It doesn’t come up here very often as this is a film review site and not a place where I brag about all the books I read, but I’m a huge fan of Haruki Murakami. I was 16 in 2004 when a friend recommended The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and it is not an exaggeration to say that the book helped save my life in a dark time. Murakami has notoriously been reticent to hand over adaptation rights to much of his work (and if you’re a fan, imagine someone trying to turn 1Q84 or Kafka on the Shore into a movie and you can probably see why), but director Lee Chang-dong (Oasis, Secret Sunshine) did it, and the result is nothing less than spectacular. It took a little time, but Burning made its way back to Austin via the Film Society Cinema, and it was well worth the wait.
After his father runs into trouble with the law, Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), who finished college after his mandatory military service but has yet to find gainful employment, is making his way back to his father’s small farm in his hometown near the North Korean border to manage his livestock. Along the way, he runs into Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a childhood friend and neighbor, whom he doesn’t recognize at first, which she attributes to plastic surgery. She demonstrates a talent for pantomime and tells him that she is planning a trip to Africa and asks him to feed her cat, Boil, while she is out of the country. The two sleep together when she gives him the tour of her tiny apartment, showing him the one spot in the single room which gets a ray of sunshine reflected off of the Seoul Tower for a few moments a day. After she leaves, he attends his father’s arraignment and attends to feeding Boil, whom he never sees, and grows more attached to Hae-mi in her absence. When Hae-mi returns from Kenya, she is accompanied by Ben (Steven Yeun), a fellow Korean with whom she bonded when they were both trapped in the Nairobi airport for three days due to a terror warning. The three attend dinner together, where Ben plays coy about his employment and claims to have never shed a tear in his adult life as he has never experienced sadness, while Jong-su appears envious of the rapport Ben and Hae-mi have developed.
The three get together again and Ben prepares dinner (or, as he says he sometimes imagines, and offering to himself) in his home, an upscale apartment in Seoul’s expensive Gangnam neighborhood; Jong-su compares him to Jay Gatsby, a young man of great wealth whose income is obscure. Still later, Ben and Hae-mi visit Jong-su’s farm and the three get high; Hae-mi dances topless beneath a beautiful sunset, Jong-su opens up about his mother’s departure when he was a child and his father’s anger, and Ben admits to having a fascination with burning down greenhouses. Jong-su insults and shames Hae-mi, and she and Ben leave. Later, when Jong-su tries to contact her again, she doesn’t respond. Eventually her phone number is disconnected, and after a visit to the Shin family still reveals no secrets, Jong-su investigates further. But what is he chasing? A woman? A shadow? A victim? A dream? A ghost? Someone who was never there at all?
This movie is dense. It also never feels its length, moving along at a steady clip for all 150 minutes. I’d never read “Barn Burning,” the Murakami short story on which the film is loosely based (and which was in turn inspired by a Faulkner story), but there’s a 13 page PDF version floating around the internet, so I gave it a quick once-over to see how much of the film’s plot correlated to the original text, and it’s less than you would expect. Still, it’s obvious that Lee (the director, not the carrier) is a fan of Murakami’s wider body of work based on other elements that he inserted in expanding the 5000ish word piece into a sprawling film. There’s no cat in “Barn Burning,” for instance, but the presence of cats in the author’s work can’t be understated (the missing cat Noboru kicks off the plot of Wind-Up Bird, Tengo’s obsession with a short story about a town of cats is an integral part of 1Q84, and Nakata in Kafka on the Shore can communicate with cats, just to name a few). There’s also no mention in the story of the father of the unnamed narrator (who is older than Jong-su), but bad fathers are also a frequent element in Murakami’s work (the titular Kafka runs away from home because of his father, Tengo’s reminisces about his childhood that don’t involve around Aomame are all about being used as a prop by his father on his NHK fee-collecting route, etc.), and Jong-su’s father here is explicitly a man with anger issues who drove his wife away before forcing his son to burn the woman’s clothes and who can’t seem to stop fighting with local authorities. As soon as there was a cat and a shitty dad, I thought to myself, “Now all we need is a well,” and sure enough, Hae-mi ended up telling a (probably false) story about falling into a well as a child and being rescued by Jong-su about ten minutes of screentime later. It’s all the Murakami hallmarks you’ve come to know and love, even down to the fact that the song Hae-mi dances to is Miles Davis’s “Générique,” although the narrator mentions that the trio listened to Davis during the visit to his home in “Barn Burning.” All that’s missing is an internal monologue about staying in shape by swimming in the city’s public pool or a step-by-step recitation of how to take care of vinyl records and you’d hit Murakami bingo.
Not that you need to speak Murakami to love this film. I confess I’ve not seen any of Lee’s previous work, but I have to imagine that if it contains half the subtlety, the meaningful composition, the sweeping cinematic beauty, and the intensity of emotion here, it’s no wonder he’s considered one of the great living directors (just look at the list of awards and honors on his wikipedia page). It’s almost impossible to really get into the layers of composition here without giving too much away, since there’s a lot going on. Just how reliable is Jong-su’s point of view? He paints Ben as Jay Gatsby, but Ben comes across more as a Tom Buchanan type, with Hae-mi as the mercurial and flighty Daisy to Jong-su’s obsessive Gatsby (albeit lacking in the archetype’s material wealth). We dislike Ben because Jong-su does, but should we like Jong-su, really, even before he starts to suspect Ben might have had something to do with Hae-mi’s disappearance and thus stalks Ben around in the world’s most conspicuous “stealth” vehicle? But if Ben’s so innocent, what is he up to with all his mysterious riches and his gaggle of friends? Is he a sociopath, as his lack of empathy seems to imply? What’s up with his collection of women’s jewelry – is he hiding a cuckqueaned wife from his series of girlfriends? Is this his collection of trophies from sexual conquests? Something more sinister? What really happened to Hae-mi? When she returns from Kenya, she delivers a poignant monologue about watching the sunset over the desert and feeling that she was at the end of the world, citing fear of death but a desire for non-existence. Did she disappear because that’s what she really wanted? This hearkens back to her explanation of pantomiming eating a tangerine (which does come from the short story): it’s not about believing that the tangerine is there, but forgetting that it isn’t. Does she want to not exist, or does she want to forget that she ever did? We even see this void/lack when Jong-su visits Hae-mi’s mother and sister, who not only haven’t seen her but tell Jong-su that she’s not welcome to return until she repays her debts; they’re correct that Hae-mi is responsible for Jong-su’s visit despite his protests that she didn’t send him, they simply don’t realize that its Hae-mi’s absence that is driving him.
I really can’t add any more here without telling you too much. Just go watch Burning. It’s currently streaming for $3.99 (a steal, believe me) on Vudu and Amazon Prime.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond