This article was written on 03 Dec 2018, and is filled under Film & TV, Literature, Media, New Ecologies.

Lee Chang Dong’s “Barn Burning” (2018): Adaptation in Full Torque

Lee Chang Dong’s masterpiece, “Burning” (2018), currently winding its way along the screens of art cinema, is a guided tour through the contemporary Korean economy and its cultural surround. All the more noteworthy that it starts out as a terse tale by Haruki Marukami, “Barn Burning,” from which it derives its plot-line and several key motifs, but nothing else.

Its Japanese springboard emerges as an unusually psychopathic variant on a scenario encountered across the gamut of Marukami’s fiction. It too starts out with a hip, slightly jaded cosmopolitan, a writer and a jazz aficionado, in this case married, as he works through an infatuation with a significantly younger unattached woman. In Marukami’s blueprint to the film, the female love interest does modeling and studies mime. Her economic situation is shaky. The narrator met her at a wedding party. The narrative is noncommittal as it informs us that the narrator rings her up once or twice a month and they see each other: “We’d have something to eat, have a few drinks in a bar, and talk up a storm. . . . Naturally I paid for everything, all the food and drink.” We are left in the dark as to the narrator’s economic circumstances. But she returns to Japan from a junket to North Africa under the wing of a young oligarch in a completely different socio-economic league. We are told only that he dabbles in import-export. That the narrative associates the boyfriend with Jay Gatsby is decisive to the aura that his character casts over the story—and will over the film–which is from the moment of her return from Tunisia the trigonometric charting of a love-triangle. As the tale plays itself out, the young woman and her rapport to the Gatsby surrogate increase in their fascination to the narrator; while in the wealthy importer’s parlance, she is nothing more than a passing fancy.

MANY are the enlargements that Lee Chang Dong adds to this spare scenario of love–pace Benjamin, more at last sight than the alternative, and bisected into radically different truths—in the process of constructing, with the full benefit of film artistry, an epic of contemporary Korea. The inheritance that the film adaptation explicitly and gratefully accepts from its fictive forbear takes the form of the following elements: 1) In the film adaptation, the characters have names: Haemi for the femme fatale; Jongsu for the narrator, who is now, in spite of his humble agrarian origins, an aspiring (writing program trained) creative writer. It turns out that Haemi and Jongsu are Landsmänner, from the same backward village–in sight of the DMZ between North and South Korea. The aspiring young oligarch, played to perfection by a Korean-American actor, Steven Yeun, appropriately goes by the handle “Ben,” reflecting his globalist rather than nationalist allegiances.

2) If not an “advertising model,” as in Murikami, Haemi pays her bills, to the extent she can, by being a shopping hostess, a hawker, someone who wiggles and deploys other not so subtle means to divert commercial street traffic. Her social status, then, is one of protracted precarity; a perfect accompaniment to Jongsu’s challenge of writing while maintaining his father’s subsistence farm (the latter is simultaneously undergoing prosecution and punishment for assaulting a public official). In “Burning,” Lee Chang Dong richly draws on the study of mime referenced by Murakami in the film’s first tour de force: Haemi’s “illustrated” demonstration of what it means to peel a tangerine in mime-language. The mimetic issue is not a positive emulation of peeling, but rather distraction from the awareness that no tangerine is present. The seemingly tangential swerve into Haemi’s mime-training becomes a virtuoso performance of the film’s built in meta-critical sensibility. Like Haemi’s putative fruit, “Burning” distracts us from the truths that are not its content. Jun Jong-seo, who depicts Haemi, may well be an even more accomplished dancer than actress. Both in her tangerine peeling and in her later semi-nude dance in the approaching dusk, Haemi accesses movement performing the tenuousness of her status and the meagerness of her prospects—all the while demonstrating her inculcation in Korean Buddhist tenets. (With its attunement to the elemental flows of nature, this is the cultural “base” of Korean spirituality—effaced by the turn to the Presbyterian Church we see Ben attending at one point. Mainstream Protestantism is popular in such Asian economic “Tigers” as Korea and Singapore. Its appeal may well echo Max Weber’s designation of Protestantism as the political theology of commerce in Modernity.)

3) The episode of Haemi and Ben’s visit to Jungsu, in the former’s Audi sport car, is another key holdover from the Murakami text. In the film, Haemi scans the abject village of her and Jongsu’s upbringing for a well she remembers falling into. (Oblique subterranean vigils are another “classical” Murakami motif.) Ben caters the visit with a lavish spread. There is a quick segue from his vinicultural largesse to the trio’s smoking some weed. Haemi’s return to her agrarian roots occasions the second protracted instance of her preternatural corporeal attunement to the energies of nature, its flows of light and wind.

4) Precisely as Haemi sleeps off her stimulants, the film launches into perhaps its most audacious take-over from the Murakami fable: Ben’s disclosure to Jongsu, out of an odd affinity between them (a doubling in the full Romantic nuance of this configuration), that he has developed the pastime of burning down abandoned barns.

I burn roughly one barn every two months,” he [the unnamed young mogul] said. And snapped his fingers again. “That seems the right pace. For me, that is. . . . The way I’m explaining it might be a little weird, I guess. The world’s full of barns, that are, almost waiting for me to burn them down. A barn all by itself beside the ocean, a barn in a rice paddy . . . Anyhow, all kinds of barns.

