Burning

This is the second part in a short series of reviews of Murakami adaptations, and contains spoilers for both the short story and film adaptation of “Burning”. I would recommend either reading or watching before reading this. Thank you.

Lee Chang-dong, a South Korean auteur and one of the leading members of the Korean New Wave, is the kind of director who might at first seem to not be an obvious choice to direct a Murakami adaptation. His films are typically grounded in realism and speak in a political way to the specific current state of South Korea. A story like Murakami’s Barn Burning, from the collection The Elephant Vanishes, doesn’t immediately read like a Lee Chang-dong story – so the lengths that the Lee goes to in changing Murakami’s vision to conform to his style makes Burning an interesting case study in adaptation, and marks it in stark contrast to Tony Takitani.

Unlike Tony Takitani, Murakami’s Barn Burning is written in the first person, and has a narrator with an active role in the plot. However, like many of Murakami’s shorts, the narrator isn’t the key role. Instead, the narrator is a passive participant who serves as a kind of wall for the characters to talk at, and is often assumed to be a kind of stand-in for Murakami himself, sharing many of the author’s traits and interests (here, for example, a love of jazz music.)

In Barn Burning, the narrator is a middle-aged man who meets a young woman at a party, and the two become friends. She is a young sugar baby who the narrator assumes makes money from dating rich men. After a trip abroad, she meets and starts dating one of those rich men, whom the narrator befriends. On one trip to the narrator’s house, the rich man tells the narrator about his hobby of burning barns, and that he is currently scouting a barn to burn nearby. The narrator makes a list of barns near his house and decides to keep track of their status. The young woman he was friends with goes missing one day, and he never finds the burned barn – in fact, the whole incident seems to fade away from memory after a while – the last paragraph of the story reads;

            “Every morning, I still run past those five barns. Not one of them has yet burned down. Nor do I hear of any barn fires. Come December, the birds strafe overhead. And I keep getting older.
            Although, now and then, in the depths of the night, I’ll think about barns burning to the ground.”

Murakami’s story is vague about its own meaning, but one often cited interpretation is that the “barn burning” the rich man is referring to is the murder of the women that he dates. The rich man tells the narrator that he’s burned the barn, yet no barn burnings occur in the story. The young woman, who, we are told, is in a situation that “can’t go on forever”, disappears without a trace.

In one strange passage near the start of the story, the narrator brings up Eichmann, during whose trial the phrase “the banality of evil” was first coined. In one reading of the text, the story might be read as a comment on this idea of the banality of evil. Although the reader may well assume the rich man has done away with the young woman, the narrator never stops to properly question her disappearance. Instead, he simply accepts the fact that she’s disappeared. While the mystery continues to trouble him, he never stops to suspect the other man of evil. The metaphor of burning barns presents his actions as banal. If no one cares about the barns, then should burning them be considered evil?

In adapting Barn Burning, the two biggest changes to the narrative are to do with this point. Most obviously, Lee extends the story outwards, imagining the narrator (named Jong-su) confronting the rich man (Ben) on the young woman’s (Hae-mi) disappearance. The reason for this change, and the removal of some of the short’s ambiguity, is that Lee bestows the narrator with a character and a personality. No longer does the story happen from a remove – instead, Jong-su finds himself intricately entangled in the relationship between Ben and Hae-mi.

The first encounter in the short story between the man and the woman takes place at a friend’s wedding party – the two don’t know each other, we have no idea what attracts them to each other, and a significant age difference eliminates the hint of any romance between the two of them (Murakami, in his creepy way, does add in unnecessary details about the girl that might suggest the narrator is attracted to her but this is never really emphasised beyond the way Murakami writes about any woman in his stories).

In Burning, however, Hae-mi sees Jong-su on the street and recognises him. The two lived near each other as children, and there is an instant romantic attraction between the two of them. Before Hae-mi’s departure to Africa, the two of them have sex, and Jong-su masturbates to pictures of her after she has left.

Jong-su’s sexual fascination and sexual awkwardness with Hae-mi is one of the defining traits of the character that Lee adds to the story. Murakami’s story contains some comments on masculinity (more on this later), but Lee’s adaptation seems to be explicitly about masculinity in a way that the source material isn’t. Jong-su is somewhat of an incel in his character and actions. He’s shy, introverted, awkward around women and fiercely jealous and suspicious of Ben, who claims to understand the world in a way that Jong-su doesn’t. Ben, played by Steven Yuen in one of his best performances, represents another kind of man, altogether more outright sociopathic than Jong-su, but the film’s harshest criticisms are directed at its protagonist.

At the end of Burning, Jong-su’s built up rage explodes into an act of murder as he corners and kills Ben, stabbing and burning him inside his Porsche. It comes slightly out of nowhere, and to my mind isn’t quite as effective an ending as Murakami’s, but explanations for the ending are plentiful through probing the text. The first that comes to mind is pure jealousy for Ben sleeping with Hae-mi, and then moving on so quickly to another girl. Another might be that Jong-su believes Ben to have killed Hae-mi. He finds Hae-mi’s watch in Ben’s possession, and his new cat responds to the name “Boil”, which was the name of Hae-mi’s cat.  

Reading a bit further in between the lines, and the connection between Murakami, Jong-su and William Faulkner could provide an answer to the mystery. The name “Barn Burning” comes from a Faulkner short story, and Jong-su is reading Faulkner throughout – in fact, he says he enjoys Faulkner because in Faulkner he sees a reflection of himself. Lee Chang-dong refers to Faulkner’s writing as “wanting to represent people who endured hardship.” Jong-su, with his father in jail (an explicit reference to Faulkner’s Barn Burning) and unable to either get a job or find a story to write about, sees himself as a victim of hardship. In Ben, he sees the flipside of South Korean income inequality – for every struggling Jong-su, there’s a rich kid like Ben, living off unexplained money and finding the meaning of the world in “having fun.”

Although Murakami took the name of Faulkner’s short story, Lee Chang-dong describes the two writers as on different ends of the spectrum. The world of Murakami is a post-modern world, and it’s the world that Ben lives in. The protagonist of Barn Burning is a post-modern protagonist, like Murakami himself, and thus accepts the mystery of the vanishing girl as being part of the world we live in now; although he’s confused, he lives with the confusion. Jong-su, a more serious, Faulkner-esque kind of character, cannot simply brush off Hae-mi’s disappearance, and challenges Ben, killing him in frustration. In this sense, Burning becomes a story about the conflict between the modern world and those rejected by it. Jong-su is left behind – he lacks the money and the attitude to survive, and he can’t face it, instead going mad and killing the man he believes represents his woes.

Of course, whose side the film is on is up to interpretation. I don’t believe it sides with Jong-su, but it is at least in someway sympathetic to his cause. Murakami’s view of his own narrator is mainly neutral, but his refusal to even imagine that the rich man may have killed the woman is a moment of self-criticism. Because both Murakami’s narrator and the rich man are cut from the same cloth, the narrator doesn’t even think about seeing fault in the rich man. Men of the same type stick together and are blind to each other’s faults. Jong-su, however, is different than Ben, and recognises his faults almost instantly. The film’s focus on Jong-su suggests that it’s on his side, but the reality is that it needs his perspective in order to criticise Ben and his world from a remove.

So, the film can be seen as a conflict between two world views; the Faulkner and the Murakami, or the poor and the rich, the classical and the post-modern, Jong-su and Ben. Ben’s world may be on top, but Jong-su engages in violent protest against it. But then, what of Hae-mi?

No exploration of Murakami’s work can be complete without discussing his view of women. In an interview with writer Mieko Kawakami, Kawakami discusses Murakami’s writing of women;

            “There’s something disconcerting about the depiction of women in your stories… it goes beyond whether they’re realistic, or come across as “real life women.” It has more to do with the roles they play. For example… the woman functions as a kind oracle, in that she’s made to act as a medium of fate.”

The young woman in Barn Burning doesn’t fully fall in line with the critique of women in Murakami stories that Kawakami goes on to lay out, given that her relationship with the protagonist is uncharacteristically non-sexual for a Murakami story, but she does fall into the trap of being a woman whose sole purpose in the story is to disappear and awaken a mystery for the male protagonist. Given how short the story is, the woman’s disappearance happens relatively close to the end, and the narrator doesn’t change much as a result of it – she disappears, and after asking the rich man what he thinks happened to her, he basically forgets about her.

In Burning, Hae-mi disappears around the half-way point of the film, and her vanishing is entirely in service of the conflict between Jong-su and Ben. Her point in the film’s narrative is to connect Jong-su with Ben, and to accentuate the differences between them. Jong-su cares about Hae-mi, albeit in an overprotective, slightly creepy and very traditional way. Ben, on the other hand, whether you think he murdered her or not, sees Hae-mi as a plaything, and is unemotional when she vanishes, quickly replacing her with someone else.

Lee Chang-dong seems to be using Hae-mi to prove a point far more than even Murakami does, and the insertion of a sexual relationship between her and Jong-su illustrates this perfectly. With both Jong-su and Ben being in romantic entanglements with Hae-mi, we can see again the conflict in their worldview. Being generous to Lee, the aim of this is a reflection in how both men’s worldviews end up being male-centric and dismissive towards women.

Jong-su, with his downtrodden, classical worldview, views Hae-mi just as much as property as Ben does, but in a different way. After she dances naked for the two of them, he calls her a whore, but still admits he is in love with her. His love takes the form of the toxic protectiveness of an incel – to him, she is the love of his life, but this is because she has provided a sexual awakening for him. For Ben, Hae-mi’s sexual openness is no problem – he also doesn’t bat an eyelid when Jong-su tells him he loves her. But his lack of protectiveness around Hae-mi isn’t some admirable liberalism, but instead an indication that he treats her as utterly disposable. Lee’s script puts a voice to the problem when Jong-su goes to talk to one of Hae-mi’s old colleagues, who categorises the problem as being “a problem when you do wear makeup, and a problem when you don’t.” No matter the kind of guy she involves herself with, something will be problematic for her.

Of course this isn’t an excuse for the slightly fey way in which Hae-mi’s character is actually written. So little is revealed about Hae-mi or who she actually is – everything is merely hinted at in vague statements from those around her. Lee Chang-dong has claimed that the point of the film is uncovering the mystery of Hae-mi, but it is telling that even Ben, who is meant to be mysterious and unknowable in a way that Hae-mi isn’t, gets much more for the viewer to go on in terms of who he is and what he represents.

Although I regard this as a fault in the film, there is some precedent when it comes to why Hae-mi is characterised in this way, and it comes from a small passage in the short story where the young woman describes her passion for pantomime and mimes peeling a mandarin in front of the narrator, an act that seems to have deep symbolic meaning for both Murakami and the narrator.

In the film, the pantomime makes the cut, but there’s another pantomime element that’s added, which is the mystery of Hae-mi’s cat Boil. For the first half of the film, Jong-su goes to Hae-mi’s apartment to feed her cat while she’s away, but the cat is never shown. Later, a cat who responds to the name Boil is seen at Ben’s apartment, but the audience is left unclear as to whether it’s the same cat. Like the mandarin, the cat is a kind of pantomime; as are the various stories that Hae-mi tells about her life. The reality of them is constantly called into question; is there a mandarin in her hands, is there a cat in her apartment, was there a well near her house? Hae-mi herself is a kind of pantomime person – she only seems to exist as a wisp, with no one noticing her gone except for the two men that compete over her.

Perhaps this is another commentary, that of lower-class women being completely replaceable in modern society, but I’m not sure the film does quite enough to support the idea of Hae-mi as a mystery, or a cipher. There’s just too much detail given for Hae-mi to be metaphorical, but not quite enough for her to be a fully-fleshed out character whose disappearance does much more than give meaning to the male character’s struggles.

Although I have some qualms, compare Burning to Tony Takitani and one gets a sense of just how much Lee Chang-dong understands the process of adaptation in a way that benefits the change in medium. Murakami’s self-insert narrator is changed to fit the theming of the story, and that theming is drawn out of the page and expanded upon in consistent and interesting ways that touch on contemporary Korean society in a similar way to Lee Chang-dong’s other films, incorporating his usual interests in class and masculinity.

For all the thematic discussion, what I find really impressive is just how much Burning succeeds in capturing a mood that Murakami creates in Barn Burning. In the moment that the young girl peels a mandarin, Murakami sets up an idea in the reader’s mind of a reality that’s not quite there. The man talks of barn burning, but might be talking about murdering. It’s never clear. The reality of the situation eludes the narrator, and it’s that elusive nature of truth and reality that keeps him up at night.

In Burning, Jong-su comes to a conclusion about reality and his version of it, but for all the clues he gives us, Lee never quite allows the viewer to reach the same point. Reality seems simple, but there’s just enough haziness in the margins that the audience is left sleepless.

In one shot, while looking for barns that have been burnt down, Jong-su gets a phone call from Hae-mi. Through the receiver, he hears the sounds of what could be a struggle, although we can’t quite make out what the noises are. As he listens, the camera shifts focus away from his face, and onto the background. His reaction and the contents of the phone call are obscured. Reality is close, but we can’t quite grasp it. The truth remains just out of focus.  

Thanks for reading! As always, if you liked this, you can do me a huge solid and follow me on twitter or donate on patreon. 

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