Burning (버닝, Lee Chang-dong, 2018)

Burning posterWith the world the way it is, it’s no wonder young people everywhere find themselves lost and confused, unable to find a sense of greater purpose when all they see is futility. Eight years on from Poetry which revolved around a grandmother’s growing sense of disquiet on realising no one cares about the victim of her grandson’s transgression, Lee Chang-dong returns with a story of frustrated youth as three conflicted souls are drawn into a spiral of resentments, jealousies and forlorn hopes.

Our hero, Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), is an aspiring writer currently working a series of casual blue collar jobs to get by in the city. One such job unexpectedly brings him into contact with Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a childhood friend from his home town he didn’t quite recognise. “Plastic surgery” she quips, though she seems happy enough to see him which comes as a surprise to Jong-su, awkward as he is. Hae-mi invites him for drinks over which she asks him a favour – to look after her cat while she goes off to Africa for a bit in response to the call of “great hunger”. Jong-su agrees, but has also agreed to go home to Paju to look after the family’s last remaining cow seeing as his dad, whom he hates, has got himself arrested after getting into a fight with a public official. Before she leaves for Africa, Jong-su begins a sexual relationship with Hae-mi which he seems to think is a sign of a deeper attachment, but when she rings and asks him to pick her up from the airport he is dismayed to find she’s in the company of another man – Ben (Steven Yeun), a handsome, sophisticated, and very wealthy Korean she was accidentally marooned with for three days in Nairobi waiting for a plane.

A man like Ben is an existential threat to one like Jong-su. He doesn’t even put up a fight when Ben, whose friend has been secretly following Jong-su’s rundown pickup all the way back to the city in his Porsche, offers to take Hae-mi the rest of the way. A farm boy from rural backwater Paju, he feels himself inferior, bumpkinish, and unrefined as Ben subtly undermines his self-confidence in order to boost his own sense of superiority. Jong-su, invited to Ben’s upscale condo for “pasta”, is instantly uncomfortable. Eventually unable to mask his rising resentment, he rudely lays into his host while smoking with Hae-mi out on the balcony by musing on how a man in early middle age can afford to live like this – cooking pasta and listening to music, driving a Porsche, owning a Gagnam apartment. In the first of many barbed comments which won’t help his cause, Jong-su asks Hae-mi what exactly she thinks Ben is doing with someone like her. She replies that he says he finds her “interesting”, but the sadness in her eyes implies that she’s already given this question more than a degree of thought.

Ben remains a cypher. Though his manner is charming, even superficially kind, there’s something unsettling about him, a kind of creeping hollowness coupled with unpredictability. Rattled, Jong-su starts going through his bathroom cupboards and finds a ladies’ makeup box and a draw full of trinkets which seem to have belonged to several different women. At the very least, Ben has not been honest with Hae-mi, but Jong-su doesn’t say anything. Jong-su, less naive, is also well aware of the way Ben has been trotting them out for entertainment value at dinner parties frequented by his wealthy friends who take in the country bumpkin freak show with cruel superiority. Ben, however, is already bored – yawning ostentatiously but making a conspiratorial show of locking eyes with Jong-su who he knows is on to him in more ways than one.

Unexpectedly rocking up at Jong-su’s rundown Paju farmhouse, Ben plants a kernel of intrigue in Jong-su’s fragile mind by telling him about his “hobby” of burning down random “greenhouses” just for the hell of it. Despite his literary pretensions, Jong-su takes Ben’s words at face value and misses the obvious subtext. Whatever Ben is or might be, men like him delight in destroying fragile things to mask their own fragility. Jong-su takes the bait and the “metaphorical” fire Ben has lit within him begins to catch.

Ben, who finds Hae-mi’s tears “fascinating” because he has never cried, says he burns things to feel his soul vibrate. Hae-mi, meanwhile, remains frustratingly distant to both men. She talks about spiritual hunger and longs to find some kind of meaning in a world of futility but also longs to disappear like an all too brief sunset. She “reminds” Jong-su of a childhood incident in which she fell into a well behind her family’s farm and eventually found salvation in the sudden appearance of his face, but Jong-su doesn’t even remember. Hae-mi is in a sense still living at the bottom of a well, staring at the sky and waiting for rescue only to find herself continually abandoned, friendless and alone.

