The new film from Veteran South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-Dong centres on obsessive love
The 71st edition of the Cannes Film Festival, which wrapped on Sunday, was another triumph for Asian cinema with veteran Japanese filmmaker Koreeda Hirokazu winning the Palme d’Or for “Shoplifters”, a touching tale of outsiders, and becoming the second Asian film this century to do so. The last, film fans will remember, was Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”, which took home this prestigious award back in 2010.
Asian titles did well in other categories too, with the Lebanese film “Capernaum” directed by Nadine Labaki awarded the Jury Prize and the Iranian film “3 Faces” by Jafar Panahi recognised with Best Screenplay.
Veteran South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong was back in Cannes this year with his latest film “Burning”. The director’s sixth feature film, a mystery drama based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, did not win one of the official awards but received good reviews from critics and took home their prize – the Fipresci Award.
“There is no red carpet and no bright lights on this stage, but the red carpet and the lights always feel a unrealistic to me. My film ‘Burning’ is about the border between the unrealistic and the realistic. I’m really thankful to the audience for their appreciation of this film,” director Lee said in his acceptance speech last Saturday.
The protagonist of “Burning” is Jongsu (played by Korean star Yoo Ahin), a delivery boy who dreams of becoming a writer. Jongsu runs into his childhood friend Haemi (Jun Jongseo), who has undergone plastic surgery and now looks very different. Haemi sleeps with Jongsu and asks him to look after her cat – an animal Jongsu is not sure really exists – while she goes away. When Haemi returns from her trip to Kenya, she introduces Jongsu to Ben (Steven Yeun), a mysterious rich man who has a strange hobby of burning abandoned greenhouses.
Yoo Ahin is well known to audiences for his roles in such television series as “Sungkyunkwan Scandal” and “Jang Okjung, Living by Love”. He has also appeared in several films, among them “Antique”, “Punch” and “Veteran”. “Burning” is his first time working with Lee Chang-dong, and he tells XP that he saw it as an important opportunity.
“To work with director Lee is so special for me. It makes me realise who I really am and what it means to be an actor,” he says.
“I was first contacted by director Ryoo Seungwan with whom I worked on ‘Veteran’. He told me that director Lee wanted to meet me so we fixed a time and he told me almost immediately that he wanted me to work with him if I was okay with that. Lee likes to choose his actors by networking,” Yoo says with a smile.
“Burning”, he says, is very different from the usual mainstream films in which he has appeared in the past.
“It’s more arthouse than commercial. And what makes is really interesting is the different perception the audience has of the story. For me, the best part was the freedom I was given in how I portrayed the character. I understood immediately that it was very important to show how the character feels. Jongsu is like most young ordinary people in our society, but is also a kind of loser or outsider. I wanted to show how an ordinary young man can feel helpless and lonely,” the actor explains.
Ben, the mysterious young rich man, is played by Steven Yeun, a Korean-American actor who mainly works in the US and is best-known for his role in the hit series “The Walking Dead”. “Burning” is Yeun’s second Korean film after Boon JoonHo’s “Okja” in 2017.
“I was in London and at 3 in the morning director Bong Joonho texted me and asked me to call him right away. I did and he told me director Lee wanted to meet me about this film. We met and after talking with him and reading the script, I felt that I had to do it, not least because I really wanted to work with director Lee. He told me he knows when he has found his character, and that’s a wonderful gift a director can give to an actor, because it makes you feel brave,” says Yeun.
As an actor raised in America, Yeun might be very different from Ben but nonetheless felt connected to him for the word go.
“Ben is a Korean native, but he has travelled extensively in spirit if not in person. I am a Korean-American and I have been to and experienced different countries. With the stuff the Internet is force-feeding young people these days, you get to know other countries even without physically going there. And you quickly realise that each place has different rules, which means that there are no rules. We make them up and you see chaos, sorrow and happiness and fear, because there are no rules. As a Korean-American, you can feel that as you are living between the gap of America and Korea.”
With almost 10 years of acting in the US, Yeun found that working on a Korean production gave him more freedom. “I’m very spoilt to have worked in Korea with director Bong and director Lee. In some ways, I felt freer working on a Korean production than I do on American productions, because the directors gave us space. I had heard that Korean productions could difficult, but problems arise in American productions too and I certainly didn’t face any problems with either of these directors. I have been very lucky.”
One of the most important characters of the film is Haemi, the young girl to whom Jongsu is attracted. She’s played by 22-year-old rookie Jun Jongseo, who joined the auditions for the role and found herself working with an internationally acclaimed director.
“I was really nervous during the audition but when I came on to the set, director Lee left me free to act, which was really good for me,” says Jun Jongseo. “Haemi is like Jongsu in that she is also an outsider, but I feel that her character is also strangely free.”
And even though “Burning” didn’t win any of the festival’s prizes, simply being in Cannes and in the competition was a great moment for all the cast.
“‘Burning’ and experiencing Cannes have been really special. It’s a great honour to work with director Lee and I will remember this for the rest of my life,” says Yoo.