Is the truth what you think it is? Or is it what others tell you? Is any of this shit actually real? In Lee Chang-dong’s dark, cinematic poem, Burning, the truth is a matter of both perspective and interpretation, in spite of and because of the facts at hand. Based on Haruki Murakami’s short story, “Barn Burning,” the film follows Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a young man who must move home in the face of his father’s legal troubles. Before he leaves the city, he meets a young woman from his village, Shin Haemi (newcomer Jeon Jong-seo). Aloof, strange, and a fan of pantomime, Haemi seduces Jong-su with both her intelligence and her affect.
Their relationship crystallizes when she asks him to watch her cat–Boil–while she travels to Africa to meet the “bushmen” and observe their cultural practices. However, when she returns, she has Ben (Steven Yuen) in tow. Intelligent, dashing, handsome, mysteriously rich and equipped with a shark’s emotional palette, Yuen wears Ben’s character like a skin-tight suit, presenting everything Jong-su isn’t. As the triangle of emotions intensifies, things quickly become apparent that something is off with Ben. Soon thereafter, Haemi disappears and Jong-su is left reeling, looking for answers, her whereabouts and more.
At a marathon-esque 2 hours and 40 minutes, Burning peels itself back slowly, tactfully and patiently like a sinister onion. So much so that when its central conceit comes to murky light, you’ll still have much to go before the credits roll. Despite this, the film is a masterwork of filmmaking that concerns itself with construction and pacing; Lee Chang-dong stretches time to its limit, but not without merit. Early in the film, he builds an interesting maze of pathos, showing Jong-su ’s routine while Haemi traipses around in the motherland. From visiting his father’s trial to tending to the farm in his absence, to quietly but emphatically masturbating in her room (before or after feeding her cat, we’re not always sure), these slices of life build a strong foundation upon which we can understand Jong-su ’s infatuation with and connection to Haemi. Like a good tea, they brew the character’s life to potency, allowing conflict to have meaning as we see Haemi wooed by Ben’s wiles and style.
“…Haemi disappears and Jong-su is left reeling, looking for answers, her whereabouts and more.“
And he does indeed have both. A member of South Korea’s elite nouveau-riche class, Ben is part Gatsby, part Talented Mr. Ripley. His quietly sinister presence is as elegant and ostentatious as the real-life trappings of hypercapitalism in South Korea. Ben’s nationality is never explicitly mentioned, but he does seem to have an affinity for Western life and culture—Italian pasta, western novelists, and even his Porsche. Together, they are signifiers of his foreignness, both literal and figurative. He is a child of diaspora: at once of South Korea, and yet, not exactly so. It’s a ripple in the fabric of the narrative that exacerbates the differences between himself and Jong-su.
Moreover, Burning punctuates this sore point with some choice sound-bites in its first movement. In this scene, Jong-su works around the farmhouse in Paju, a city close to the North-South Korean border, while the TV plays. There, the news reports on Trump imperiling the world while South Korea deals with its own high unemployment rate amongst young people. Jong-su himself is unemployed, scraping together a living with some luck due to his father’s farm. Ben’s swaggering then, in his luxury apartment with his fancy Porsche, his fancy clothes, his fancy friends and his fancy food is not just an affront to Jong-su—it’s a sociopolitical thorn that points to a growing divide between South Korea’s sociopolitical classes along both lines of privilege and culture. This meta conversation is furthered when the titular concept of the film is introduced: Ben has a thing for burning old, “disgusting” greenhouses around South Korea’s countryside. Intimated during a surprise visit to Jong-su’s farmhouse, Ben’s revelation scares Jong-su, but not as much as it should. For Ben, his firebug tendencies are set in a deep belief that all these greenhouses—decrepit, forgotten, unseen and untended by South Korea’s authorities—are simply waiting for him to destroy them with flame.
This Tao of Torching could be interpreted as a form of Manifest Destiny: as the representative of Western ideals and capitalistic pursuits, Ben is literally burning the old vestiges of South Korean society for something ‘new’ and ‘fresh.’ It’s a terrifying concept that is an inflection the much less meta-reading of Ben’s pursuits, which I will not spoil. But when understood, it does add some interesting and alarming depth to the class- and culture-based conversation here. That said, once Ben’s dark activities are sussed out, Jong-su switches gears, and the audience is pulled into an arduous chase.
“…purposely creates a narrative minefield, wherein we’re never quite sure what we saw.”
Instead of gratifying our appetites for quick retribution, Lee Chang-dong inverts everything. Much as he did with the cyclical vignettes during Haemi’s trips, we see Jong-su stalk Ben—waiting outside his apartment, tailing him on the highway, constantly investigating. This manifests formally as a series of repeated frames; Jong-su’s view from his farm truck, carefully constructed shots that eventually pull out to wide takes delineating the power dynamics between Ben and Jong-su. Paired with the many beautiful wide shots of Jong-su’s feverish jogs through Paju’s countryside, Chang-dong paints a patient, neurotic and engrossing mindstate. Jong-su is always a step or two behind Ben, in every sense. So much so that the film’s conclusion springs forth with a violence—the only violence we see on screen—that is as abrupt and complex as the film’s entirety.
While surface level readings of the film will maintain a Singular Truth™ about Burning, I’d argue that Lee Chang-dong purposely creates a narrative minefield, wherein we’re never quite sure what we saw. Like a brooding nightmare, Burning washes over audiences with passing visions of multiple lives, secrets and betrayals, all leading to no single, clean-cut or simple explanation. Without stanning too much, Burning is an engrossing, frightening world that edges right up until its climax.
Burning (2018), directed by Lee Chang-dong, starring Yoo Ah-in, Jeon Jong-seo, Steven Yuen.
10/10 Pantomimed tangerines