Ever since this film has been announced by Haruki Murakami’s official Facebook page; I knew I had to see it. I had actually rented out the DVD from my library last year when I was stateside, only to not have the time to actually fit it in. At two and a half hours long, the notorious “slow burn” tag, and jet-lag it didn’t seem like it was the time to watch.
However, when picking titles for this challenge I knew this film would have to be included. At first just as a breather film, one I wouldn’t review because of timing. I’m woefully under-watched in Korean cinema, although I have seen “Parasite” a few weeks ago. I figured it’s rooted in a Japanese short story, the original title being “Barn Burning” that you can read in full and English translated for free here, that it would be worth giving a short-ish review to.
“Burning” is a slow burn story that revolves around three characters. The first is Lee Jong Soo (Yoo Ahn In), a writer whose making his way back to his home village. He heads to a store where he meets his childhood acquaintance, Shin Hae mi (Jeon Jong Seo). They catch up and she requests that Jong Soo watch her cat while she’s away on a trip to Africa. After she returns, Hae mi introduces Jong Soo to the off-putting but charming Ben (Steven Yeun). They develop a strange relationship, which includes divulging secrets between Ben and Jong Soo.
Keeping in mind this an adaptation of Haruki Murakami, someone whose writing style is arguably mundane, urban surrealist with just a hint of humor; this film isn’t light-hearted KDrama stuff. Given the original source material is a mere 13 pages, translated in English of course, the two and a half hour run-time seems fairly generous.
And it is a generous run-time considering how little happens action-wise. We more often then not hear the characters tell of things that have happened, verses seeing them. A very interesting take considering film is usually a show over telling medium, but works very well. There’s a very odd sense of normalcy within the film. We see a lot of mundane things, done by the rather mundane characters, which is the core of what Haruki Murakami novels do.
At the core of the film, the first hour or so of it, sticks to the source material very well. There’s just enough changes made by both Director and Screenwriter Lee Chang Dong, and additional screenwriter Oh Jung Mi, to have it really flourish on screen. From localizing it from Japan to Korea, adjustments of the adventures to and from Africa to make it a bit more exciting, and a few other minor adjustments to build more into this adaptation was done right. I think there was a bit of an overreach that was a fatal flaw for me as a Murakami fan, but I’ll talk about that in a minute.
What made this adaptation work though was the acting. There was clearly a lot of effort, and consideration for the three main characters. For an adaptation like this where the cast more or less is these three characters; it’s critical to get it right.
Starting off is the newbie actress, Jeon Jong Seo as Haemi. I had assumed that she was a veteran, but this was her first production, ever. She absolutely knocked it out of the park. She managed to embody the innocent, over-but-under trusting and semi-distorted nature of Haemi to perfection. By having no prior experiance, I think allowed her to really take in Haemi as a character, but also play off the two more experienced actors in a natural way. I’m genuinely curious about how her career will develop with such a controversial start.
Which of course leads to our two leading men, Jeong Soo (Yoo Ahn In), and Ben (Steven Yeun). Yoo Ahn In, I was at first unsure of his selection. His features and disposition seemed to be too ordinary, almost dull-witted at times as the protagonist. It was only when he begins to talk with Ben about being a writer, that all the pieces fell into place. I had been completely taken in, since all that characterization was exactly how Murakami intended the character to be. With that realization in place, I quickly realized just how brilliant the whole project was.
Because bouncing off the average looking and acting Jeong Soo, was Ben. Steven Yeun, which I’m sure a few of my readers are acquainted with him from his “Walking Dead” fame. I honestly have never seen the show, so assumed he was an older well-established actor within Korea. Another surprise for me! Ben from the get-go of having such a name, was such an interesting adjustment. He really looks like the well-groomed ‘elite’ of Korean society, but with less intensity of looking young and perfect. He’s attractive, but just a little bit off. Which without talking to him, or interacting with him you would never know it it was in the fun secretly a goofball sort of way, or in the serial-killer sort of way. It was a job well done.
So for all my praises for the adapting of the story, casting, acting, and of course the cinematography was on point as well. The biggest flaw the was the ending. The problem being that it had a conclusive one, even a semi-satisfactory depending on your deduction and interpretation skills.
The thing is, there is a clear divide with between myself, and Lee Chang Doo’s interpretation of Murakami’s work. Murakami pretty intentionally writes stories that do in fact end, but not in a way that most people would prefer. They’re not open ended, with loose threads and plot holes waiting for a sequel to fix them, thank god. Rather they’re strange because as a reader we followed the short story to it’s conclusion, but rather then spelling out ‘situation x happened’ or ‘situation y happened’ we’re left with how we read the metaphors, or perhaps it not being a metaphor.
It just so happens the the idea of “Barn Burning” can be interpreted multiple ways. There’s a huge discussion if barn burning should be taken absolutely literally, or should be seen as a code or metaphor. I’m not in the camp to say which one is correct. I’m simply not that deep of a reader/viewer to articulate that effectively in writing. I merely didn’t agree with the interpretation presented.
However, just because I didn’t agree with the interpretation, doesn’t mean it wasn’t presented well. It was presented incredibly well, being an adaptation that does what a proper adaptation should. It took the source material, made small changes for fluidity’s sake, and made it have it’s own personality rather then just being yet another retelling.
While “Burning” is certainly not something I’d recommend a casual film watcher, or even a casual Murakami fan; it is worth watching. It’s dense with a lot of careful perspective choices rooted in a reality that is not unlike our own. Even I have to admit my attention wandered slightly off during particular scenes, but if you’re someone with more appreciation for surreal stuff; this is a film to consider.