Passion contained, rage suppressed, the cruelty and disappointments of life forever pushed down and out of our conscious awareness until, it seems, some kind of terrible explosion must occur—all this is the undertone of South Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s new film, Burning.
Jong-su Lee, a young man scraping by in Seoul with part time delivery jobs but who aspires to be a novelist, encounters by chance a young woman named Hae-mi. She claims to have known him before, from his home village where they both grew up, but he barely remembers her. Well, he notices her now—she’s beautiful and rather wild; her uninhibited behavior and mysterious motivations creating a push-pull effect on his feelings. She tells him she’s going to Africa for a few weeks, and asks him to take care of her cat while she’s gone. Then they have sex. Even though he’s about to go back to his village near the North Korea border, to take care of the small farm owned by his father, who is in some kind of trouble—Jong-su still makes the daily trek to Hae-mi’s apartment to feed the cat whom he never sees because he hides from strangers. And this makes him wonder if the cat even exists, except he must because the food gets eaten between visits.
This set-up indicates the film’s odd flavor rather well. The director, Lee, has developed an elliptical and subtly evocative style that doesn’t declare meanings, but only hints at them without drawing conclusions. Thus it’s only gradually that we pick up the visual cues that let us know that Jong-su has fallen hard for this elusive woman, but when he later says as much, it has the effect of an echo from some deeper place. Then, when Hae-mi returns from Africa, she is accompanied by a young man named Ben—handsome, confident, strangely guarded. We immediately sense Jong-su’s disappointment, his certainty that Hae-mi and Ben are already in a relationship. But nothing is said.
Ben drives a Porsche, and at one point he takes them to his chic apartment in Seoul. He’s obviously very well-off, but who is he, really? Jong-su sarcastically calls him “the great Gatsby.” And as this weird triangle develops, Burning enters something like suspense thriller territory, but always with this difference—Lee Chang-dong grounds this film in the subjective, the inward tension of his diffident, conflicted main character.
That character, Jong-su, is played by Yoo Ah-In, whose sensitive yet glowering countenance holds the viewer spellbound throughout the film. One reason he’s amazing is that his character refuses to be likeable—in matters of work, family and relationships he seems like a complete loser, an emotional wreck—but Yoo carries the story into increasing depths with utter conviction. Hae-mi is played by Jeon Jong-seo. Her character flaunts convention, seems totally vulnerable yet untouchable, and Jeon proves herself a fearless performer. And finally, in the crucial role of Ben we have Steven Yuen, whom you might recognize from The Walking Dead TV show. Always smiling and seeming friendly, Ben has an icy quality that is very disturbing. The question of who he really is becomes a central theme, with implications that verge on the political—in any case, he is a key to the dark place the film is taking us to, and Yuen is a dominating presence in the part.
Burning was adapted by Lee and Oh Jungmi from a short story called “Barn Burning” by the Japanese author Haruki Murakami, which in turn references a William Faulkner story by the same name. I can honestly say that the film is like nothing you would ever expect. Lee takes the time for the story’s shifting mood and theme to fully develop, and if your attention span is short you might be challenged. But take the challenge, and you will be moved by Burning in unique and unfathomable ways.