Barn Burning has always been one of my favorite short stories by Haruki Murakami. The plot involves a mysterious young man who confesses his unusual hobby to the narrator: he likes to burn abandoned barns. The narrator then goes to try and find the man’s next target, but fails. In typical Murakami fashion, the story ends with a number of questions still lingering in both the narrator’s and the readers’ minds.
Was the man really burning barns? If so, why couldn’t the narrator find it? Or was it all just a metaphor for something else?
Veteran Korean director Lee Chang-dong must’ve pondered these questions for a long time. While the story, which first appeared in The Elephant Vanishes compilation, can be read in a matter of minutes, his Burning film clocks in at over 2 and a half hours. Fortunately for Murakami fans, this is 180 minutes well spent.
**Note: The following review contains spoilers for the short story itself, but not for the ending of the movie.**
‘BARN BURNING’ REVISITED
From Murakami’s large body of work, Barn Burning may not be the most obvious choice for a film adaptation. Nevertheless, I was very intrigued by how the film would play out after first learning about it. Before watching, though, I made sure to re-read the original story over again. That’s when I noticed a few new details that I hadn’t picked up on before.
The new boyfriend of the narrator’s female friend is noticeably wealthy. But nobody is really sure why, as he doesn’t seem to do much work. In the story’s main scene, he offers the narrator some marijuana that he brought back from India. Was he actually a drug dealer? If so, were his numerous trips to North Africa and the Middle East part pleasure, part “business trip?” In the end, it doesn’t matter so much, but I wondered whether or not Murakami was hinting at this.
The story, by the way, is largely overshadowed by the fact that it’s one of the few Murakami works (along with 1Q84) that makes a clear reference to pot smoking. I imagine this would’ve been pretty controversial in Japan, given their intolerance for drug references in television and other popular media.
However, I think the pot smoking part is just a minor detail in the grand scheme of things. The man seemed to have been waiting a long time to find just the right person to whom he could reveal his secret. He probably would’ve told the narrator while drunk, or maybe even sober.
After the initial encounter takes place, the narrator scouts out several barns in his area, but he never comes across any that have been burnt down. Later on, he finally runs into the wealthy traveler at a cafe in central Tokyo. And when he asks about the barn, the man tells him: “You must have missed it. Does happen, you know. Things so close up, they don’t even register.”
At the end of the story, the narrator continues to jog past the barns every morning, but never sees any changes. Around the same time, he also loses touch with his younger female friend who was dating the rich guy. He visits her apartment, only to discover that she’d moved out.
When first reading the story, I interpreted it in a few different ways. Mainly, I figured that the barns were some kind of surrealist metaphor for parts of the subconscious. Or possibly one’s own memories. The barns, and also the hunt for them, could also symbolize lost friendships. Like the narrator’s female friend, people can sometimes drift out of your life when your attention is focused elsewhere.
But during my recent read-through, another question popped into my head: did this mysterious rich boyfriend kill the girl? The narrator himself does not make any such suggestions. He simply gives up the search, claiming that “she’d disappeared.”
Without giving too much away, a major difference between the story and the movie is that the film’s main character, Jong-su, does indeed wonder if the rich boyfriend had something to do with his friend’s disappearance.
MAJOR DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE STORY AND THE FILM
The most noticeable difference is the film’s setting. It takes place in Seoul, Korea and not in Tokyo, Japan. This isn’t a major issue, as the change of country doesn’t hinder the overall plot. The most significant difference, then, is the changes made to the main protagonist.
In the short story, the narrator is a 31-year-old married novelist. He lives in a house somewhere on the outskirts of Tokyo. As far as the reader can tell, he’s got his life in order. Jong-su, on the other hand, is in his early twenties and in a far from stable situation. He’s about the same age as the main female character (named Haemi), and the two had grown up as neighbors.
In the short story, the relationship between the narrator and his female friend, aged 20, is portrayed as something of an odd-couple friendship. The two met randomly at a party, and the narrator takes on kind of an older brother role in their relationship. He enjoys spending time with her because her simple, carefree attitude helps him forget about his ordinary life struggles.
The short story doesn’t imply that the two had a sexual relationship. While it may have happened, the girl doesn’t hesitate to introduce the narrator to her boyfriend, while the narrator shows no signs of jealousy. After all, he still lived with his wife.
The character dynamic gets switched up a lot in the film. Things do get briefly sexual between Jong-su and Haemi, only for him to get ‘friend-zoned’ upon her return from Africa (which by the way, is Kenya and not North Africa like in the story). He then tags along as the third wheel on get-togethers with Haemi and the wealthy Porsche-driving Ben.
One of the things I liked about the story is how the rich boyfriend was so easily able to get in the head of the narrator. Despite being a stable and mature man living out an ordinary life, the narrator becomes so entranced by images of barns burning that he starts thinking about it all the time. As the story ends, he even fantasizes about picking up the hobby himself.
In stark contrast to the short story’s narrator, Jong-su is unemployed, dealing with family troubles, and lives in a dilapidated house owned by his father. But as the film’s plot largely revolves around Jong-su’s attachment to Haemi, it makes sense for him to be portrayed as vulnerable and lonely.
That brings up the core difference between the story and the film: the story is about the narrator’s obsession with images of burning barns (whatever that may really mean), while the film is more about Jong-su’s infatuation with Haemi. And of course, how he reacts when she goes missing. The burning scenes, though, do still remain an important part of the movie, hence the title.
If I were to make a film based on the story, I would’ve kept the main character just as he was. I like the idea of this emotionally and financially stable protagonist gradually losing his mind, all thanks to a single conversation with a man he’d never met before.
IS ‘BURNING’ WORTH WATCHING?
Though I was hoping for something a little closer to the original story, that’s not to say I didn’t like the film. In fact, it’s probably the best cinematic adaptation of Murakami’s fiction to date. And it’s very refreshing to watch after disappointments like ‘Norwegian Wood‘ and the overly serious ‘Tony Takitani.’
Burning’s pacing can be slow at times, but the creeping pace only helps to gradually build the tension. The cinematography is captivating and the acting is on point.
The clear standout is the actor who plays Ben (the wealthy boyfriend), Steven Yeun. His character is charming, suave and all-smiles on the surface. But you can’t help but get the feeling that there’s a more sinister side to him lurking within.
This is just how I pictured the rich boyfriend while reading the story, and we’ve probably all met a couple of these types in real life. Apparently, Steven Yeun is also a famous actor on TV in America, starring in shows like the Walking Dead, which admittedly I’ve never seen. The other main actors also did a good job, but Yeun was a clear cut above the rest.
All in all, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is a film I’d highly recommend fans of Haruki Murakami go and see. (That is, if you can find suitable subtitles, as the movie is all in Korean.) Non-fans will enjoy it as well, but reading the story beforehand is recommended to enhance the viewing experience.
And now, off to finally start reading Killing Commendatore…