Within and Without: Poetry in Motion and Lee Chang-dong’s Burning

Lee Chang-dong’s film Burning and I have a complicated relationship. It was the first film I saw at MIFF in 2018 (over seven months ago now), and one of my most anticipated, though I was left confused and unsure about what to make of it. Narratively, the film does not sit well. Based on one of Haruki Murakami’s short stories ‘Barns Burning’, Burning follows Hae-mi, who occupies a manic pixie dream girl image, which aspiring writer and Faulkner fanboy Jong-su latches onto with an obsessive love-lorn possessiveness. And yet, the film is mesmerising, and I have not been able to get it out of my head. So I’d like to focus on something other than narrative. Look for formal critiques elsewhere. In Burning I’ve found indelible things — images, themes, and feelings — that have stuck themselves to my mind.

Light. Light blinding the pavement. Light reflecting off of windows. The rainbow shimmer light’s reflections make against the wall of a closet. The sun. The sun burning golden as we watch it set. The sky as it changes from blue to peach to burning pink. The blue light of dawn.  Running. Running to save, running from the truth, running to chase it. Tentative new friendships. An old friend and the trick of memory. New friends and hesitance to accept them. A new guy called Ben. Effortlessly metropolitan and suave and gorgeous Ben. A tiny yawn and amused smile. Disinterest/Obsession. The power of suggestion. A tiny apartment. A ramshackle house far from anywhere/a vast apartment of affluence. The faint sound of North Korean propaganda broadcasting in the distance. In the fringes. Disconnect. A cat named Boil. Schrodinger’s cat. An invisible cat, an invisible life, an invisible tangerine. When you believe in something so much, you think it’s real. We all have a hunger. Little Hunger, thinking the tangerine is real. Great Hunger, a hunger for meaning. Maybe it’s in the pantomime. Maybe it’s all a pantomime. It’s Gatsby until the end. Hae-mi/Daisy. Jong-su/Nick. Jong-su/Gatsby. Ben/Gatsby. There are too many Gatsbys in Seoul. The run time is long, but every moment is necessary. Sit, sit, sitting three in a row. The burning of a joint. The burning of the sun in their eyes. Millennial restlessness and boredom. Secrets offered in the dark. THE GREAT DISAPPEARANCE. A girl full of hope, a girl full of imagination. Facing the dying burning sun — she dances. Arm’s wide, shirt discarded, feeling free. In one continuous shot — she dances. A reprieve, the calm before the storm. Jazz fills the air. She doesn’t even know what is to come. No one does.

Burning is in Australian cinemas from 18 April.


Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen screen tragic from Melbourne, Australia. She is currently undertaking an Honours thesis on Screen & Cultural Studies and has written for Junkee, 4:3, The Big Issue, Screen Queens and more. Follow her at @teencineteq and @theclairencew

Claire White