in the world today.

LC: There are people who are becoming angrier as they grow more marginalized, and more hopeless, and at the same time the world is becoming more beautiful, and cleaner, and more convenient. This makes it seem like there are no problems, but of course there are are problems, and it is a problem within. There’s a rage building up inside the younger generation as it starts to feel more spiritless…

RS: Unless you’re Ben.

LC: I think Ben has problems too! Regardless of where his money comes from, he has more wealth than he knows what to do with. There’s a void there. We don’t know what Ben does. Maybe he works in technology or in finance, and we see now when things happen in big companies, like corporate restructuring or getting rid of laborers, that it’s very violent. Even if a wealthy person today is not directly murdering somebody—even he is not a serial killer—there’s a sense in which taking a person’s livelihood away is killing them. Because of this power that the elite wield, there is a void at the base of their being.

RS: There is the metaphor in the movie of the “little hunger” and the “bigger hunger,” and while we see that Jongsoo suffers the former—he wants respect and to survive—and that Haemi is maybe fixated on the latter—she longs for some great, fulfilling experience—Ben doesn’t seem to be hungry for anything. I’d say that the precise nature of his appetite is the film’s biggest mystery.

LC: It’s exactly as you say: we don’t know what Ben is hungry for, or what he’s feeling. When Jongsoo follows Ben in his car to the water, he sees him standing there, seeming peacefully meditating by himself, and it raises all these questions. What is he doing? Is he enjoying the quiet or returning to the scene of the crime? There is that emptiness, again. This can be seen as a problem of the young and wealthy, but it’s also a larger problem of a capitalist society, where the pursuit of money is the be all and end all. Numbers chasing numbers. To this, Ben would probably say: “That’s the law of nature. Some die, some don’t.” That’s what’s scary about him.

RS: I wondered also if the way that Ben appears—as this totally blank, sinister villain—is a byproduct of him being seen through Jongsoo’s eyes. Is there an attempt to direct our understanding of his character, or do you think the film’s view is more objective than that?

LC: In an ordinary thriller, you’d have a character trying to solve a mystery, and you’d see the process by which they’re trying to arrive at that truth. What I was trying to do was have the characters have meaning in and of themselves. Ben has meaning apart from how Jongsoo sees him, and so does Haemi. I wanted the audience to observe, and be curious, and to question who and what Ben and Haemi are, as opposed to simply seeing them through Jongsoo’s eyes.

RS: Can you talk about all of the doubling in Burning’s script? I know that the premise and characters are faithful to Murakami, but this motif of having events, exchanges and even lines of dialogue repeated in different contexts—like Haemi doing the Kenyan bushmens’ dance twice, or the two courtroom scenes with Jongsoo going to see his father—is very pronounced throughout.

LC: Some of those things you mentioned are not in the short story, but in Murakami’s ouevre, there are lots of examples of doubling—he uses duality and twins consistently—which may just be a coincidence.

RS: One last mystery, since I’m out of time: where did you find the cat who plays Haemi’s cat? He’s a great cat.

LC: You know, I don’t know.