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Korea Blog: “Burning”, an Acclaimed Korean Auteur’s Explosive, Haruki Murakami-Adapting Indictment of Inequality

South Korean audiences have turned out in force for Burning (버닝), the latest feature from Lee Chang-dong, which opened here the day after it played at Cannes. Its success so far doesn’t come as a surprise, due not just to the strong buzz generated (albeit not from a Palme d’Or win) at the festival, but the combined enthusiasm of two separate but dedicated fan bases as well. Lee, one of the most respected Korean filmmakers alive, hasn’t made a film since 2010’s Poetry (시). His latest comes based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, a Japanese writer quite popular worldwide but especially so here. This cinematic adaptation — and considerable expansion — not only conjures up a suitably uncanny Murakamian mood, but also makes use of a few of his signature tropes: a vanishing cat, a dried-up well.

Murakami’s casual readers will already be chuckling in recognition, but his hardcore fans, who know that Burning takes as its basis the story “Barn Burning” (originally published in 1992, as translated by Philip Gabriel, in the New Yorker), may feel confused: that work counts among his few that involve neither a cat nor a well. Lee and his collaborators have thus, on one level, taken a Murakami story and, in expanding its scant 10 pages into nearly two and a half hours, made it more Murakamiesque. But they’ve also Koreanized it, using Korean settings, Korean characters, and intensely Korean themes. Lee, who in his 60s remains enough of an angry young man to repeatedly title his works-in-progress “Project Rage,” has imbued Murakami’s observant disaffection with simmering, ultimately explosive anger.

“I met her at the wedding party of an acquaintance and we got friendly,” begins Murakami’s story as translated by Alfred Birnbaum in the collection The Elephant Vanishes. The narrator is a married 31-year-old writer; the girl, a 23-year-old pantomime student and part-time ad model. Her “guileless simplicity” attracts “the kind of men who had only to set eyes on this simplicity of hers before they’d be dressing it up with whatever feelings they held inside.” But not so much the narrator, who simply invites her out to eat or drink with her once or twice a month, picking up the bill every time. Only in her presence, he realized, can he truly relax: “I’d forget all about work I didn’t want to do and trivial things that’d never be settled anyway and the crazy mixed-up ideas that crazy mixed-up people had taken into their heads. It was some kind of power she had.”

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.