It is difficult to introduce you to Lee Chang-dong’s mysterious and poignant South Korean film Burning without reference to its similarities to the world-famous Parasite. Given the wild popularity of the latter, many viewers will likely use one film as a reference point for another, seeing as not all of us are likely to be particularly well-versed in South Korean film, or East Asian cinema in general. Beyond the shared nation of origin, though, the films share a common outlook. Both films offer a sardonic take on modern capitalism; both contain scenes of supreme symbolic violence that express the disillusionment of the filmmakers with this status quo. But, while not doubting the brilliance of Parasite, and notwithstanding its huge popular appeal, in many ways I would argue that Burning is the film with the greater lasting psychological power.
Based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, but containing overt references to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the characterisation of Burning is subtler than its box office busting counterpart. As much as burning, the film smoulders magnificently for the majority, with chilling psychological effects. In this way, it offers a stronger exposition of many of Fitzgerald’s themes than films explicitly modelled on Gatsby. Whereas Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation emphasises the garish lifestyle that Jay Gatsby leads, Burning focuses more upon the listlessness of its protagonists. The accoutrements of modern bourgeois life are more a canvas on which Chang-dong paints than the painting itself, and this makes for a stronger audience investment in the plot line. While Luhrmann’s focus on the material effectively reminds us of the anonymity and mediocrity of Fitzgerald’s characters, Chang-dong offers an equally impactful, if potentially more intriguing psychological study.
The mocking element of both Burning and Parasite are key to the films, but again Burning does this with less extravagance, but by no means less impact. One scene in particular lingers in one’s mind as a summation of this style. While on a retreat into the countryside, one of the main characters begins to dance whimsically, framed in the shot by a beautiful horizon. This could almost be something from a typical teenage romance film, an act of radical freedom. But not quite. The context of the scene makes a fool of the character, and indeed makes the act rather awkward for the viewer. This pastiche is less blatant than Parasite’s constant undercutting of the rich Park family on the part of the seemingly servile Kims, but such nuance might leave you pondering the meaning and significance of Chang-dong’s symbolism long after the shock and comedy value of Parasite has subsided.
Similarly, the finales of both films have much in common, yet are set apart by this choice of awe versus a deeper meaning. There is no doubting the effectiveness of Bong Joon-ho’s climactic scene – when I saw it at the cinema, the reaction from the audience around me was unparalleled. It is the sort of punchy metaphorical watching that leaves viewers chattering as the credits roll. Although Burning shares this vindictive violence in its denouement, the setting and camerawork are more likely to leave a viewer stunned into silence. That it manages to be, if anything, more viscerally satisfying than Parasite’s conclusion is testament to the huge skill of plot, acting and directing that epitomises Burning’s brilliance.
Burning, then, is a staggeringly good example of foreign language film. In part, this is aided by the strong symbolism present throughout. Indeed, much of the film’s point is wrapped up in the banality of the conversation shared by the protagonists. Just as Bong Joon-ho claims that Parasite speaks the universal language of capitalism, so the cinematography and body language seen in Burning summarises much of the film’s meaning, even without engaging with the subtitles. However, the precision of the dialogue, despite its occasional sparsity, makes Burning a worthy investment of effort for those usually averse to reading subtitles. It is this combination of visual and aural metaphor that gives the film such awesome power.
Opening ourselves up to foreign language films allows us international insights into common human foibles and complexities. The importance of recognising this, in times when many politicians seek to divide us into distinct cultural or national blocs, is phenomenal. In sum, foreign film matters. The success of Parasite is testament to this – despite some people’s dislike of subtitled cinema, the force of the film’s message was so strong as to override this feeling for many and thus introduced a brilliant foreign film to an unusually mass audience. But if you still don’t know where to start, you couldn’t do much better than Burning.
This is part of the series ‘Films in Translation’, in which writers explore films from a range of different languages and cultures. Please message Gracie Bolt if you are interested in contributing to the series!