Interview: Lee Chang-dong on Everyday Mysteries and Economic Inequality in Ardent Thriller ‘Burning’

Outrageously, South Korea has never been nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars, nor has the country even made it to the 9-film shortlist since it was implemented. In fairness, however, two of their most acclaimed productions of the last 20 years, Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” and “The Handmaiden,” were not selected as official submission, thus were never in consideration.

This year, the wait for recognition might be nearing its end, thanks to auteur Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning,” a riveting mystery that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and has garnered high marks from critics around the world.

Loosely based on the short story “Barn Burning” by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, this intricate and often confounding cinematic reinterpretation enlisted Korean-American actor Steven Yeun (“Okja”) in a supporting role as the intriguing Ben—a charismatic and unexplainably wealthy man. It’s his friendship with working class, aspiring writer Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) and world traveler Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) that ignites the flames in this ardent thriller. Upon a strange disappearance, Jong-su’s perception of Ben changes, taking the plot into unsettling territory.

Awards Circuit chatted with Lee Chang-dong (“Poetry,” “Secret Sunshine”) about his thematic intentions in “Burning,” the importance of ambiguity, and economic inequality in the modern world.

*Note that some of the plot points discussed here could be considered spoilers. Take that into consideration if you haven’t seen the film yet.

Carlos Aguilar: What was it about Murakami’s short story that prompted you to adapt it into something much longer and elaborate like the plot of “Burning”?

Lee Chang-dong: I’m not sure if you’ve read the short story, but it basically follows a very short, mysterious event that happens to a character. I was very fascinating by how the short story ended without really resolving that mystery, and I thought that it would be fun for me to expand that small mystery into cinema, using the cinematic forms of the medium.

Usually with most mystery thrillers, the narrative follows one mystery and it heads towards a logical resolution of that mystery, but I wanted to use other means to expand this mystery, and really kind of delve into the mysteries of the world and our lives, and I wanted that to lead into questions of narrative and cinema as a form of art.

CA: Did you ever considered offering a conclusive ending or was the intention always to be ambiguous about certain aspects of the story?

LC: That was always my intention; if that were not my intention, I wouldn’t have even started this project. Ambiguity wasn’t the only goal. I wanted the audience to follow the narrative, and not only see what happens in the end.

For example, you’re constantly wondering if Ben is a serial killer, or if he’s just a rich, nice, generous young man, and of course the narrative does follow that question, but along with that event and story, you also encounter numerous questions and numerous ways of encountering this film.

Through this progression and ambiguity, I wanted the audience to not only understand these abstract ideas in the film, but also have a visceral and physical cinematic viewing experience, to feel the tension and revel in the aesthetic pleasures that this film offers, and in that way just really feel engrossed in the film, and encounter all these questions that the film presents to you.

CA: There seems to be a power dynamic between the characters in the film related to economic inequality that, in my opinion, questions the way the world values a life depending on who you are and where you come from.

LC: Yes, that was definitely part of my intention for this film. I mentioned earlier the mysteries of the world, and to young people these days like Jong-soo, the world seems to become more and more sophisticated, convenient and just smooth and cool on the outside, but you do know that there are problems within that change.

It’s all kind of concealed and you can’t quite pinpoint what exactly is wrong or what the cause is, despite the fact that on the outside the world seems to be getting better, and that’s one of the mysteries of the world we currently live in. That of course leads to economic inequality, which I think is worsening in our current world.

There are a lot of rich people that just seem to accumulate more and more wealth without putting in much labor, and you see young people, who are poor or just even average these days, and they work so hard but they’re always nervous about employment and economic instability. You also see rent continue to rise and I think that worsens the inequality compared to the past, and causes more class issues, which again are all concealed and you can’t quite figure out what’s going on. I think that’s the mystery of our current post-modern world.

CA: How do you develop the relationships between the actors and their characters? Are you fond of rehearsing or what’s your approach?

LC: I definitely try to have a lot of conversations with the actors. The conversations may be directly related to the actor’s performance, or it might just be indirect conversations that we share. All these conversations are an effort to help them understand the world and the characters on a deeper level.

When we actually enter production on set, I actually do not do a lot of rehearsals, because I think that an actor’s emotions should be maintained as a singular, one time experience, and I’m afraid to keep on rehearsing the same scenes and the same emotions, because I want them to maintain the first emotion that they carried.

Obviously, often times due to camera movements or particular logistics, we do need to have several rehearsals, and in that case we use stand in actors. After we shoot a scene, we’ll again just have more conversations and try to find the right balance and the right performance that the film needs.

CA: Lately, there have been a lot of conversations about the length of films this year. Given that “Burning” is over two hours, what’s your take on length and does it matter how long a film is?

LC: I definitely did want to make the film shorter than it is now, but of course this movie doesn’t follow the conventional thriller structure; it chooses other methods to strengthen the tension and create suspense. Instead of following a plot that just progresses in quick succession, this film tries to build tension through the small details of everyday, mundane events and daily life.

I wanted to present a different viewing experience for the audience using very cinematic beats and cinematic aesthetics. For example, you see shots of birds flying or grass blowing in the wind, and these all seem meaningless at first, but I wanted to use those very aesthetic shots to strengthen the tension, and almost prove that these shots that seem meaningless at first can also build this sense of mystery and suspense.

In pursing that sort of flow with this film, it was almost inevitable that it ended up with this long running time.

CA: On a curious note, I found Hae-mi’s cat to be a very effective element of the narrative, even when we don’t see it physically on screen. What’s its significance?

LC: The cat plays a very important role in my intent to show that the every mystery you encounter in your daily life can be a mystery on it’s own, or be connected to a much larger mystery. The cat of course is one of the reasons why Hae-mi and Jong-su’s relationship developed. Hae-mi asked Jong-su to come to her house and feed the cat, and throughout the film you see that the cat has used the litter box and the food keeps disappearing, but you never really see the cat.

Afterwards, you see the cat at Ben’s house, but you don’t really know if that cat is Hae-mi’s cat Boil. So a cat symbolizes something you are very familiar with in your daily life, but I wanted to use that to hint that maybe something so familiar in your daily life could actually be this crazy, scary mystery.

What do you think about “Burning”? Do you think the film will get an Oscar nomination? 

“Burning” is the South Korean submission for the 2018 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Be sure to check out the Official Oscar Predictions Page to see our rankings of this year’s contenders!