Director Lee Chang-dong and Steven Yeun on the riddles, Great Gatbsy allusions, and social commentary behind one of the year’s best films
“A kismet situation” is how Steven Yeun puts it. On the 2017 press tour for Okja, the Korean-American actor, who found fame as Glenn in The Walking Dead, was asked if he had any dream directors. So Yeun mentioned a fondness for Lee Chang-dong, the Korean auteur behind Poetry, Secret Sunshine and Green Fish. The interview found its way to Chang-dong, and Yeun was invited to join the director’s sixth film, Burning. The initial namedrop was in June, the shoot began in September, and Burning was finished the following January. The system works!
“I hadn’t seen The Walking Dead,” Chang-dong admits. “But I had seen Okja. I contacted Steven through director Bong Joon-ho, and we arranged a meeting. Steven understood this character so well, even the physicality and the emptiness. It felt like I was looking at the character right before my eyes.” It’s a compliment that tickles Yeun. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not,” the actor chuckles.
We’re in London’s Mayfair Hotel, where Chang-dong and Yeun answer all my burning questions. Chang-dong answers through a translator, which means Yeun hears Chang-dong’s responses twice: once in Korean, then again in English. Sometimes the actor laughs 30 seconds before I know why. This reminds me of Okja, where Yeun plays the bilingual middleman between Paul Dano’s English-speaking activists and the pig-loving girl who only knows Korean. Yeun, himself, was born in Korea, then moved to America when he turned four. “Okja was very much a meta experience of who I am, living between two cultures,” Yeun says. “Whereas Burning was really a deep exploration of my roots. It was a very important moment in my personal life story.”
At Cannes, Burning proved to be the festival’s breakout success, racking up five-star reviews and breathless praise from critics. Screen International calculated that Chang-dong’s thriller, an adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story, was literally the best-reviewed film to ever compete for the Palme d’Or. It also marks Chang-dong’s first feature since Poetry in 2010. In the interim period, the director wrote, developed and then abandoned several scripts, many titled Project Rage. Burning, though, was the first film, in his words, to justify its existence.
“Burning represents not only Korean society,” Chang-dong explains, “but also everywhere in the world, with economic inequalities. It’s just getting worse. The young generation in Korea finds it hard to get jobs, and there’s emptiness in their lives.”
That sense of societal frustration fuels the anger within Burning’s Sudoku-like structure. The movie is a love triangle, a murder mystery, a black comedy, a nail-biting thriller, a takedown of toxic masculinity – and also, somehow seemingly plotless for much of its 148 minutes. Officially, the film is based on “Barn Burning”, a 10-page short story penned by Murakami in 1983. However, Chang-dong also weaves in elements of William Faulkner’s identically titled short story “Barn Burning”, and the resultant movie mischievously mirrors F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. “There are too many Gatsbys in Korea” is one of the more obvious allusions in the script.
“Murakami’s story was just two people smoking marijuana together and sharing a story of burning barns,” Chang-dong notes. “I liked the atmosphere, but I wanted to add more details about Korean society, and to make it more intriguing.” Yeun nods in agreement. “A short story allows for that opening,” the actor adds. “Director Lee is able to comment on Murakami without directly commenting on him, by juxtaposing it with the Faulkner storyline. It’s such a smart device to adapt what is so mysterious about Murakami’s writing.”
Burning opens with a surprise encounter between two depressed, money-starved 20-somethings, Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) and Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo). Hae-mi claims they went to school together, and even recalls a time Jong-su called her ugly to her face. Jong-su, however, bears no recollection of Hae-mi. No matter: she’s now beautiful, and the guy can scarcely believe his luck. After they have sex, Hae-mi asks for a favour: she’s spending a few months in Africa, and needs someone to feed her cat. When Jong-su turns up to her empty flat, there’s no evidence she owns a pet; so he instead masturbates in her bedroom, then proceeds with his daily chores.
It’s when Hae-mi returns to Korea that she parades a new boyfriend, Ben, played by Yeun. He’s the aforementioned Gatsby figure, a mysterious millionaire who’s movie-star handsome, and everything that Jong-su isn’t. The viewer, like Jong-su, is regularly scrutinising Ben’s mannerisms for clues. Should we be afraid of Ben? What is he plotting? Where did his wealth come from? In turn, Yeun’s playful facial expressions are a work of art: Ben’s yawn is already a deservedly popular meme. Moreover, Korean speakers will appreciate an extra layer to Yeun’s vernacular. “Ben speaks the most exact Korean,” the actor explains. “Rather, it’s not colloquial. He’s very on point in his Korean, and it sounds weird, because you’re like, ‘People don’t talk like that.’”
In Jong-su’s eyes, Ben is an outsider who only flies back to Seoul when it’s convenient. Did Yeun feel specifically suited to the role of Ben? “I think I could have played Jong-su,” Yeun counters. “But Director Lee talked to me a lot about the inherent westernisation of myself as an actor, and we didn’t want to bury that. That’s not to say Ben is American, but he’s travelled – that worldly nature of how he operates as a Korean person in Korea was a nice dissonance to keep.”