Then again, perhaps nothing she’s told Jong-su is true. Hae-mi’s answer to want is imagination, a simple ability to “forget” a desired object does not already exist. She asks Jong-su to look after a cat who is so shy he begins to wonder if it’s real, reassured only by an empty food bowl and full litter tray. Jong-su is our “writer”, but the only thing he writes is a petition letter to get the father he can’t stand an appeal for crime he knows he committed. He is our guide to “truth” but his job is to engineer narrative – the story is his to direct and the ending his to choose. He writes because “the world is a mystery” to him, but remains trapped within his own petty preoccupations in which the full weight of his rage levels towards Ben whose existence seems so unfair.

Burdened by a strangely feudal deference, Jong-su is a fuse slowly catching light. Failed by family, he and Hae-mi are abandoned children looking for a way out. They thought they wanted out of Paju, but perhaps they were meant to be together in this place if the world were better and there were no more playboy kings like Ben, eager to do “anything for fun” in order to escape the emptiness of their existence in which inherited wealth has left them purposeless and hugely insecure despite the superficial confidence of class. Jong-su and Hae-mi chase brief moments of sunlight bounced back from the gleaming spires of an inaccessible city but find no relief or promise in its greying skies. Adapting a short story by Haruki Murakami, Lee Chang-dong paints a dizzying picture of a tinderbox world in which the rage of the oppressed little guy threatens to engulf us all while those best placed to help only want to fan the flames.


Screened as part of the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

US trailer (English subtitles)

Green Fish (초록 물고기, Lee Chang-dong, 1997)

Green Fish poster

You can never go home again. Lee Chang-dong’s debut, Green Fish (초록 물고기, Chorok Mulgogi), is as much a chronicle of his rapidly modernising nation’s gradual loss of innocence as it is that of its melancholy hero, Makdong (Han Suk-kyu), whose simple dream of family harmony is destroyed by the forces of desire and oppression. Perpetually someone’s little brother, Makdong struggles but finds no schoolyard protectors in his ongoing quest for leadership and direction from someone or something external to himself. All he finds is a gradual descent into darkness and criminality in which misplaced loyalties eventually carry the heaviest of penalties.

Returning home from his mandatory military service, still dressed in his warm weather combats, Makdong inhales a taste of freedom by hanging out of the open train doorway. He notices a woman doing the same thing a few doors down. Her red scarf floats away on the breeze and hits Makdong in the face. Later he notices the same woman being hassled by a gang of louts and decides to intervene. Despite his military uniform, Makdong is no great warrior and he’s quickly beaten up and humiliated, retreating to the bathroom where he soaks the woman’s scarf in water and puts it over his bloodied face, inhaling her scent through the fabric as it somehow expresses his otherwise repressed scream.

Vowing revenge for his humiliation Makdong jumps off the train and attacks the louts with a heavy stone trophy, but he mistimes his attack and ends up running after the departing carriages before being forced to abandon all hope of catching up and concentrate on evading the louts who are once again on his tail. On his arrival home, Makdong discovers nothing is as he left it. His family is scattered – father dead, mother going mad, one brother married and a policeman though apparently also a drunk, other brother a wideboy punk, little sister working as a hostess, where there were fields now there are apartment blocks as far as the eye can see, only his older brother with developmental disabilities remains the same. Unable to find work, Makdong chases the scent of the woman on the train, eventually encountering her in the city. Miae (Shim Hye-jin) is a nightclub singer involved with petty gangster Bae Tae-gon (Moon Sung-keun). Remaining close to her, Makdong finds himself drawn ever further into Maie’s self destructive spiral of desire and darkness.

Makdong, whose name literally means “youngest sibling”, is perpetually looking for a family. Turned away from the chaos of his childhood home, he looks for it in the traditional place of the dispossessed male – the gang. Desperate to prove himself and be accepted, Makdong is willing to undergo any kind of pain and humiliation. Given his first job, he sings a snatch of the karaoke song playing in the bar about a prodigal son who disappoints his parents, looks himself in the mirror then hesitates before slamming the stall door shut across his fingers, leaving them swollen and bloodied. He then picks a fight with a rival gangster to give Bae Tae-gon an excuse to settle a score. Bae, solicitous, expresses irritation with Makdong’s act of self-harm but also gives him a leg up into the organisation, something which does not prove universally popular with the already established crew.

