Burning Lee Chang-dong (Korea;2018;) Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun, Jeon Jong-seo.
viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 6th June 2021; ticket £7
No where land; nowhere man
There’s a Beetles Song written by John Lennon that features on ‘Rubber Soul’ called Nowhere Man. After viewing Chang-dong’s Burning, I thought of this song. It seemed a perfect fit for ‘Burning’, a film representing S Korea as a nowhere land, full of no-where people.
Early in the film, after Shin and Lee meet up again (they have sort of known each other as children, though nothing in Chang-dong’s film is ever certain) Lee takes her out for a meal. At the table she talks to Lee about hunger, asking him if he has Big Hunger or ‘Great Hunger’. He looks at her. He doesn’t get what she means by ‘Great Hunger’. In response she throws her arms wide open, swings them round in gesticulation. ‘Great Hunger’ is Hunger for Life itself. She says she has ‘Great Hunger’. It doesn’t seem as if Lee shares this, but Shin understands something about herself and as a way of honouring her ‘Great Hunger’ she decides to visit Africa: perhaps this continent will feed her need for meaning in life. ‘Big Hunger’ isn’t fed in Korea.
In ‘Burning’ S Korea is a land of the dead, a land voided of meaning. As Chang-dong surveys S Korea he represents it as a bottomless chasm, an emptied vacuous culture. When you look and try to see what’s there, there’s nothing to see: it’s a land of indeterminacy. Neither one thing nor another, a land that has had its heritage, its past stripped out, and overlaid with the thin veneer of an American consumerist ethos. A two dimensional place made up of surfaces.
The script develops the idea that Korean society is suspended in a state of superposition, in a quantum state of indeterminacy where existence and inexistence depend on interaction with an observer. The characters come and go without making any impression on life: Lee’s mother, Lee’s father, Shin herself, and even Ben. The characters exist in the same condition as Schrodinger’s cat shut up in its box: no one knows if they’re alive or dead. Without an observer their status is indeterminate, and Korea is a place where no one looks. There are no observers.
The direct reference to this state of superposition in Chang-dong’s film is Shin’s cat called Boil, whom Lee agrees to feed whilst Shin is away in Africa. But Lee never sees Boil: no matter how much he looks for the cat in Shin’s tiny room he can’t find it. Later at a point where he is not looking for it, Boil appears, and at this moment when observed, its significance can be measured in terms of Shin’s life and death. Up until this moment Shin’s existence is indeterminate. When she ceases to be present, no one is aware of her ‘not being’, no one looks in the box: her friends, the people she works with, her church community. They observe no box: she has registered no imprint of her existence with an observer. Except Lee: Lee looks into the box, finds Boil and understands that Shin is dead, murdered.
‘Burning’ presents the vistas and interiors of contemporary Korea as nondescript zones, through which the population is in transit. Shin’s room and the view from her window, Ben’s apartment and neighbourhood, the clubs and restaurants the street scene that opens the film: all any spaces whatsoever.
There is one location of Chang-dongs that is different: his father’s farm which he moves back to when his father is imprisoned for being angry and abusive to a state official. (His father registers as a throwback to another era because in Burning no one evinces emotion. Emotions and expressed feelings are alien states in the new Korea) Lee’s family farm reeks of the past. It’s not a part of the shiny new Korea. It is dilapidated run down, has the look of neglect. But it is real. It is in this setting, the country where the land is still real that Chang-dong introduces the leitmotif of his sound track: the shamanist drum and pipes of an old Korea. This is music that comes up out of the earth.. It calls on anyone who may hear it, to dance, to touch the rhythms of life and death, fire and water. Anything but indeterminacy, the music is real, and response to it immediate.
Shin is a lost soul, her search to honour her ‘Big Hunger’ leads her to Africa, where even as a tourist she finds something of the energised rhythms of life she seeks. But her Big Hunger cannot be fed. Corrupted and impoverished she drifts to her death, in the homicidal arms of Ben. And Ben’s is also a twisted being driven by an obsessive invocation of forces of fire and death. Ben’s is mesmerised with setting fire to abandoned greenhouses. His arson creates a series of disturbing images, as when on fire these skeletal structures call to mind the idea of the sacrificial victims trapped in the Wicker Man. Although not specifically suggested by Burning, the thought occurs that Shin’s body was immolated by Ben, reduced to ashes, in one of these primordial sacrificial fires, whose ribbed frames have a strong anthropomorphic resonance.
Chang-dong’s movie is slow and oblique building connections and links between script and images. The ancient grounds of Korea have been obliterated overbuilt, but the phantom emanations leak into the culture causing strange aberrations and distortions both to collective and to individual life in this country of modernity.