I understand why there are so few film adaptations of Haruki Murakami’s fiction. His novels and stories are inherently literary—their most important developments tend to take place in the protagonists’ thoughts, while the narrative turns tend to emerge from outside of the characters’ agency. His protagonists are generally passive; they don’t drive the narratives, but rather things happen to them. By employing these strategies, Murakami conveys how bewildering and overwhelming contemporary life can be, suggesting that our lives, however deliberately we plan them, are ultimately governed by forces beyond our control. This worldview seems difficult to translate into cinematic narratives, which often thrive on concrete actions. Tran Anh Hung’s film of Norwegian Wood (2010)—the most ambitious movie adaptation of a Murakami work prior to Lee Chang-dong’s Burning—demonstrated this all too well. Tran simply couldn’t get inside the protagonist’s head, so the character’s feelings of confusion and sad fascination (which drive Murakami’s novel) didn’t come through. In the end, the film set a mood and accomplished little else.
The prospect of a Lee-directed Murakami adaptation carried considerable promise. Of all the major filmmakers to have emerged since the fall of South Korea’s dictatorship, Lee (who wrote novels before he turned to filmmaking) comes closest to conveying the pleasures of great fiction. His movies generally follow characters over extended periods of time as they undergo serious internal transformations. He doesn’t employ voice-over narration or direct addresses to get inside his characters; instead he patiently observes them so that viewers come to recognize changes in their behavior and outlook. His previous four films—Peppermint Candy (1999), Oasis (2002), Secret Sunshine (2007), and Poetry (2010)—represent the crown jewels of modern South Korean cinema, exhibiting such rich investment in psychology and milieu that one gains tremendous insight not only into the characters, but into the society they inhabit. Lee’s body of work inspires confidence that he could translate into sounds and images the interiority of Murakami’s characters and social forces that steer them.
For the most part, Burning (based on Murakami’s 1992 short story “Barn Burning”) achieves this. The film paints vivid portraits of three distinct characters and inspires sympathy with a bewildered protagonist; moreover, it depicts a particular social milieu—that of underemployed twentysomethings in contemporary Seoul—in such a way that one comes to see it as existing beyond the subjects’ control. Lee works on a grand scale here, shooting in wide-screen and often employing long takes that convey an epic sense of anticipation, and by rendering the story so monumental, he makes it seem somewhat unapproachable, much like Murakami does through his forbidding minimalist prose. At the same time, Lee’s art works at cross-purposes to Murakami’s. He likes to explain things that the author would prefer to keep ambiguous; in a sense, he wants to get deeper into the characters’ heads than even Murakami does. Lee’s insistence on three-dimensional realism takes him only so far, since he also does his best to preserve Murakami’s sense of unresolved mystery, and this has the effect of nullifying the director’s social observations. The movie feels like an extended stalemate between two very different master storytellers, though the clash of sensibilities is also instructive, pointing to a tension in contemporary life between individualist and systems-based philosophies.
Burning begins in Seoul when Jong-su (Yoo Ah-In), an aspiring novelist in his mid-20s, meets Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a young woman who grew up in the small farm town outside the city where he’s recently returned to live. Hae-mi encourages Jong-su to ask her on a date, and the two meet one evening after she gets off work. They have sex in her apartment—a typically reluctant Murakami protagonist, Jong-su lets Hae-mi initiate it—and afterwards, she tells him that she’s going to Kenya on a vacation and that she’d like him to feed her cat while she’s away. A few weeks later, Hae-mi returns, having befriended another South Korean, Ben (Steven Yeun), whom she met at the Nairobi airport. The three start hanging out on a regular basis, with Jong-su growing visibly jealous of the older, well-to-do Ben. One night at Jong-su’s family farm, Ben shares a joint with the hero and Hae-mi, then makes an interesting confession to Jong-su after the young woman falls asleep: Ben says he likes to burn down abandoned greenhouses about every two months and that he plans to set fire to one near Jong-su’s residence. Not long after this, Hae-mi disappears, leaving no trace of where she may have gone. Jong-su begins to investigate her absence, coming to suspect that Ben is somehow involved.
The film differs from Murakami’s story in several crucial ways. In the source material, the protagonist is older, married, and relatively successful, and his relationship with the young woman is chaste. His interest in her and his jealousy of the rich gentleman are essentially hankerings for connection that he can’t quite articulate. Lee, who wrote the film’s script with Oh Jungmi, gives the character enough of a backstory so that audiences can fill in the details of the character’s longing. We learn that Jong-su is not only frustrated in writing, but underemployed; one reason he moves back to his father’s farm is that he can’t find a job in Seoul. Jong-su also comes from a broken home. His mother left the family when he was a boy due to his father’s anger problems, and the father now awaits sentencing for having assaulted a government officer. Lee devotes a fair amount of Burning to the father’s trial and Jong-su’s efforts to clear the old man’s name, but this subplot amounts to something of a red herring, providing little insight into the hero’s obsession with Hae-mi. And where Murakami’s story ends soon after the young woman disappears, Burning goes on for about another hour, with the hero mentally unraveling as he searches in vain for clues.
“Barn Burning” ends on an ambiguous note, concluding that modern life is inherently unexplainable, but Lee manages to bring Burning to a sense of finality. Without giving anything away, I’ll say that I find Lee’s ending less satisfying than Murakami’s, in part because it tries to make some concrete point about Jong-su where Murakami prefers to leave things open-ended. The author’s writing lingers in the memory because of its tantalizing lack of resolution; Lee, in pursuing graspable insight, points to his fundamental incompatibility with Murakami. The film’s insights about the driftlessness of South Korean millennials also grant the story a more distinctive social context than one typically finds in Murakami’s fiction, suggesting somewhat reductively that the central mystery can be read as a metaphor for young people’s inability to establish meaningful roots in their lives. It feels like the director wanted to have things both ways, conveying Murakami’s ambiguity while asserting his own ability to explain people’s motivations.
Still, Lee is too good a storyteller to succumb to blatant rhetoric; the shortcomings of Burning emerge only in hindsight, when the larger schematic structure comes into focus. As it unfolds, the film is thoroughly commanding, thanks to the director’s control over tone and the strong performances he elicits from his cast. Yuen is especially powerful, suggesting Ben’s confidence and allure while purposely leaving the character’s inner life a blank. (You can never tell whether his bright-eyed smile is sincere.) As Jong-su, Yoo gets the passivity of the Murakami protagonist so well that the film feels off when the character begins to act on his curiosity. This points again to the difficulty of translating Murakami to the screen, which Lee never fully overcomes. Yet in failing to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion, he manages to articulate the gnawing dissatisfaction that underlies much of Murakami’s writing. v