Original Name: Beoning
Director: Lee Chang-Dong
Runtime: 148 minutes
IMDB Link: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7282468/
There’s something fascinating about this huge wave of internationally-acclaimed Korean directors for this last two decades. Each individual brings their own voice and is a masterclass in certain aspect of filmmaking. Park Chan Wood is best known for his mesmerizing visual craft; Bong Joon Ho for his injecting sharp social commentary and converting different tones into his movies; Kim Di Duk for his ambiguous themes of violence and sex; Hong Sang Soo for his playful observation of human relationships and Kim Jee Woon for his versatile of genres; yet I always consider Lee Chang Dong’s films the richest of the bunch, the ones that touch the deepest core of human feeling. If there is one thing these directors have in common (well, except from being Korean directors), their works never give an easy answer for its characters, as well as the audience. Come Burning, a difficult film that challenges us and refuses the give us an easy way out. The film chronicles Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo) who meets his childhood friend Haemi (a fresh new face Jong-seo Jun) and they develop a quick romance before she embarks to Africa for 2 weeks. If it sounds like things go way too easy for Jongsu, it doesn’t because after coming back from the trip, she is with a new Korean guy she met there, Ben (Steven Yeun, who you might know from The Walking Dead). If you now think the story involves into a three-way romance, it turns into unexpecting places with the disappearance of Haemi (I still don’t consider this a spoiler, so read on). Burning, like many of Lee’s previous films, is a feature that explores many different themes neatly into one package, all build up to the climax that is unexpected, but sums up beautifully what all the plot threads building up to.
Adapting from a short story from Haruki Murakami, (one of the legendary contemporary writer right now), one aspect that both Murakami and Le Chang Dong have in common is their depiction of loneliness and alienation, and Burning feels like a natural material for Lee. There’s a sense of alienation anywhere in this picture, Jongsu is alone in most of the screen time, especially towards the latter half. Even while the cast staying together, there’s always a brief happiness before the characters delve into their own miserably and melancholy. The most notable (breathtaking) scene, while the three smoking cracks that later lead to Haemi dancing topless in the sunset view, with the accompany of jazz soundtrack, before crying all by herself. Although clinging together, all three characters are lonely people, who have no other friends or relatives they could depend on, and who hole themselves in this well of loneliness. Even when Jongsu making love or jerking off, for example, there’s a pain in his face. Speaking of well, Haemi recounts her childhood memory when she literally fell into a well, and for that moment she was too afraid that she’d die completely alone.
What happened when one feels too alienation they could very well spirited away? Well, that’s where this story goes next. The idea of vanishing without a trace, completely cut off from everyone else is a deeply unsettling concept for sure. And the act of titular “burning”, burning away all the existence of things, or person, building up to as the story progresses. It’s all spiritually speaking of course, and it’s just one of many possible outcomes of this complex tale that just put up some major details and demand us to interpret the events ourselves (this quality reminds me of Haneke’s The White Ribbon). Instead, ambiguity and uncertainty make up another central theme of Burning. Throughout the course of this film, Jongsu receives many contradicting information as the story progresses, from the “invisible cat” he comes to feed everyday, to Haemi’s tale of her childhood memories, to the rich man Ben who claims he has a passion for greenhouse burning (which was an update from Murakami’s the Barn Burning) to the possibility of Haemi’s disappearance. Everything is just mere suggestion, or even maybe not, what if all these childhood tales and Jongsu’s increasingly suspicion that Ben has something to do with Haemi’s spirited away are the products of the characters’ minds? Of the ways they try make sense with their jealousy, class insecurity and their loneliness? In Burning, don’t take everything at face value. All characters have the parts of themselves hidden just like mysteries in a film that literally central about mystery. Everything that happened is just a tip of an iceberg, there’s a sea of emotions buried underneath that keep boiling up. Or using this movie titular theme, all these frustration and “slow-burn” progression keep burning up inside slowly, but gradually into the climax.
From the technical standpoint, the constant plot twist turns this story in unexpected directions, which is one of the reason why it keeps maintaining our interest even with 2 hour plus running time. It has all the ingredients of a solid suspense mystery, but it’s decidedly more of a psychological slow-burn drama with is much more interested in characters’ headspace. And delving deep into character’s headspace also means that our characters might be unreliable narrators. The cast more than delivers their roles. Ah-in Yoo, through the aloofness Jongsu, might feel a bit off at times, but it’s exactly the kind of character he inhibits. Jong seo-jun achieves her breakthrough performance here, a character who decidedly under Jongsu’s subjective male gaze. The cinematography turns from slow and first-person view in first half until quicker and nausea middle half, with is a nice change of pace of Lee Chang Dong’s body of work. Burning also touches the class tension as the film successfully displays the contrast in Jongsu’s and Ben’s houses, cars and how the former feels insecure to the latter, especially when it comes to Haemi. Lee Chang Dong again delivers another emotionally, thematically complex, poignant film where you feel the sense of despair and unsettling keeping piling up as each minute passes. It ranks amongst the best works from an exceptional director at the top of his game. It’s a slow-burn fire but the fire, once there, won’t be put out anytime soon.