'The Great Hungry': The Debilitating Rage of the 21st Century in Burning (Lee Chang-dong, 2018)
“It is said that Bushmen have two types of hungry people... Little hungry and great hungry. Little hungry people are physically hungry. The great hungry is a person who is hungry for survival. Why do we live, what is the significance of living? People who are always looking for these answers. This kind of person is really hungry, They are called the great hungry.”
Steven Yeun is up for an Oscar everyone! Exciting stuff considering the great work he has done since appearing in The Walking Dead. But I had my suspicions for the great work he can produce following his performance in Lee Chang-dong's exquisite mystery thriller Burning. Where I would all urge you to seek this film out for his performance alone as the sinister Ben, there is much more to this fantastic film. For what Lee manages to achieve in his latest work is a truly masterful character study framed within a story of suspense and underlayed with the strife of the modern dilemma facing the younger generations.
I regret not writing about this sooner, having watched at the end of last year. Not a day has gone by where I haven’t thought about it. The first of Lee Chang-dong’s films I had the privilege of seeing is also his most visually stunning. Evocative shots of fiery sunsets, bursts of light on moments with little revelation and misty blue dawns that seem to fog his characters oppressive worlds are tantalisingly beautiful. He wraps these beautiful scenes, meandering takes and strange restrictive world in a score of rhythmic bass and hollow drums that meander throughout. No sense of urgency in its rythm and melody, it's presence is menacing and unsettling, feeding into the psychological unease and anxiety through its pace.
His return after an eight year hiatus was long anticipated and all the more intriguing as he attempted to adapt the relatively un-adaptable Haruki Murakamis’ works. As a huge fan of Murakami’s, of course I would be excited to see the only adaptation of his to get brilliant reviews. Of course, this becomes an entity all of its own. The film is taken from the short story Barn Burning contained within the collection, The Elephant Vanishes, published in 1993. Somehow Lee takes Murakami’s surrealist minimalism and paints a portrait of Korea, the severe inequality that is prevalent and the anger within the younger generation. He also interweaves elements of the short stories own inspirational material, Willam Faulkners Barn Burning published in 1939. All of this wrapped in the strangest, most evocative of mystery thrillers from the 2010’s. Burning addresses the resentment of the 21st century and explores the concept of the 'The Great Hungry'.
Jong-su, a writer and introvert, has fallen for Hae-mi, a girl from his past. As it seems he has found a way into her heart, she leaves on a trip to Africa, entrusting him to watch her apartment and feed a cat that never seems to appear. Meanwhile, he has taken on his families failing dairy farm in Paju, a province facing urbanisation and is situated close to the border of North Korea, from where they receive radio broadcasts through the speakers. Then Hae-mi returns with her sophisticated, wealthy boyfriend Ben of whom she met on their trip. Ben has a hobby, one which he divulges on a trip to visit Jong-su in his home in Paju with Hae-mi. He likes to burn Greenhouses (a change from the barns as in Korea the aforementioned are more common), of which there are many in the rural fields of the area and there is one he has eye on; one that won’t be missed. Soon after this revelation, Hae-mi disappears, and Jong-su suspects that Ben has something to do with it.
Burning highlights the massive contradictions in Korea (and in actuality much of the so-called progressive nations), the extremely wealth carefree of the k-dramas and the financially suffering, struggling, jobless other half. The half that doesn’t get much of a say. This has had a major impact on the quality of futures, perceived by the younger generations. As Lee puts it himself, ‘The millennials living in Korea today will be the first generation that are worse off than their parents’ generation… they feel a sense of debilitation. This film is about young people who feel impotent, with rage bottled up inside them.’(Lee in an interview with Patrick Frater for Variety in 2018). Jong-su encapsulates the chains the economic climate has placed on the youth. Dreams are just that. It is unsure whether Hae-mi wants to assimilate into the wealthy elite of Ben’s world, but Lee cannot see this as possibility and the divide between the glossy urbanites of Seoul and the rural, worn out farmlands of Paju heightens the impossibility of the merging of these worlds.
Jong-su is a character who has remained passive in attempt to protect himself. Circumstance and past traumas including an abusive father and a mother who left the family home have created a person of reserve, with an anxiety bubbling underneath. As a writer, he cannot make a living this way and so must attempt to work around this. Lee could be saying something about luxury of creativity for the wealthy deprived from the lower classes, that Jong-su is only seen writing once and that this in itself offers little in the success of his work, nor the legitimacy of the finale. The harshest thing the character encapsulates is the resentment. This flourishes as the world around him offers less and less answers, the mystery of Ben and Hae-mi, his own life as a result of the mess his father has left him with, the existential that all frustrates him as much as the audience, but wholly unbeknownst to us both. Ultimately, as that insidious resentment simmers, all those things that have shaped Jong-su and unconsciously driven him have slipped away until Ben becomes the embodiment of those problems.