Bae’s decision to make Makdong his latest “little brother” (a sort of pun on his name and Bae’s position as the gang’s “big brother”), is mirrored in Bae’s own turbulent relationship with his superior/rival, Yang-gil (Myung Gye-nam). Yang-gil, setting up shop right across from Bae’s establishment, describes Bae disparagingly as a scrappy puppy dog biting at his master’s heels. Much as he feels humiliated by Yang-gil’s authoritative disdain, he refuses to move against him, ordering his guys to back off even though it makes him look weak and diminishes him in the eyes of his followers. Just as Makdong has placed his faith in Bae, Bae’s is already installed in Yang-gil, something which Makdong tragically fails to understand.

Makdong’s loyalty to Bae also presents a conflict in his desire for Miae. A much stereotyped gangster’s moll, Miae is the melancholy nightclub singer familiar from classic noir. Her world is just as ruined and broken as Makdong’s. She wants to leave Bae and his life of violent chaos in which she’s often pimped out to serve his interests, but she’s looking for someone to help her, just as Makdong is looking for someone to defend him. A long train journey brings the pair together in a moment of innocent tenderness, but presented with a choice Makdong choses Bae and his new world of male chivalry over his original act of white knight rescue which brought him to Miae’s attention in the first place. Later he makes another, more final choice, burning Miae’s scarf which he’d been carrying like a talisman all along. The flames reflected in his sunglasses give him eyes of fire, but behind the frames there are tears too as he bids goodbye to one dream in the mistaken belief of buying himself another.

Facing his end, Makdong rings home and reminisces about a story of idealised childhood innocence in which he spent a day at the river with his siblings, trying to catch the green fish of the title from under a railway bridge. Earlier on the family had another picnic in a similar spot which quickly degenerated into a chaotic family spat with the trains passing ominously behind them. The world that Makdong wants is already fading, he is, in some sense, already its ghost and the future has no place for him. His dreams were small – a modest family restaurant, and a return to the warmth and security he felt as a child surrounded by unconditional love. His family, however, no longer support him, he is alone and unloved. The world has moved past him like a train leaving the station, Makdong runs but he can’t catch up. The future belongs to those who can move fast enough to adapt to the new reality of modern Korean life, not to old romantics like Makdong who still believe in archaic ideals of family and brotherhood. Yet, there is something of that old world remaining in the posthumous fulfilment of Makdong’s only wish, even if he himself is not permitted to witness it.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Cabaret scene (no subtitles)

Poetry

 

Last year’s winner of the Cannes award for screenwriting, Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry is the story of one women’s yearning to see the beauty of life and finding that often it’s only to be found in its blackest tragedies. Mija (Yun Jung-Hee), a sixty-five year old woman, is caring for her grandson in a tiny apartment of the edges of a city when simple aches and pains lead to the discovery of a serious health problem. Having seen a poster for a local adult education class in poetry writing, and recalling a teacher once predicted she’d one day become a poet she decides to enroll. In the midst of this she also discovers that her grandson has done something unthinkable, and that the reactions of others to these events ranges from the nonchalant to the wildly self interested. Bewildered by the conspiracy of these conflicting crises, Mija must reach an understanding of what must happen now and learn to see the beauty of life in all its ugliness so that she can finally write her own poem.

Although it has a gentle melancholy, Poetry is not quite as depressing as it sounds and is in the end deeply beautiful. Yun Jung-Hee’s performance is breathtaking, never straying too far into melodrama she keeps a film that might have become overwrought firmly rooted whilst allowing the audience to totally empathise with her character. It’s no wonder that this won the screen writing prize at Cannes last year as it’s incredibly well written and hugely literate.

Poetry is a beautiful film that everyone would benefit from seeing. It’s a real shame that this is the first of Lee Chang-Dong’s films to be released in the UK, hopefully it won’t be the last!