Stephen Miller

Startup cofounder, AI researcher, podcaster, person, etc.

Cannes Day 0: Burning

TLDR: Burning is the closest to a visual transposition of Murakami’s style I’ve ever seen. That is both a very good thing and a less good thing, depending on what you focus on. Some of my hangups about Murakami’s (recurring) treatment of female characters bleed into the film as well, smudging what should be great into only good.

Bloggy Bits

Greetings from Cannes! It is currently around 2am. By my tally, that means I’ve been awake for roughly 35 hours, and have been the proud owner of a not-yet-supposed-to-be-functioning Cannes badge for 10 of them. Since waking up in SFO todyesterday, I have: changed my mind about which suitcase to bring twice, attended three work-related meetings, consumed six alcoholic and four caffeinated beverages, listened to some five hours of podcast material, read 35% of a new book (2018’s Pulitzer Fiction winner, Less, great so far!), and watched four movies. Three were plane homework, one was at Cannes proper: Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (3.5/5).

But I’m getting ahead of myself; first let me set the stage. At 4pm today (Wednesday) I picked up my badge, and was told it would be useless until the “3 Days In Cannes” program begins in earnest tomorrow. The badge comes with two major components: entry to a special selection at the Cinema Les Arcades which will cover a large swath of films we’ve missed, and standard entry to all Palais screenings — Lumiere being the primary theatre for Official Selection picks, with 1.5 other theatres also showing reruns. Fun thing about Lumiere: you need an invitation to get in, and early invitations appear to be extremely rare for us 3 Days folks (I applied for 8, got 1 so far). Fun twist on Les Arcades: no English subtitles, unless the film is in French! These constraints combine to form a sort of manic zig-zag of a Thursday and Friday, to maximize the (promising) Competition flicks I can catch. They also create an interesting phenomenon, wherein tuxedo-wearing badge holders choose to stand in the street waving cardboard signs that say “[Film Name] Invite, s.v.p” in a script identical to “Will work for food.” The more fortunate Invitation holders have been known to take pity — though in 30 minutes of watching, I never saw such a transaction actually occur.

And so, after a brief detour wherein I wandered the Palais in search of water and wound up in a trudging, Lemming death-march to see John Travolta (I was, in fact, admitted, but ultimately shooed at the door), I gave up. Better to eat a good, early meal and wake up at the crack of dawn, I reasoned. And so I walked home in the rain, bought an eight pack of macarons and a bottle of beer, and prepared to have myself a night.

Then, at 6:10, the tweets started to roll in. Burning premiere starting in thirty. Here is the line to see Burning. Here’s a selfie from the line to see Burning. As I sat there in my underwear staring down the barrel of my sad, pastel communion, I thought, what the hell. Give it a go. Throw on the tux, figure out how bowties work, run as fast as humanly possible toward the Palais in the rain. When I arrive at 6:30 on the dot, a French man happens to walk by and ask if I want his ticket. Anne Hathaway was right. It came true.

So, ok. Wheeze up the red carpet, find my seat just as the film is starting. Soaking in what I hoped was rain (it wasn’t), wishing I’d thought to have at least a sip of water in the last couple hours. I’m crammed between two people who will, insanely, be on their goddamn phones (!) for the entire (!!) movie (!!!). My inhaler has likely already slipped out of my pocket at this point, though I don’t know it yet, so that panic attack was forestalled. In short, we’re doing fine.

Actual, Sloppy, Sleep-Deprived Review

Let’s start with an important disclaimer: I know absolutely nothing about the work of Lee Chang-dong. Widening still: I know very little about Korean cinema in general. Sweating in that theatre between a pair of glowing, life-sized emojis, I found myself wishing I’d done the homework I promised.

But, as I quickly realized, Burning does have some context I feel comfortable speaking on: the work of Murakami. See, unbeknownst to this (ill-prepared) filmgoer, Burning is a loose adaptation of “Barn Burning”, a short story from The Elephant Vanishes. And while I don’t remember that particular piece enough to recognize the plotting (though Kindle insists I’ve read it), fans of Murakami should know that hardly matters. He’s the authorial equivalent of Tarantino: his fingerprints are always a dominant gene.

