Interview: Lee Chang-dong at MoMA, Part 1 of 2 - BURNING Questions
With a scant CV of a mere six feature films over 21 years, director Lee Chang-dong has carved out an immutable place in cinematic history for his brash, beautiful, raw, often disturbing explorations of the human condition.
Director Lee attended the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective of his work, “Cinema of Trauma: The Films of Lee Chang-dong,” and was kind enough to sit for an exclusive chat with The Lady Miz Diva about the politics of rage, the mysteries of existence, and his hopes for young filmmakers in the streaming age.
In the first of two parts, Director Lee discusses his latest film, Burning.
The Lady Miz Diva: I understand in the eight years between POETRY and BURNING, you wrote several screenplays that made it as far as preproduction before you pulled the projects because you didn’t see why they had to be made into films. Why did BURNING have to be made into a film?
Lee Chang-dong: In the very beginning, with Burning, NHK first offered to produce a film based on one of Murakami Haruki’s short stories. In the beginning, I was a bit reluctant because I thought that Murakami Haruki and myself, as artists, were two very different people. So, at first, I declined, but then NHK came back to me asking me to produce.
They offered for me to become a producer, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to hopefully give this opportunity to a younger director. But then, in the midst of all the things that were going on -- things on the Japan side were starting to get delayed, and I couldn’t just ask younger directors to just keep on waiting forever. At that point, writer Oh Jung-mi approached me and showed me Murakami Haruki’s short story, Barn Burning, and offered to potentially work this into a film.
And so, at first, I wasn’t really quite sure if this was a story that had to be made, but something that I’ve been sort of consistently honing on in terms of projects-wise, is that I feel there is a rage within today’s people, and I think this is a universal phenomenon: Whether it has to do with religion, or culture, or class; I think everyone has their own reason for becoming enraged, or for having this deep-seated anger within themselves. So, I feel that in understanding today’s world, anger is a sort of keyword into having a glimpse into understanding the world we live in today.
With Murakami Haruki’s Barn Burning, it may seem that it’s totally unrelated to this kind of rage, in a way, but when you think about it, when you really look at it, I think this really does connect to the keyword of rage in its own way.
LMD: Talking of the context of rage, that makes me wonder about a moment that I believe is the only time we hear a bit of English in the film, is from a TV news clip reporting that 94% of the US president’s supporters are still with him one year after his inauguration and his policies on repealing Obamacare, the Mexican wall, and immigrants. We then hear his voice briefly addressing immigration before it’s cut off. I'm guessing that inclusion wasn't an accident?
LCd: Pertaining to your question, I would say it’s not directly related, but I would say it is indirectly related to rage, that Trump clip. But what I wanted to point out is that right before he watches the news clip with Trump, Jong-su is watching a clip about youth unemployment, and then Trump’s news clip comes on, and Jong-su is peeing. You can see him peeing in that scene.
What I wanted to touch upon with that scene, in particular, is that this film follows a seemingly mysterious instance, like the small mysteries that have been in this film are, for example, did Ben really burn those greenhouses, and where did Hae-mi go?
Those are the small mysteries that the film follows, but I wanted to expand that into the bigger mysteries, namely the bigger mysteries of life. So, as we are following these small mysteries, and these small details of the mysteries in our lives, that inevitably connects with the larger mystery that we all experience in our lives in a larger sense.
For example, politics, politicians, the news we see on TV; politics is very much a part of our lives, but, in a way, sometimes it is very mysterious, and sometimes we don’t know how to follow politics, or what is really going on beneath the surface. We know instinctively that something is wrong about politics, but nevertheless, we see incidents where President Trump becomes president, and he keeps on controlling world power, and he keeps on exercising his influence on the world.
So, in that sense, I feel that sense of wrongness -- that mystery -- that keeps on solidifying and building up inside of this young man called Jong-su, and culminates in this building up of rage within him.
LMD: Thank you for explaining the timeline of those news clips and their significance. It isn’t long after that scene that we first meet Ben. Did you envision Ben as someone who grew up in, or was educated in the West?
LCd: I didn’t really want to categorise the character of Ben as a second-generation Korean-American, or someone who had spent his school time in the US, but despite all that, he does go by the name, Ben, and so, I think I was trying to go for, he has this westernised sort of feel, but it’s also a familiar sort of presence in the film. For some reason -- we’re not really sure why -- there are quite a bit of younger people in Korea now, who use a Western name, or use an English name, and have this Western sort of lifestyle that they’re living.
I would say, though, that I did not want him to be completely categorised as a Korean-American, because if you listen closely to how Steven Yeun pronounces certain words, for example, the writer William Faulkner, and “metaphor,” and “lighter,” he doesn’t pronounce these words in an Americanised way. He uses a more Korean way of pronunciation, and that is what Steven Yeun really took care not to pronounce these words as an American. So, if you think about that, that is what we were trying to aim for, to not completely define him as a fully Americanised character.
LMD: That is interesting, because I think one of the most beautiful things about Steven Yeun’s performance is his physicality as Ben. Perhaps it’s a subconscious association, but to me it seemed that Mr. Yeun’s way carrying himself, his posture, and movements read as Western and self-assured, but also makes Ben seem more alien beyond his mysterious wealth. Was that part of the allure of bringing Mr. Yeun to the cast?
LCd: I think so. I think you’re pretty accurate on your observations of him having a bit of an alien thing about him. But when you really look at him as a whole, as a character, he almost never moves in this film. He’s very still. Even his smallest movements are used with great restraint. And like you say, he might have this embodied Westernised sort of sense of physical self, but I think for Steve, he was really able to internalise Ben’s character, and so was able to give off this sort of presence, if you will.
But going back to his movements, he really doesn’t move that much, he really doesn’t say anything that much, either, but there’s just something about him, there’s something about him that you can’t quite put your finger on, but it’s still there.
For example, Steven’s lines; he says them in perfect Korean, but there’s that different something that you just can’t put your finger on. There’s something different, even though it is perfect Korean. In my opinion, I feel that that strengthens Steven’s character, but of course, yes, these alien, sort of different qualities could definitely come out in his gestures, or expressions, but he is very much still in this film.
To give you another example, Ben yawns twice in the film. Steven, playing as Ben, actually had quite a difficult time working with that scene, because he told me that, at least in the US, you wouldn’t yawn in front of people. But he does yawn, and so that can be seen, I think, almost as a form of expression, almost, but as he says, Americans won’t yawn in front of people, yet Ben does, so that’s another signifier that he isn’t as Korean-American as you would think he would be.
LMD: There is an interesting motif where Ben is cooking for Jong-su and Hae-mi. He talks about how he liked being able to cook, because he could make whatever he wanted, and eat it himself; “Like how humans offer sacrifice to God. I create a sacrifice for myself and eat it.” Is that the key to Ben? Is that line the basis of his psychopathy?
LCd: So, the short answer is yes. Although I didn’t want to define him or pigeonhole him in just one kind of way. If you interpret that line, it can be interpreted like that, but another thing that I would like to say about that line is that when you just look at that line itself, when he’s talking about giving himself a sacrifice, it’s as though he’s talking as if he is a god. So, I think that line alludes to that sort of psyche of his; thinking of himself as a god.
He actually goes further with this in the scene when he is smoking weed with Hae-mi and Jong-su; they are talking about the natures of law, and of coexisting. One thing about his lines talking about coexisting in the world, he talks to Jong-su about “I’m in Paju, and I’m in Banpo. I’m in the world. I’m in everywhere at the same time.” But when you think about it, only God can be everywhere at the same time, so that’s another allusion to him thinking of himself as a god.
Another thing that he mentions is the laws of nature. Namely, he talks about if there’s flooding, and if people die of hunger in Africa, he talks about it as if it’s the law of nature, and that’s the way that things are. So, in that sense, you can also think that he’s impersonating God, in a way, when you interpret his words.
But you really have to think about what he’s saying when he’s talking about the laws of nature, because that law, in itself, if you really get down to it, is the law of capital, and the law of capitalism. So, that is something that we do have to think about.
