Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Haruki Murakami, part 7: Burning and Norwegian Wood

Still from Lee Chang-dong's Burning (2018). Image source: The Criterion Collection

As a follow-up to my post on the film Drive My Car (2021), in which writer/director Ryusuke Hamaguchi combines elements from two Haruki Murakami short stories, I'm going to take a look at two other Murakami film adaptations: Burning (2018) and Norwegian Wood (2010).


Yoo Ah-in (Jong-su) and Yeun Sang-yeop (Ben) in Lee Chang-dong's Burning. Image source: Hikari Hana

Burning is an adaptation by Korean writer-director Lee Chang-dong of Murakami's 1983 short story "Naya o yaku," originally translated by J. Philip Gabriel as "Barn Burning" and published in The New Yorker of 2 November 1992. The story was retranslated by Alfred Birnbaum under the same title for the collection The Elephant Vanishes (Knopf, 1993). For a summary of Murakami's story, please see my post on The Elephant Vanishes.

Lee shifts the action to Korea and adds many details that heighten the psychological tensions only suggested in the story. A flirtatious and free-spirited young woman, Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), calls out to Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) one day when he's on his round of deliveries. The two knew each other as children, but haven't seen one another since junior high school a decade ago. (In fact, Jong-su doesn't recognize Hae-mi at first; she tells him she's had plastic surgery to improve her looks. South Korea has the highest rates of cosmetic surgeries per capita in the world; a BBC poll estimated that more than 50% of South Korean women have cosmetic surgery by age 29. [1])

Jeon Jong-seo (Shin Hae-mi) in Lee Chang-dong's Burning. Image source: Asia Pacific Screen Awards

Hae-mi works doing store promotions, and slips Jong-su the winning ticket for a grand-opening raffle whose prize is a girl's watch (which, of course, she then suggests that he should give to her; it's a clever way for her to find out if he has a girlfriend, as well as gain a watch). Later she invites Jong-su to her apartment to show him how to feed her cat while she's away on an extended trip. But there doesn't seem to be a cat in her apartment; has she invited Jong-su there on a pretext? She reminds him that in junior high school he had told her that she was "really ugly," an incident he doesn't remember; she then seduces him (which takes very little effort). Is Hae-mi's seduction of Jong-su, and perhaps her cosmetic surgery, an attempt to exorcise that painful childhood moment?

When Hae-mi returns from her trip, to Jong-su's surprise and dismay she has a new boyfriend in tow whom she met while abroad, the wealthy Ben (Yeun Sang-yeop). Jong-su feels pangs of sexual jealousy and economic inadequacy, and we begin to wonder whether we're witnessing Hae-min's revenge on Jong-su for his teenage cruelty.

Yoo Ah-in (Jong-su), Jeon Jong-seo (Hae-mi), and Yeun Sang-yeop (Ben) in Burning. Image source: Ricepaper Magazine

Ben sees the world as a playground, and confesses to Jong-su that he has an odd hobby. Every so often when he spots an abandoned or run-down greenhouse, he burns it down. Jong-su then begins to look at the greenhouses around his father's farm with a new perspective, weighing the chances that each could be Ben's next target. It's a suggestion that under his nice-guy exterior, Ben may harbor destructive obsessions.

Still from Burning. Image source: franceinfo: culture

Hae-min confesses that on her trip she felt a strong desire "to disappear, as if I had never existed." When she does disappear, Jong-su becomes fixated on Ben and begins following him around the city. One day, Ben spots Jong-su lurking in his Gangnam neighborhood in his delivery truck, and invites him to his spacious apartment. While there, Jong-su encounters a cat that Ben calls by the same name as Hae-min's. Jong-su opens a drawer and discovers that it is filled with bracelets, barrettes, and other small trophies of Ben's conquests; right on top is the watch Jong-su had given Hae-min. Jong-su begins to have dark suspicions about Ben, and Hae-min's possible fate. . .

Lee Chang-dong's additions to Murakami's story bring out aspects only hinted at in the original, and he very effectively ratchets up the suspense. The film is also filled with cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo's strikingly photographed images. But both Jong-su and the film go off the rails in the final few minutes, when the movie completely departs both from Murakami's story and from any connection to plausibility. I found that the final few minutes ruined the film for me; judging by its positive critical reception, others have felt differently.

Norwegian Wood

Rinko Kikuchi (Naoko) and Ken'ichi Matsuyama (Toru) in Ang Hung Tran's Norwegian Wood (2010). Image source:

Anh Hung Tran is the French-Vietnamese writer and director of The Scent of Green Papaya (1993), Cyclo (1995), The Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000), and the recent Juliette Binoche film Pot au feu/La passion de Dodin Bouffant (released in the U.S. as The Taste of Things, 2023). In 2010 Tran wrote and directed an adaptation of Murakami's 1987 novel Norwegian Wood; for a summary of the novel please see my post on Murakami's English Library novels.

In 1969, as police storm university campuses to chase student demonstrators, college student Toru Watanabe (Ken'ichi Matsuyama) spends his time chasing girls. One day he encounters Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), the former girlfriend of Toru's best friend Kizuki (Kengo Kora). Kizuki committed suicide, and Naoko and Toru are drawn together by their connection to him. Naoko has thoughts of suicide as well, and leaves the university to go a mental health retreat in the mountains. Toru visits her there and meets her roommate, the 39-year-old divorcée Reiko (Reika Kirishima, who later played Oto in Drive My Car). Back on campus, Toru is approached by Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), a lively, outgoing student who expresses a romantic interest in him even though she already has a boyfriend.

Still from Norwegian Wood. Image source: Asian Movie Pulse

Norwegian Wood is elegantly filmed by cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin, with beautifully composed shots of the snowy mountainous region where Naoko's retreat is located contrasting with the cramped apartments and neon-lit bars of Tokyo. But Tran simplifies the story, eliminating even a major subplot that provides the reason that Reiko has come to the sanatorium. Of course, any 2-hour film adaptation of a full-length novel must involve judicious selection of what to include, but the simplified narrative makes the plot seem even more schematic than it does in the book: all too clearly Naoko represents the past and the death drive, Reiko represents the present and the power of healing, and Midori represents the future and the life force. Although the film is shot from Toru's point of view and places him in the coming-of-age dilemma of having to decide among the three women, it's actually the women who make all the key choices (spoiler alert—for some reason those choices all involve wanting to sleep with Toru).

Filmmakers are drawn to Murakami's fiction in part because of its popularity, but his laconic style and protagonists who are more passively acted-upon than actively choosing their fates can present cinematic difficulties. In Burning Lee makes the mistake of over-elaborating Murakami's story into a violent suspense thriller that ultimately takes the movie too far from its source. In Norwegian Wood Tran over-simplifies the novel and so makes the story's flaws even more apparent. Neither filmmaker manages the careful balance of Hamaguchi's adaptation, which opens up its stories in a way that makes use of the strengths of cinema, but which still retains the atmosphere of Murakami's originals.

Other posts in this series:

  1.  See Patricia Marx, "Letter from Seoul: About Face," The New Yorker, 23 March 2015.

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