A haunting and beguiling example of Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong’s mastery of character and mood, Burning is one of the best and most transfixing cinematic experiences of the year. Boasting a fitting title considering the film’s slow burning metaphorical narrative, the latest and best from Chang-dong (Poetry, Secret Sunshine) might seem self-indulgent from the outset, but once a mystery begins to form and a game is afoot, it’s clear that every seemingly inconsequential detail that had been previously doted upon will form key pieces of a masterful mental puzzle where some answers will remain forever out of reach. It demands and commands attention, and while there are perhaps more than a few similarities to the early work of Alfred Hitchcock, Burning is one of the few truly original motion pictures of the year.
Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-In) is a struggling writer working part time as a delivery man in Seoul. He lives just south of the North Korean border at his family’s farmhouse, keeping an eye on the property while his obstinate father sits in prison awaiting trial for assault charges. One day while on the job, he runs into Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), an attractive former classmate now working as a model for hire. They go on a bit of a date, and towards the end of it, she asks Lee if he’d be comfortable coming over to her practically microscopic bachelor apartment to feed her skittish cat while she goes on a spiritual sort of vacation to Africa. Lee agrees, and although he never actually sees the cat, the housesitting goes off without a hitch. Hae-mi returns early from her trip, and introduces Lee to a friend she met in Nairobi. Ben (Steven Yeun) is a well-to-do, Porsche driving, Gatsby-like high roller from Gangnam who starts hanging out with Lee and Hae-mi, but not long into their friendship and following some curious revelations, an unspoken rift develops between the two men and tensions slowly rise.
On top of being an accomplished filmmaker, director and co-writer Chang-dong is also a widely celebrated novelist, and Burning might be his most literary minded motion picture to date. It’s based on Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s short story Barn Burning, but outside of the underlying and superficial political and social trappings, Burning comes across as more western influences than easter. Instead of drawing upon works from Asian authors, Chang-dong looks to some of America’s most celebrated writers. Lee talks frequently and astutely about Ben’s comparisons to Fitzgerald’s Gatsby; both of whom are affluent, lonely, hard partying young men who have trouble enjoying their wealth and privilege in healthy, constructive ways. Yuen obliges brilliantly, playing Ben with a cheeky smile and an “I’ll do anything for fun and I refuse to cry” attitude that plays perfectly into the character’s eventually dodgy underpinnings. It’s the best role the versatile and underrated Yuen has been given, and here’s hoping his take on Jay Gatsby in a Chang-dong masterwork gets his cinematic performances more widely noticed.
The plot indeed cribs cleverly from Fitzgerald’s most celebrated novel, but on a tonal level, Burning is more deeply indebted to another author that Lee idolizes and name checks throughout: William Faulkner. Drawing on the author’s unparalleled talent for taking long, sometimes seemingly rambling moments to explain every little detail about a setting or a character’s motivations and holding plotting secondary, Chang-dong has admirably created the best visual approximation of a Faulkner work. If the film’s antagonist is a Fitzgerald creation, the put upon and ineffective protagonist is pure Faulkner.
The perpetually confused and frequently slighted Lee inhabits a very Faulknarian world where metaphors and allusions abound, but almost all of them are bound to be misread or misinterpreted. He lives an agrarian lifestyle by upbringing and by geography, but he has the soul of a great intellectual or philosopher. Pitting these two characters opposite each other in an increasingly sinister dance of wits and privilege is remarkable and rarely attempted by most storytellers. Burning is more than a tale about a blue collar and a white collar man feeling each other out over a considerable amount of time, but also a clever approximation of watching two of America’s greatest literary titans going into dubious battle in a Korean ring. Burning is the rare example of a film that will probably enthrall bookworms more than it does cinephiles.
That’s not to say that Burning isn’t a culturally specific work of cinema. There are many nods to political tensions in South Korea, and its tenuous, fraught relationship to its hard-line Communist neighbours to the north. The same literary parallels that arise naturally from the material lend themselves well to talk about any number of economic, social, and sexual fears faced by adults in their mid-20s and 30s. The depiction of Lee’s living in both an urban and rural world at the same time speaks to feelings of fiscal helplessness, rootlessness, and restlessness that adults of a similar age have felt in the new gig economy. Through the character of Ben, it’s apparent that moving ahead in the world is an attainable goal, but the gains made might not be worth the mental toll.
Burning takes a long time getting around to any sort of point, connective tissue, or clues as to what might be going on, but while the first hour of the film is quite a challenge to become invested in, Chang-Dong always finds clever ways of imbuing his films with haunting, indelible images. Most of the Burning’s first half is spent getting to know the characters in relationship to their respective environments. There’s more than enough spoken and overt exposition that will explain things, but questions about the characters’ deeper desires, motivations, dreams, and fears are gradually squeezed out of visual moments that initially appear like examples of a filmmaker throwing in a few extra notes for the sake of complication and the adding of loose metaphors: the sight of a tower in a distance, a flicker of light on a closet wall that hits at the same time every day, a cat’s litter box, rows of dilapidated greenhouses. They all appear curious at first, but these visuals provide the viewer with necessary information that the character’s aren’t willing to supply themselves. Burning is the kind of rich experience where everything stands for something and nothing is wasted or mishandled.
As the film’s narrative escalates into thriller territory, Burning seamlessly switches its overall message and approach. What initially shapes up as a metaphor for tearing down and destroying empty status symbols changes into something far more sinister and sharply pointed. Most of the material worth parsing for deeper meaning happens just as Burning enters its climactic stages, but the mechanics of what happens and what it all might mean are too good to spoil. Suffice to say, Burning is an intelligent and entertaining film crafted for smart, attentive, patient, and thoughtful audiences. It’s not something that can be watched passively, which is a rarity for any sort of world cinema these days. But for those willing to put in the work and effort, Burning will be one of the most rewarding cinematic experiences of the year.
Burning opens exclusively at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday, November 2, 2018. It expands to Vancouver on November 9.
Check out the trailer for Burning: