What Lee Chang-dong’s Burning says about class and masculinity

Adapted from a story by Haruki Murakami, the engimatic Burning sees Lee Chang-dong circling back to the themes of his debut film, but the differences between the two films speak volumes about changing times.

Cathy Brennan

Burning (2018)

Burning (2018)

Lee Chang-dong is having a bit of a moment. Even though his films have been well-received, his latest offering, Burning, has enjoyed rapturous praise since its premiere at Cannes in 2018. Now, this slow-paced exploration of class in South Korea that “teems with ambiguity” is about to be released in the UK.

With such newfound international attention, it’s intriguing to note how Burning covers familiar ground for Lee Chang-dong. It incorporates the more spiritually probing aspects of his recent work, such as 2010’s Poetry. However, at its core, the questions surrounding class and society in Burning read as a 2018 update of his 1997 directorial debut Green Fish.

Burning opens on poor graduate Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) as he embarks on a casual relationship with former school acquaintance Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo). Jong-su has few prospects as an aspiring writer who is stuck in his hometown of Paju, a far cry from the metropolitan glamour of Seoul.

Green Fish begins with another alienated young man as the protagonist, Mak-dong (Han Suk-kyu). Fresh out of military service and homeward bound, Mak-dong, like Jong-su, is facing a financially bleak future. His hometown has developed into a satellite city, with uniformed high rises dotting the landscape. The importance of money in this new environment is highlighted by a scene where Mak-dong witnesses his working-man brother being defrauded by corrupt cops.

Green Fish (1997)

Green Fish (1997)

From these unpromising starting points, both Jong-su and Mak-dong come into contact with wealth through their romantic yearnings. For Jong-su this occurs when Hae-mi returns from holiday with a rich young man named Ben (Steven Yeun). Halfway through the film, Hae-mi disappears after Ben shares some cryptic words with Jong-su. Trying to find out what happened to her, Jong-su spends much of the second half trailing this Gatsby-like figure.

Mak-dong meanwhile becomes besotted with Mi-ae (Shim Hye-jin) after glimpsing her on his train home in the opening scene of Green Fish. While looking for work in Seoul, Mak-dong learns that she is the girlfriend of local gang boss Bae Tae-gon, and winds up working for him, quickly rising through the ranks thanks to his fiery dedication.

In one instance, Mak-dong repeatedly slams a door onto his own hand, in order to frame and blackmail a councilman for Bae Tae-gon. Later, when defending Mi-ae from a group of drunks, Mak-dong smashes a bottle against his head in order to brandish it as a weapon. Mak-dong’s constant willingness to put himself through pain runs deeper than loyalty for Bae Tae-gon. In the opening scene on the train he gets beaten up by a gang of men who are harassing Mi-ae. Whether performing his duty as a gang member, or by following his own personal code of honour, Mak-dong noticeably ends up bloodied in many of the film’s scenes.

Green Fish (1997)

Green Fish (1997)

In contrast, Burning has little in the way of bloodletting. The sheen of Ben’s luxurious flat portrays the urban space as a place of unnerving cleanliness, where money has purged the very notion of grime. Even the earthy desolation of Jong-su’s hometown is lit in such a way as to lend these landscapes an aura of haunted serenity. The overall effect makes the world of Burning seem ethereal, when contrasted with the grit of Green Fish’s world of seedy nightclubs and gangster hideouts.

Almost in keeping with such an unromantic vision, Green Fish also demonstrates a fascination with the ritual of male urination. In one scene, Mak-dong and his brothers line up to pee on the roadside, inviting comparisons between these four different men, while a frightened deacon pisses himself in fear after being threatened by gangsters. Lee frames the act of urination as the site of male power games, where the line between virility and emasculation is at its most tenuous. The bloodiest scene in the film takes place in a public toilet, and is instigated by the words “your fly is undone”. These dual motifs of piss and blood drive home the point that this money-driven world thrives on brutal machismo.

Watch the Burning trailer

Burning is far too sanitary a film to lend such thematic weight to bodily secretions. Masculinity is instead tied to class signifiers. Where Jong-su exudes muted discomfort in the presence of wealth, Ben can stroll with confidence when he visits Jong-su’s run-down home in Paju. The power of his position as a financially secure young man whose source of wealth is shrouded in mystery enables Ben to pursue his self-interest, his “fun”, to cosmically terrifying extremes.

Lee Chang-dong’s vision of capitalism in South Korea has altered between making these two films. In Green Fish the path to power and riches is a blood-stained alley reeking of piss, yet the situation in Burning is far more horrific. Violence is not so much absent in the film; rather, absence is violence. Just as the picturesque sights of gentrified neighbourhoods signify the devastating damage done to working-class communities, Ben’s Hollywood aura denotes a destructive power we cannot see but nonetheless feel in our bones.

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