“There is no country for women,” Hae-mi’s co-worker comments to Jong-su. So through Hae-mi, Lee looks at another perspective. Here he explores the place of the woman in Korean society but also the place of one who chooses to live each day as it comes, never seeking more. This is what makes her the neutral party in the trio of characters. Tied to Jong-su, with memories he is unable to recall that have remained strongly with her such as calling her ugly as a child leading to plastic surgery in her later life and saving her from a well of, Hae-mis life is all the more tragic when we realise that she is an unfortunate embodiment of the modern day woman. Her compromising position as a woman that she chose to sever ties with a family that leads to a lack of security in exchange for freedom, the expenditures she makes to socialise, to experience the world and fit in makes her disappearance more unsettling. The price of freedom for a woman means that her family do not miss her, see her as a disappointment. So in seeking a place in the elite society and attempting to fit into the rigid expectations that the society and generation place upon her, she is rejected by her family who believe she is in massive debt and squandered her money.
Hae-mi’s unusual hobby of pantomime, in which early on in the film she mimes peeling and eating a clementine, is her own attempt at financial and social escape. In pantomime, she can have as many clementines as she wants, she will never go hungry; a delusion of imagination Jong-su also dreams of. Furthermore, her dance to Miles Davis's Generique, shirtless against the setting sun and the Korean flag billowing in the breeze further encapsulates her characters free-nature, unobtaibnable in their society. She sobs when it is over; it wasn't ebough, it was never really true freedom to begin with. It cements the influences of Jong-su in her life (He calls her a slut after this incident) and the extent this desire for freedom is capable of. She may be free in that moment but where does that lead her? Are those who desire freedom destined for this world? Is true freedom attainable in this life? That she vanishes after this event and becomes the source of the mystery for a time, soon she is part of a bigger question.
If Jong-su is the audiences vehicle that represents the despair and rage of the millennial Ben should represent the luxury afforded of his wealth, through possible inherited privilege. Ben lives without consequence, seeking fun wherever he goes and unable to ever be satisfied with that way of life. The greenhouses that he likes to burn could be a metaphor for much sinister activities and his position in the world allows him to get away with this unnoticed; as he says 'You can make them disappear as though they never existed'. He does not do it to cleanse himself, that is clear but what does the symbolism of the burning mean? He is arrogant, confident and conceited, finding Hae-mi interesting in contrast to Jong-su love (desire) for the girl and this makes him a villain to the other man in that he is in every way the opposite to him. But Jong-su cannot answer what it is about him that infuriates him so and in some ways; Ben is equally as oblivious to his own antagonism. But he is as much glorified by himself as by Jong-su and so becomes an obsession, something he needs to understand but offers nothing but more questions.
Which brings us to the mystery of Burning itself. The plot is a thriller; a girl is missing and her boyfriend may be behind it. And the social commentary is integral to underlying mood and tone that builds up to the finale and Jong-su hunts for answers. But his position in the community and psychologically restricts what he can do. Jong-su could be seen as an unreliable narrator; the obsession with Ben, his love/lust for Hae-mi and his own inner scars can be driving him slowly insane. There is the cat that never materialises for him (and possibly does later on but who can truly know), the fleeting presence of Hae-mi herself just out of his grasp. Furthermore, this unreliability can stem from the fact that he is unable to recall the events involving him that were so significant in Hae-mi’s life.
The finale itself poses the question of reality as much as it revels in ambiguity: is Jong-su writing a novel, answering his own questions to satisfy his desire for revenge and to make sense of the world or does what take place really happens? The mystery holds no answers for us. It is his youth that knows that there is something wrong in the world but he can’t define what it can be nor know how to resolve it. It is through Ben and the act of uncovering the mystery, so certain of the answers he uncovers despite little evidence, which gives Jong-su purpose and the outlet for his own creativity. Does this mean that an act of burning could purge him of his past, and allow him to be reborn anew? Well, Lee really doesn’t want to give any answers for that.
Burning is a startling tale that bleeds with the disastisfaction of the millenial future. It poses more questions than it chooses to answer and of these answers, they are concluded through the eyes of an unreliable source. This is only the beginning for me talking about the wonderful director that is Lee Chang-dong, but a great place to start is here. No matter what, Lees works are always powerful, diverse and moving as he is a filmmaker capable of fantastic depth and magnitude whilst remaining a truly great humanist. Look out for my next piece about him where I discuss his other five films and prove why he is your next favourite filmmaker.
Minari is anticipating release in the UK in a week. I’ve been pumped since the trailer dropped, having watched it at least once a week since then. The exploration of the Korean/American experience of the American dream, the blending of cultures, family and youth is going to be a very eye-opening experience to a lot of people. Contemplating Asian representation in cinema, what we have begun to see in the past few years is truly exciting. Now I’m hoping we’ll see more South Korean distribution over here. Why? Because I’ve been a huge fan for a long time. I mean, how cool is it that Steven Yeun has been nominated for an Oscar for best actor and so has Youn Yuh-jung for supporting, the film has had plenty of other nominations and wins across the board. The soundtrack has stolen my heart (Pauls Antiphony, Jacobs Prayer and the Rain Song, sung by lead actress Han Ye-ri, are true highlights of what is set to be an emotive journey) and the cast overall looks absolutely incredible, with some stunning visuals promised! It’s just such an exciting step in Asian representation on Western screens.