Lee Chang Dong “Burning” Interview Compilation with local & foreign press: “I didn’t cast Yoo Ah In for his youthful image”


The 71st Cannes International Film Festival “BURNING” Vlog


BURNING: The Making of & Characters


Having won a number of honors with films like Peppermint Candy, Oasis and Poetry, Lee’s latest work Burning was considered one of the favorites to win Palme d’Or at the 71st Cannes Film Festival. While it failed to take home the top prize, its brilliance was recognized by winning Fipresci International Critics’ Prize for best film in the main competition. The masterful director’s latest work Burning is one that has invited interpretations of many upon its opening. This was Lee’s intent as he wanted to provoke the audience members to think, rather than to spoon-feed messages. As Lee pointed out, the film challenges the very perceptions suggested by a film’s narrative. But it does not offer any easy answers. Even the very obvious metaphors and indications that is hinted in the film may not be what it seems.

This is the compilation of Lee Chang Dong’s interviews in Cannes and Korea with both Korean and foreign press. (Also, if you haven’t watched it yet, check out his and Yoo Ah In’s interview with Chinese Sina Weibo here in this video)


Ah-in Yoo (Yoo Ah In) is remarkable as Burning’s ineffectual, withdrawn protagonist: he’s the perfect vessel for Lee’s grand treatise on the immutable fact that none of us truly understands anyone or anything — not even, in the case of this quietly devastating film, the precise genre of the movie we’re absorbing. Burning’s performances require comparable degrees of shading. We see hints of Jongsu’s difficult childhood — an abandoned family home, a violent father on trial — but the spectacularly stoic Yoo refuses to share what is going on behind his character’s melancholy eyes. And yet, the actor convincingly illustrates that something is drawing him to Haemi and Ben — especially to Ben, who has replaced him as Haemi’s paramour. – Tim Grierson, senior US Screen Daily critic


A lot of people perceived that Lee Chang Dong cast Yoo Ah In because of his rebel-youth image since Burning is about youths too. Check out Lee’s further explanation about the casting and the movie itself.

Yoo Ah In is famous for his brilliant star image. Why did you cast Yoo Ah In as Jongsu in Burning?

Yoo Ah In has been playing a lot of intense and very expressive youth characters, while in contrary, Jongsu is a muted character. So I wanted to try this character out on him. I was wondering how Yoo Ah In might look like as Jongsu.

Did you cast Yoo Ah In because he is famous with his youthful image?

I didn’t think about it that much. Everyone knows Yoo Ah In is the most excellent actor of his age group. He has great sensibilities and the character of Jongsu has what you could call a repressed rage or a sense of helplessness that young people living in Korea in 2017 and 2018 seem to feel universally. But Burning is not just a story about the youth’s angst. Although it can be said as the starting point, but it’s not just limited to the youth category. The film itself is wider than this. I have never thought of casting him because of his youthful image. I introduced the movie several times before the movie was released and talked about ‘youth’s angst’ to make a concept, but this is only one part of the movie.

What is your impression on Yoo Ah In in this first collaboration?

Yoo Ah In followed all my directions and accepted all my demands so well on the filming scene. The protagonist Jongsu seems very meek and listless, but he is a potent character with different sides, who harbors immense rage inside. Jongsu has to express the feelings inside without revealing his expression outwardly. It’s a very difficult role for an actor because the character doesn’t reveal feelings.

Yoo Ah In has the obsession to perform because he doesn’t feel his presence/existence unless he is performing. However, Jong Soo hardly has the ‘performance’ itself [doesn’t emote] except for the last scene. It’s very hard to play, but Yoo Ah In managed to live as a character called ‘Jongsu’. 

It was hard to find anyone else who could inhabit the character of Jongsu as himself. Yoo Ah In is an irreplaceable actor for this role, he is capable of conveying great nuance and sensitivity.

Do you expect Burning to score the box office in Korea? [T/N: this question was asked before the film released in Korea]

There are times when a lot of box-office movies got wiped out after a short while and some uncomfortable movies stay longer [in people’s mind]. And also, this movie is going to fight Marvel movies in theater, such as Avengers: Infinity War and Dead Pool. They’re about superheroes. Heroes save the world. It makes me wonder, ‘Can they really?’ But movies like these absolutely slaughter films like Burning [in the box office] (laugh). Burning is not a superhero story nor about a superhero saving the world. We may not be very welcomed to the public at the moment, but I’m more into thinking about what a welcome narrative is, how the characteristics of the film medium are communicated to the audience, and what kind of narrative that we/society really need.

What do you think about Burning being touted as a cinematic movie?

If you ask the pureness of this movie, actually the movie is empty. Just like the empty plastic greenhouse [in this film]. It has a shape but nothing to look at. Nevertheless, the audience accepts it, gives meaning to it, and even believes it. Burning is about what the movie or the story really is, how it relates to the world, and what the real mystery it has.

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.

Besides the story of two young men, there’s a scene where you bring up the issue of women’s stereotype in men’s eyes.

I didn’t intend just to define or advocate the anger of youth [through Burning]. I wanted to throw a question about this generation of this world today. Burning is not Jongsu’s story, but rather a story of two men and of a woman between them somewhere. Ben lives in a fashionable neighborhood while the rural community is rapidly disappearing, Jongsoo lives in a village, and Haemi is a poor woman living alone in a small apartment.

Yongsan tragedy, youth unemployment — among the various social issues that intertwine in Burning, it’s also worth looking into the distorted view of Korean society toward women. It’s not easy to live as a woman — for instance: taking her clothes off in front of a man without getting called a ‘prostitute’. Jongsu is inevitably a Korean man living in Korea who has a Korean masculine view [Korean traditional patriarchal view]. I wanted to show this in the film’s overview. ‘Why did you take your clothes off so easily in front of men like a prostitute?’, Jong Soo says so to Haemi. [T/N: Jong Soo’s words to Haemi is his reaction toward her Great Hunger dance. It’s a beautiful and lonely scene, but Jong Soo feels disappointed with Haemi because she throws her clothes off in front of Ben]. It’s really really hard to live as a woman, and I wanted to show this thick women-stereotyping [in Korea] in this film too.

Why does Haemi take her clothes off and dance naked?

Haemi is dancing The Great Hunger, seeking the root meaning of life alone and what it means to be alive, by taking her clothes off. She’s dancing in a transcendent way while the sunset becomes the boundary between the night and the day, between the visible and invisible, between the truth and the falsehood.

Yoo Ah In posing with MBC president Choi Seung Ho in “Burning” behind-the-scene

How did you cast the CEO of Korean broadcasting MBC, Choi Seung Ho, as Yoo Ah In’s (Jongsoo’s) father in this movie?

It may sound like a disrespect, but he looks a bit like Jong Soo’s father (laugh). I told him about this, and he said he would be pleased to be the father and promised to take part in the filming, and we finished it long before he became the MBC president. [T/N: Lee Chang Dong and Choi Seung Ho are alumni of the same university, they played together in the theater and have been best friends for years]

A lot of Korean viewers are confused by the message that Burning conveys. What do you think about this? [T/N: this question was asked after the film released in Korea]

There is a misunderstanding of the public about my movie. I’ve never made films that delivers messages, nor have I ever felt the urge to make such pieces. I don’t like to make movies in that way. I just like to ask questions. In addition, I believe that accepting message is the responsibility of the audience. In fact, such a movie that delivers the message is just like the Hollywood entertainment filmmakers, which naturally conveys the message that ‘justice will win’. But, I wonder how much obvious messages like ‘justice prevails’ would affect our lives? I have such doubts, therefore I created films that asks questions. The movie Burning is just a catalyst. It may be unfamiliar and uncomfortable, but I think this movie will be another touch for the audience who accept the questions without holding back.

Burning carries questions about the world, about its mystery and narratives of the world, which may make it uncomfortable. It asks how close the narrative [of the film] to the truth. What is the difference between what we see and believe to exist, and what does actually exist? It’s a question of perception. The film seems more difficult [than most movies in general], but I don’t think it’s meaningless, because I believe these questions stick to people’s minds.

Since this film opens for a lot of interpretations, I already expected that viewers would draw various interpretations. It doesn’t matter whether their interpretation is affirmative or negative. The most commonly-accepted interpretation is that it is a film about the angst of the youth… It is but one interpretation. Each person is free to make their own narrative. I would like [the audience members] to pay attention to other peoples’ narratives and share opinions. 

Despite winning praise from the critics across the globe and notching Fipresci prize at Cannes Film Festival, Burning did not fare well in the box office. What do you think about it? [T/N: this question was asked after the film released in Korea]

Of course I’m concerned about communication with the public in regard to the movie, but somebody has to take a challenge. And I think the movie Burning is able to communicate with the public to a certain extent. I wanted to speak through the pure nature of the film medium, and I’m glad that such a part has been conveyed. In fact, whether the box office can prevail, I think it is connected to many different situations, and it’s a hot medium that depends on what kind of current atmosphere the public want to receive. Why do foreign journalists who don’t know much about our situation like this movie so much? There are many reasons for thinking about it. However, if you [cinema directors] just follow the success model to get success, you cannot see the trend as a development. Somebody has to take chances and take an adventure/a challenge. Although this film may seem strange today, it could be accepted the next time. I believe they will be factors that can contribute to betterment of our movie industry.

There may be a director who takes a movie about fun, but my departure is always the result of worrying about the world and toward the world. This film cannot escape from the question of what kind of story one has to write. In other words, what stories of this age to be told, what a movie can do about it.

You’ve been teaching cinema in university for a long time, and you have worked together with many young filmmakers. What thoughts do you have when you look at them?

I have a very multi-faceted thought. As an old generation, a teacher, and a filmmaker, I can’t help feeling a sense of responsibility. It’s because the current situation is not hopeful. It feels very boring. Personally, I hope that young filmmakers are more challenging and adventurous. Although it’s very contradictory, the Korean film industry is still dynamic. If you are lucky, you will achieve great success [commercially]. Because there are many opportunities for commercialization, it is difficult in terms of the level of creating new things. Although I personally stood up to encourage adventure and experimentation, the reality is not that simple.

I heard that the actors were not given a specific description of their characters beforehand. 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. I don’t want them to think about how to act from the beginning. I don’t want the actors to show clear interpretations and expressions. This film doesn’t define or explain the characters either. In some cases I could create detailed scenes, but I wanted to keep them open for interpretation. 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.

In Burning, you use a lot more sounds among the movies you have ever shot, and the sounds have the function to each of the characters.

In the past, I thoroughly abstained from the music. The music became the sound outside the narrative, and it was not my cinematic way. But this time I tried approached the film by music/sound. But I didn’t want the sound to enhance emotions or suspense. I wanted the uniqueness of the music itself, as if it was originally integrated with the scenes. The music director Mowg threw some buzzes for the ears, emptiness and some state between noise and music, and so on. And the color of the music differs depending on the character. For example, in the space of Ben (Steven Yeun), the intrinsic sound keeps coming out like a cafe music or an album playing in the room. On the other hand, in Jongsu’s space, the music is out of the screen. This [music/sound] can be considered a reflection of psychology. [T/N: Mowg is a famous Korean music director. Born Lee Sung Hyun, Mowg has won Best Music awards for films, including The Crucible (2011), Masquerade (2012), Hwayi: A Monster Boy (2013), Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet (2016) and The Age of Shadows (2017)].

I heard this movie was planned to be directed by a young director [and Lee Chang Dong was supposed to be the producer of this film]. Why did you eventually choose to shoot yourself?

This film was originally intended to be handed over to the young directors, but there were many practical difficulties in the actual operation. For example, the copyrights issue between NHK and Haruki Murakami took a long process to settle down, hence the review process got postponed for a long time. The young directors could not afford to wait. On the other hand, when I read the novel of the same subject of William Faulkner’s, I think it would be better for me to shoot myself.

What was the most difficult thing on the shoot?

We devoted all our energy to each scene, but there was one main scene that takes place outside at sunset and after [in Paju, near the DMZ]. In reality, it had to be done within 10 minutes but of course, that’s not how filmmaking works. In the midst of the tension that needed to be maintained and the dusk that needed to be matched, North Korean propaganda broadcasts would be coming through on loudspeakers and so it took us about a week.

What kind of significance has Cannes had in your career? How important is it for Korean filmmakers on the international stage?

I actually really dislike the red carpet. It’s the realisation of what I physically and emotionally hate the most — wearing a tuxedo, smiling and waving at camera flashes — but you have to do it. Because Cannes is the best and most efficient place to publicise your film, get it reviewed and heard about. It’s the most expensive and hardest place to go so you can’t decline.

What is your opinion of Korean films these days?

Commercially and in appearance, they are full of energy. But I doubt whether there is a young sensibility or fighting spirit that wants to go after challenges, looking for new things, and going down roads others don’t — trying to get at the essence of the medium of cinema. When you keep getting films that become commercial successes, it’s hard to feel the need to keep taking on challenges.

What do you think about the Netflix vs Cannes debate?

We are at a stage of transformation in our era in how the medium of film is distributed to audiences. For now, Cannes has sided with the theaters and it’s not just about the theater owners’ federation, but what is needed now in the industry.

Do you feel regret not winning the prize at the Cannes International Film Festival?

If you don’t regret it, it must be a lie. It looked like Burning was putting the bet on Cannes. Now that the results of the festival have been made, the result [for the film] itself has a decisive influence. Getting the prize will get us recognized, which is good for the film, but it seems that everyone’s disappointment now exceeds the original expectation on the prize. From the macro point of view of Korean movies, it’s a pity [that we didn’t win], because if we won the prize, we might have given Korean movies a boost and brought a vitality to Korean movies.

Have you met Murakami Haruki? Has Murakami seen this movie yet?

I haven’t met Murakami yet, but he was very happy that I wanted to adapt his short story.


Translated by Admin M of Yoo Ah In International Fans Community

© Yoo Ah In International Fans Community
※ Any copying, republication or redistribution of YOO AH IN SIKSEEKLAND’s content is expressly prohibited without prior consent of YOO AH IN SIKSEEKLAND. Copyright infringement is subject to criminal and civil penalties.


Source: [1],[2],[3],[4],[5],[6],[7],[8], Screen Daily, Korea Herald, Variety | Photos: DC, ND, Burning Facebook

3 Responses to “Lee Chang Dong “Burning” Interview Compilation with local & foreign press: “I didn’t cast Yoo Ah In for his youthful image””
  1. EP says:

    Thank you for the compilation, sikseekers. I love LCD’s praises to YAI. He’s a genuine and genius person. So when he said that YAI is the most excellent actor of his age group and an irreplaceable actor for this role, I know he really does think so. That’s a very rare and huge praise from a huge and the best Korean director! Bravo!

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] uma entrevista, o diretor Chang-dong afirma que “não faz filmes para possuam mensagens, mas que façam […]

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