Chang-dong Lee and the mystery of ‘the great hunger’

“Burning” is director Chang-dong Lee’s sixth film, and his first in eight years. In addition to being placed on the 2019 Oscar shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film, “Burning” also won the FIPRESCI Award from international film critics at the Cannes Film Festival, scoring the highest mark ever on the Cannes critics poll. The FIPRESCI jury called “Burning” — which Fresno Filmworks screens on Jan. 11 to kick off the second half of its 2018-19 season — a “visually stunning film and an emotionally complex comment on contemporary society.”

During a Q&A session at the Busan International Film Festival, Lee explained that Hollywood films have moved to immersive experiences. In an effort to challenge what he considers an extreme trend, with “Burning” he chose “to allow viewers to distance themselves from the narrative rather than being plunged into it, to experience the film as an outside observer.”

Lee based his film on the highly regarded Haruki Murakami short story, “Barn Burning.” He says he was drawn to the story’s mysteriousness and felt it contained cinematic qualities that would allow him to turn it into a film. While he had not released a film in eight years, Lee worked on numerous projects, many which centered on what he called “the anger and helplessness of young people today, and their sense that there is something wrong with the world that they don’t quite realize or understand.”

Giving some of his projects the name “Project Rage,” Lee sees this anger as an international issue that is also a plague in South Korea, where he notes that millennials may be worse off than their parents’ generation. “They are not able to find the object to direct their rage at,” Lee says. “This film is about young people who feel impotent, with rage bottled up inside them.”

Jongsu, Haemi, and Ben form an emotionally complex triangle in filmmaker Chang-dong Lee’s latest, “Burning.” (Photo: Well Go USA)
The film’s protagonist, Jongsu, reconnects with a childhood friend, Haemi. Jongsu’s world is bleak; his mother abandoned him when he was young, leaving him with his father who suffers from anger issues. He is a struggling writer with no future prospects. Jongsu is enthralled with Haemi’s curiosity and passion for life, and when she takes a trip to Africa, Jongsu feeds her cat and patiently awaits her return.

Haemi returns from her trip with a new friend, Ben (played by Steven Yeun from the TV series “The Walking Dead”). Ben is handsome, smooth, and wealthy, and the contrast between him and Jongsu is startling. Haemi is enticed by Ben’s seductive lifestyle while Jongsu finds himself increasingly suspicious of the enigmatic Ben.

Jongsu lives in a town near the border with North Korea. Haemi and Ben visit him and just as the sun sets, Haemi performs “the dance of the great hunger,” which in Africa evokes the struggle to find meaning in life. Lee considers this scene, “the central image in this movie, which is a story about two men and the woman between them. I chose to set it at dusk, between day and night. That as well as the location just on the border reflects the mystery of this movie, the uncertain line between truth and lies, the real and the false.”

Lee imbues Jongsu with the same rage he believes permeates society, especially for millennials. Like Murakami’s “Barn Burning,” the film ends on a mysterious note. The audience will seek answers in the ending, but no clear-cut resolution. Perhaps Lee means for his audiences to experience “the great hunger” as they search for the meaning of his film.

Cindy Peters Duzi serves on the Filmworks board as venue director, and she teaches high school English. She blogs about the current cinema on her Instagram.