LMD: The story of Hae-mi’s well pops up throughout the second half of the film, as Jong-su continues to ask about the well Was it meant to be a comment on how outside perception sometimes makes us view reality? I got the sense that for Jong-su, Hae-mi’s well didn’t really exist until somebody confirmed it, but by that point. I wondered if Jong-su is starting to question his sanity.
LCd: When Hae-mi is telling Jong-su about the well, she says, “Hey, you came and saved me.” At that moment, Jong-su looks as if he really doesn’t remember that incident. So, Jong-su is doubting whether what Hae-mi says is fact or fiction, he’s wondering about that.
In the very beginning, Hae-mi also tells Jong-su, “You told me I was ugly in middle school,“ to which Jong-su retorts, “Did I?” But in that moment, it’s kind of unclear whether really remembers, but he’s feigning innocence, or if he really doesn’t remember, that’s a little ambiguous. But at least in the scene of the well, it does look as if Jong-su isn’t remembering that incident. Therefore, Jong-su is not sure whether Hae-mi is telling the truth, and he wants to figure out whether Hae-mi is telling the truth, or if she’s lying.
It could very well be that Hae-mi is lying, but if you think about that, you have to think that Hae-mi, herself, is also a storyteller. We see Jong-su as a budding novelist wanting to tell stories, but you have to think here that Hae-mi is also a storyteller, herself, that is making up stories.
But you have to go to the underlying desire that lies beneath the making of stories, because always, when we are telling stories, there is an underlying desire. And so, we can hopefully think that through the story of her falling into the well, and being saved by Jong-su; it may be that she believes, and by believing that story herself, it may be that she is trying to express her desire of herself being in a situation where she feels like she is down a deep well, and that she wishes to be saved by Jong-su.
For Jong-su, like we were talking about before, he wants to confirm the validity of her statements, and so he goes around town asking Hae-mi’s sister and her mom whether there was a well, to which they reply that there was no well, but when he asks his mom, his mom says that the well existed.
But to that, Jong-su isn’t quite sure whether he can believe his mother, because his mother, who walked out on them as a family, he isn’t sure if she is a reliable source. When you think about that, perhaps the mom, herself, too, has some sort of underlying desire that is encapsulated in the remembering of that well.
LMD: “To me… The world is a mystery.” This is what Jong-su says when asked why he hasn’t written. Is this the key to his character?
LCd: Yes. That line, “The world is a mystery to me,” I feel like that not only encapsulates Jong-su’s character, but the entire film, as a whole. Because, as I mentioned before, the film, on the surface, seemingly follows the smaller mysteries; Hae-mi’s disappearance, finding if the houses have been burned, but my wish was to have that keep expanding into the bigger and bigger questions of life; namely, the mystery of life and the world as it is today. And so, to Jong-su’s eyes, the entire world is a huge riddle to him.
When we look at the world we live in today, seemingly on the surface, everything is becoming more sophisticated, more convenient, and it seems as if there are no problems, but when you really look inside to its core, the world’s problems are worsening within today.
A lot of youth, and young people today, even if they are giving their best efforts, they are still leading unstable lives, there is a lot of doubt as to how they can better their situations, and they are finally led to a place where they think that it’s not the society as a whole, but themselves: That we are the problem. That I, as an individual, am a problem.
So, if we go back to the film, this can be encapsulated in the exchange between Ben and Jong-su, where we, as the audience, we really don’t know if Ben is really a serial killer, or if he’s just a really generous, magnanimous guy, who likes to hang out with people. Like that, like Ben, the world is a mystery to Jong-su.
There’s a part where Ben asks Jong-su why he’s not writing, and Jong-su replies that he doesn’t know what to write about, and then he actually directs that line to Ben, saying, “You are a mystery to me.” That’s essentially Jong-su telling Ben that I really can’t figure you out. That is what he saying.
And then I guess another thing that you have to think about is that Jong-su is a young man, a young budding artist, who is really trying to keep an observant eye to the world, and to figure out what he wants to tell as his story. And so, to an observant young man like him, the world is probably much more of a mystery than it is to other people aren’t young and observant.
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