I don’t know how close Lee intended to hue to the source material, so all I can speak to is my own, lopsided experience. In my estimation, this is by far the closest I’ve ever come to seeing Murakami’s voice emulated in film — and no, I don’t mean in the obvious “I’ve never seen a film adaptation of Murakami” sense. Specific plot duplications are easy, and mostly uninteresting — yes, there are cats and music analogies and frank treatments of sex. It’s the transposition of style that blows my mind.

Here’s an example of a thing Murakami is excellent at: creating a yearning in the reader, or rather, a nostalgia for the time that you still knew how to yearn. I have no clue how he does it. He writes sparse, extremely understated dialogue; his descriptive prose is never self-consciously showy, particularly with regards to romance. At most, he might toss out a nature-related simile (numb like ice, passionate like fire), and that’s if he’s feeling frisky. You feel like you could read him in one sitting, easy…and yet you continually choose not to because the emotions he taps into insist on slowing down. Passages that might read as fanfic out of context (see: any sex scene in Norwegian Wood) take on a special resonance, a haunting voice. “Wistful” isn’t the word; it’s direct, uncomfortably direct. Feeling things head-on, childlike. Loving naively. Bruising easily. He taps into a particular brand of tenderness like no author I know.

Burning has none of those raw materials to work with (omniscient narrator, jarring simplicity in prose), but it absolutely nails the resulting feeling. I feel wanting everywhere. I feel it when Jong-soo (Yoo Ah-in) stares out at an open expanse of green and brown, can practically hear the poetry he’s writing in his mind, the things he would do and places he would go if class/life/circumstance had been otherwise. I feel it whenever Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) is on screen, or the rose-tinted version we see through Jong-soo’s eyes. Her furtive glances, her head turns, the way she seems to ping pong through emotions, searching. I feel it when she dances on the porch in an extended take, gradually unfurling, pulling things into her orbit, lifting his Small Hunger into a Great Hunger. It’s beautiful.

But that’s also a huge problem I have, with this film and with Murakami in general: the way women always seem to be reduced to manic canvases for Want. Hae-mi is Sputnik Sweetheart’s Sumire, is Norwegian Wood’s Naoko, etc. etc — she’s frail, she’s hurting, she’s impossible to pin down, and she always A) needs saving by or B) heaps complicated affections upon our {thoughtful, shy, artistic} protagonist. This asymmetry puts the indulgent sex and masturbation scenes in an uncomfortable place for me — Nice always lusting after Fragile, Fragile always alternating between teasing and appeasing but never actually rejecting. She never strikes me autonomous; it feels like her emotions flutter on cue. I’m inconsistent, I’m sure: plenty of films I love (Call Me By Your Name, most recently) pull that depth asymmetry off; I’m happy to have Object Of Affection Exists Solely As Catalyst For Personal Growth when it suits me. Maybe it’s just this particular casting of a relationship dynamic, between the Male Friend and the Hurting Girl, that I have trouble with. I’ve heard that story too many times before — told it in my own life — and it’s been toxic bullshit every time.

Roughly half of Burning suffers from that problem, and if that’s all there were, I’d probably be feeling more sour here. Then the other half goes in bolder, far more refreshing territory — which I wouldn’t dare spoil, though it’d hardly count as a twist. All I’ll say is it harnesses another key element of Murakami’s style, one I’m never annoyed by: his knack for creating surreal mystery out (on paper) very little, by tilting the world just so. Everything works in concert to build that same mood here, particularly Steven Yeun’s perfect poker face and Mowg’s throbbing, stringbare soundtrack. I have no complaints, it’s masterfully handled. Lee totally nails the landing. In fact, with more sleep and time to reassess, it might even retroactively modify some of my deeper reservations — recasting the desires the film is playing with, here.

Maybe people with less Murakami baggage can feel the power of that landing on first blush, without having it be diminished by the more predictable bits it’s stapled to. I hope so. Like Murakami’s output, there’s plenty here worth loving; it’s that goodness I’m certain they’re capable of that makes me cringe at the thematic misfires.