Nevertheless, the film’s defining moment belongs to Hae-mi. One evening, she smokes weed, strips off, and sways her silhouette against the backdrop of Korea’s magic hour – the dance of the Great Hunger, as she calls it. It’s a sequence accompanied by the sounds of Miles Davis, and the two men watch in confusion, perhaps jealous of a woman who’s lost her social inhibitions.
“The dancing scene is physically in the middle of the film,” Chang-dong points out. “That scene is the core of the film. Hae-mi is dancing and looking for freedom. We don’t know what the two men are thinking, and they don’t understand what she’s going through.” Are they jealous? “There’s a moment of admiration,” Yeun says. “It’s a very human thing to want to be free. It’s a beautiful moment for sure.”
Chang-dong and his co-writer, Oh Jung-mi, would compare the dance of the Great Hunger with the act of filmmaking: Hae-mi’s expressive movements may not change the world, but the physical act itself conveys hope. “All art-making is the same,” Chang-dong explains. “I don’t believe that filmmaking will change the world, but I will carry on, in hope – like Bushmen in a desert, dancing all night. I will dance, hoping that one day the world might change.”
“The film is obviously told from a Korean perspective, but the class divide is applicable anywhere. It’s interesting to see the parallels of how much it relates to the newer generation of kids. We’re watching a directionless society” – Steven Yeun
As for what will change, the film – which includes a shot of Donald Trump on a TV newsreel – details Jong-su’s existential combat against invisible forces. He lives in Paju, a South Korean city close enough to the border that it overhears North Korea’s propaganda announcements; he wishes to be a novelist but lacks any inspiration; the dire job market offers few solutions to his purposeless days; and he’s haunted by his proximity to Ben, a wealthy playboy with a lifestyle he’ll never attain.
“The film is obviously told from a Korean perspective,” Yeun says. “But the class divide is applicable anywhere. And it’s interesting to see the parallels of how much it relates to the newer generation of kids. I’m at the cusp of it, and we’re in it. We’re watching a directionless society. What Director Lee and all the actors talked a lot about is that emptiness. Maybe it’s God. Maybe it’s a space that you need something to tell you what’s next. Kids don’t have that.”
Yeun continues: “These days, with the internet, we’re been made aware of the stark realities of the world. You have to lay down a lot of things that you used as a personal guide to make you get up every day and continue on. When you don’t have that, it’s terrifying. You find it in different things, whether it’s material goods or a new phone, but you’re trying to fill that empty hole. What you’re missing is that purpose, and that feeling that you’re part of something greater. It’s sad how much of this film applies to our general life in the entire world.”
So does that universality mean an English-language remake of Burning is inevitable? “It’s possible,” Chang-dong suggests. “The story could happen anywhere.” Yeun, though, is more direct with his verdict. “That would be a bad idea!” the actor laughs. “The film is about what’s not on screen. It’s a very hard thing to capture.” Eventually, Chang-dong agrees with Yeun’s assessment, adding, “My film is something we can’t explain. It’s more like air on screen.”
Yeun, in fact, is responsible for the film’s biggest mystery – the air on screen, if you will. After Hae-mi’s aforementioned dance, Ben wryly confesses to Jong-su that he enjoys setting fire to barns. Every few months, Ben says, he searches for the barns that no one wants, that no one appreciates, that no one would notice if they vanish. And the next barn, Ben continues, is one Jong-su is already familiar with.
So when Hae-mi disappears without explanation, Jong-su turns amateur detective. Is it all a prank on Ben’s part? Is the barn burning a metaphor for killing women? Or is Jong-su himself the barn, the loser who’s now fixated with Ben’s extravagant lifestyle?
Before our interview ends, I feel compelled to ask Yeun and Chang-dong if there’s an explanation to the film’s riddle. I’m not expecting a firm answer; I just can’t leave without raising the question. However, Chang-dong confesses that he’s also not sure of Ben’s motives. “The ambiguities create the tension in the film,” the director explains. “Hae-mi, we don’t know if she’s a liar or a genuine person. Jong-su, we don’t know what’s happening in his head. And Ben is the most mysterious character – he could be a serial killer or a rich, kind man. Either one.”
Yeun, however, knows Ben’s secret, and he’s not budging. “Director Lee really gave me that space,” the actor notes. “He went as far as to say, ‘You’re the only one that knows. These are your choices.’ Director Lee didn’t ask for the answers. Because ultimately, the film is not really about that. Those are answers we want for direct prime objectives as a viewer, but really, it’s about the mysteriousness of the world.” At which point, Yeun grins so mischievously, I swear Ben has manifested in front of me. “So I know, but nobody else does.”
Burning opens in UK cinemas on February 1