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‘Burning’ Director Lee Chang-dong: Still Angry After All These Years

Korea’s foremost auteur, Cannes veteran, and former minister of culture, Lee Chang-dong is a quiet, angry, and determined force. Lee spoke to Variety to explain the painstaking gestation process behind Cannes Film Festival competition entry “Burning,” to share the frustration of the Millennial generation, and his own anger at being blacklisted by the previous Korean government. The film screens at the Marrakech Film Festival as part of The 11th Continent section.

What has taken up your time in the eight years since you last made a feature movie?

Lee Chang-dong: For the past eight years, I have worked on many projects and screenplays. About three of these projects turned into complete screenplays, and were being developed at their pre-production stage. But I pulled the plug because I couldn’t answer why they had to be made into films.

As a former politician, how do you regard the damage done to the Korean film industry by the blacklist, the complicity of KOFIC, the Busan festival crisis, and sexual assault scandals of the past years?

For the past 10 years, the Korean government’s systemic oppression of artistic freedom of expression has persisted in often very overt ways, but also very insidious ways. As a result, the careers of many creative individuals were jeopardized. I was also one of those people whose names were on the blacklist. However, we filmmakers have not succumbed to the oppression; we protected the film industry from losing its creative flames. And now, all the abnormalities are being repaired, everything is falling into place, and there are new changes taking place. One example is the #MeToo movement. This will not only change the landscape of the film business, but also have a positive wider influence in addressing sexism, and changing distorted gender thinking views. These are subjects that had been kept in the dark for a long time in our society.

As a novelist yourself, what interested you in adapting the work of another novelist, Haruki Murakami?

As a film director, I have always been searching for stories. But even the most interesting and important stories seemed unappealing to me when told in a familiar way. Sometimes, literature gives me new ideas and inspiration. It’s not something that happens very often, but Haruki Murakami’s short story ‘Barn Burning’ was an example.

And this particular this story?

Actually, it was my screenwriter Oh Jung-mi who recommended this short story to me. As it’s a story which feels mysterious, but nothing happens in the end, at first glance, it may not seem easy to turn into a film. However, I felt that there was something very cinematic about this story’s mystery. A small mystery from a short story could be expanded into bigger mysteries with multiple layers. And its mysteries alluded to the world that we live in today, the mysterious world in which we sense that something is wrong, but cannot quite put a finger on what it is.

In Busan two years ago you explained that “Burning” was “a story about young people in today’s world.” That is incredibly vague, in English at least. What did you intend to express?

For a long time, I’ve wanted to tell a story about young people, and in particular, the young people of this generation. Some of my past projects were named ‘Project Rage.’ That was because it seems that today, people all over the world, regardless of their nationality, religion, and social status, are angry for different reasons. The rage of young people is a particularly pressing problem. The millennials living in Korea today will be the first generation that are worse off than their parents’ generation. They feel that the future will not change significantly. Not able to find the object to direct their rage at, they feel a sense of debilitation. This film is about young people who feel impotent, with rage bottled up inside them.

Explain the casting choices.

The protagonist Jongsu seems very meek and listless, but he is a potent character with different sides, who harbors immense rage inside. Yoo Ah-in is an irreplaceable actor for this role, he is capable of conveying great nuance and sensitivity. Ben, who represents the film’s mystery, is a character as hard to explain as he is hard to understand. When I first met Steven Yuen, within 30 minutes into our conversation, I realized that Steven understood Ben even better than I did. Jun Jong-seo, who’s was selected from casting calls, is a newbie with no prior experience, but I saw a quality completely unique to her, that you cannot find in other actresses.

How do you work with actors?

I’ve always wanted actors to simply and purely feel the emotions rather than feeling like they have to express them. During the film shoot, I tried to have as much conversation with them as I could about the characters and their circumstances. Having conversation was a more effective way of communication than simply giving directions, and I believe it allowed much more freedom for the actors.

How faithful an adaptation is your film to the Murakami short story?

The barn in the original story has been changed to a greenhouse. That was because greenhouses are much more commonly found than barns in Korea. Whereas in the original story, the central mystery hinges on whether the barns had been burned down or not, the film’s mystery is further expanded to many other mysteries.

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