5) The rhythm of barn-burnings bears some resemblance to the schedule according to which, in the fable, the unnamed writer sets up his dates with the aspiring model and mime. The shock of the young tycoon’s odd attestation triggers an obsession, on the writer’s part, with abandoned barns, particularly in his neighborhood. The writer begins jogging, and then changing his route, so that he can keep tabs on the barns in his vicinity that the mogul may have eradicated. In Lee Chang Dong’s film-adaptation, these are elongated sheds for cold-weather farming covered in translucent plastic sheeting. The film thus references a protracted move, in the interest of increased production, by Korean agri-business to extend the growing season.

It is primarily, then, a love-rivalry between a familiar aesthete and an outlier of unknown allegiances; the odd image of barn burnings as the expression of a purely whimsical detachment; a frenzied quest for love and to avert the destruction on the protagonist’s part; and the figure of mime as fiction’s embellishment of what is not there, what may be unreachable, that “Barn Burning” bequeaths to the filmmakers. But the readers of this allegorical parable could not begin to anticipate the liberties and cinematic supplements that Lee Chang Dong brings to bear as he translates Japanese parable into Korean saga.

With a simple turn of plot, the film adaptation ups the ante in Jongsu’s involvement with Haemi. Very shortly after she, as department store hawker, picks him out in the crowd, she lavishes him with what is obviously the consummate sexual experience thus far in his life. She has already enticed Jongsu with her legerdemain, her mastery of the dialectic of presence and absence, over drinks. Haemi’s modest lodgings, set in the heights of Seoul, against the Seoul TV Tower, command magnificent views of the entire urban topography. When Jongsu’s role shifts, and he becomes passive accomplice to Ben and Haemi’s revels, he cannot relinquish the intense infatuation following from this glorious sexual windfall.

The careful attention that Lee Chang Dong has devoted to Haemi’s physical environment does not stand alone. After seducing Jongsu, she asks him to feed a cat in her apartment over the duration of her North African travels. Jongsu never sets eyes on this housepet, at least while he is dutifully ascending to Haemi’s lodgings. Perhaps emerging from the pages of Lewis Carroll, an invisible cat can nonetheless, by the logic of a non-existent tangerine, produce a palpable affect. Indeed, beginning with Haemi’s heights, the camera’s rapport to landscape, topography, season, and climate throughout the film is picturesque, intimate and striking. This attention performs yeoman’s service in constructing an allegory of a runaway Korean economy rapidly severing its agrarian roots; under the thumb of a class indifferent to the society’s deep-rooted historical traditions and conventions. Ben’s pyromaniac and nasty habit of destroying other people’s greenhouses on a whim is a graphic expression of the disdain reserved by Korean oligarchy for indigenous pursuits and values. Korea is also “no place for women” not of a certain class, explains one of Haemi’s fellow hostesses. Jongsu accosts her in full pursuit of Haemi—once the latter has disappeared, under suspicious circumstances, and still under Ben’s protection. In the words of Haemi’s fellow huckster, commercial hostesses are just a step up from prostitution, an eroded step at that. Women in this predicament are damned if they use beauty products and attend to fashion and damned if they don’t; exposed to sexual opportunism and compromise if they do–and consigned to precarity and social immobility if they don’t.

Throughout these proceedings—Haemi as inexplicably lucky ward to a young tycoon with no allegiances; Jongsu, cleaning up his father’s incontinent transgressions and still coping with early maternal abandonment, as passive bystander to this socio-sexual contract—the figure of Ben personifies the facility, savoir-faire, detachment, and betrayal combining in a new generation of Korean super-capitalists. The contours of Ben’s face and coif are as smooth and aerodynamic as the Audi sports car in which he ferries Haemi and subsequent consorts. The soundtrack pays acute attention to the clicking of the mechanically perfect cabinetry in Ben’s custom-designed Seoul condo; to the trite conversation with his male and female playmates, invariably turning to money, companions to whom he reflects pure indifference; to the aimlessness of his drives around Seoul and into the countryside—the latter in quest for more greenhouses to burn.

In the wake of Haemi’s disappearance, Jongsu jogs obsessively through his environs to make certain no local greenhouses have been torched. Muted lighting and hand-held camera-work accentuate the anxious frenzy of his quest to locate her. The cinematography also performs the mounting suspicion that she is merely another casualty of Ben’s disaffected whimsy. On one of these troubled runs, Jongsu comes within a match-stroke of incinerating a greenhouse of his own. At this moment (and certainly in his love for Haemi), Earthy Jongsu is as much flamboyant Ben’s double and complement as his diametrical opposite. Jongsu hails from a radically different history, class, and outlook. Yet—with or without the sexual ministrations of Haemi—he is joined at the hip to Ben. Their blood literally flows between them. Joined in the complicity of an eclipse—of local markets, traditions, and enterprises—at the hand of global capitalism as administered by corporate organization and powered by digital technology.

The sacrificial victims of these abrupt, still unmetabolized socio-economic transformations pile up over the course of the film. They may well be its preeminent product or commodity. These figures include the film’s department store hostesses, its subsistence farmers (Jongsu’s father), and its operators of family businesses (the noodle shop run by Haemi’s mother and sister).  In the dual role of active participants and witnesses, these figures are not entirely oblivious to the broader developments at the environmental periphery–or dead set against them either. Instead, well versed in the fluctuations of water, earth, and above all fire, these locals acquiesce to the role of passive accomplices to cycles simply more momentous than they are.

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