Something in the Nothing: Lee Chang-dong’s Burning and the “Great Hunger”
by Sara Merican
To love a certain film, performance, or image, is to declare something quite personal. Love is in the unexpected connections, deep familiarities, special resonances. There is something inherently autobiographical, I think, in the art we become attached to. However, sometimes when we start writing or engaging in film criticism, we desire a more neutral and “authoritative” voice, and become reluctant to acknowledge how very personal these engagements with cinema actually are.
Here, I refuse to do that.
When the credits rolled at the end of Lee Chang-dong’s remarkable Burning (2018), I sat in the theater for the next few minutes, in a meditative silence and awe. I knew something in this film, in its terrifyingly vast landscapes and haunting sunsets, had stirred something quite profound within me. Films are often about external discovery—we learn about places, people, topics. Curiosity burns deep, in both the filmmaker and filmgoer. But certain films, especially those that become our favorite ones, reveal and awaken something more internal. You can find many ways to read and interpret Lee’s film (which speaks to the director’s masterful command of mystery and story), but for me, I see the film as one that revolves around Hunger—for money and financial security, yes—but also for social validation, companionship, respect, love, answers, purpose.
Hae-mi, part-time sales model and protagonist Jong-su’s love interest, is obsessed with the idea of two “hungers” that the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert talk about. There is Little Hunger, the physical need for food—and Great Hunger, that pesky, unquiet existential yearning within us. The Kalahari Bushmen’s dance of the Great Hunger is a tradition handed down through the generations—comforting in terms of cultural continuity, but also profoundly depressing, knowing that these questions of existential purpose have perplexed and tormented Man through the ages. Lee’s Burning inserts itself into this universal experience of the “Great Hunger,” the sacred ancient search for meaning.
Lee’s film, on one hand, is so rooted in the Korean historical and cultural context and so intimately interrogating the inequalities and class structures in Korean society. At the same time, there is something that feels native in Lee’s film, even to a non-Korean outsider like me. For one, the rich literary lineage that spans histories and geographies—Murakami Haruki’s Barn Burning short story (1983), William Faulkner’s story of the same title (1939)—behind Lee’s otherwise very recent production, opens up the film to various transnational, intercontinental receptions (that I have gladly become a tiny part of). The film’s success has been global, picking up numerous accolades internationally, including the FIPRESCI Award at Cannes. But I think that crucial to the film’s acclaim is that Burning, like all great art (dare I venture), boldly attempts to engage, clarify, and question the human condition.
An abiding scene in the film for me is Hae-mi’s “dance” at Jong-su’s family home—a hybrid choreography she creates from her mime performance and the Kalahari Bushmen’s Great Hunger dance. Mime works, Hae-mi tells us earlier, not because you imagine that there is something there, but because you forget that something is not there. Hae-mi conceptualizes mime as a destructive art and lives a philosophy of negating, suppressing, forgetting. She forgets that she is a barely employed twenty-something-year-old. She tries not to remember that sunlight only enters her room for a fleeting minute each day—bouncing off the glass on the magnificent Seoul tower, into her claustrophobic shack. She tries to suppress the fear that she is this dislocated nomad, wandering between the terrifying hustle of the big city, and the perhaps more terrifying expanse of her rural home town. And above all, she tries to forget the wastes and worries of life, the hideous night, the endless Great Hunger. In this scene, Hae-mi blooms, arms raised against the brilliant Paju sky streaked in a brilliant red, orange, and purple. She closes her eyes, dances, sways. It is beautiful; it is sublime.
And then suddenly, the brutish, guttural moo of Jong-su’s cow pierces the air. The performance falters. This sound comes from off-screen—a liminal space of sorts that flirts between what’s there and not there. In this moment, Hae-mi can no longer forget something is not there. Life is neither a pretty dance nor melodious song, but something more brutish, guttural. There is a wretchedness in the beauty. The mime fails. She starts to sob.
Hae-mi does mime, while Jong-su wants to write fiction—the first is a destructive art, one of suppressing reality, keeping it at bay (at least, this is how Hae-mi conceptualizes it), while the latter is a constructive one, dedicated to forging and creating a different world out of nothing. Both say something about the human condition and become ways of coping with it. Is it better to forget Great Hunger, or forge something out of it?
Later in the film, Jong-su is left grappling with a person’s absence. Jong-su does not do mime; he cannot suppress, negate, forget that something is not there. Jong-su seeks answers, follows clues, tries to construct something out of the void. Hunger is a curious thing, a liminal space between wanting but not having, seeking but not finding. There is an elusiveness to it.
It is about the elusiveness of knowledge—what we can or cannot know. Just like North Korea, looming in the distance across Jong-su’s family’s house in Paju, Jong-su comes to a line, a border between what he can enter and figure out, and what he cannot—the horizon of knowledge. We can trace the rugged landscape of mountains, listen to the voice of the North Korean state being blasted across the border, but beyond that is a history we can no longer retrieve, a wound that cannot heal. Jong-su retraces former haunts, listens again to the recorded voicemail. He visits old Paju residents. He confronts Ben. But all he is left with are impenetrable metaphors—the missing cat, the burning greenhouse.
It is about the elusiveness of love—about the love we want but cannot have. Love that visits us unexpectedly, lights our world, and sets it aglow; love that vanishes, as unexpectedly as it came, without explanation and without reason, leaving us grappling in the residual shadows of the lost light. Yet don’t we at least find Jong-su’s affection, though not without searing pain, quite moving—and Ben’s empty gestures and careless romance, his forgetting, wholly revolting? Love ties us to another being in a curious way—in its absence we are pulled further into it. Half the film is spent without Hae-mi in it—yet she is all over, woven into rooms, streets, vast farmlands, the morning fog, memory.
Burning is also a cautionary tale, against the madness of uncontrolled hunger that resolves in an act of fiery destruction, in an emotionally confusing, violent end. Yet I think Lee gives us comfort here, that Jong-su—no, we—are not a mere circus of defeated lovers nor irrational fools. In love, in knowledge, in the wounds of the Great Hunger, there is a quiet courage in seeking these things out, in not forgetting that something is not there, in listening to what that absence and hunger teaches us, and to persist with grace and hope.
There is something now, even in the nothing. Wisdom is gained, art is made. We tell stories, we follow mysteries. We burn, in the fire for knowledge, in the embers of love. We create something meaningful in the nothing.
Sara Merican, 23, is a final-year undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. She is an alumnus of the Singapore International Film Festival’s and Far East Film Festival’s youth film criticism and journalism programs, and recently completed an editorial internship with The Hollywood Reporter.