Burning is the acclaimed 2018 film by director Lee Chang-dong, often seen as the first defining moment in which Korean cinema would be a step further to being embraced by mainstream Hollywood.
Lee Chang-dong is one of the few famous filmmakers in South Korea known outside of his home country, in which his work has received much attention and acclaim from international critics for years. Burning is the director’s first film since 2010’s Poetry, in which the film is loosely based on the short story Barn Burning by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami.
Yoo Ah-in plays Lee Jong-su, an aspiring creative writer whose seemingly boring life in Paju takes an interesting turn when he is reunited with childhood friend Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo). Her friendship provides a welcome detour, as Jong-su’s father is indicted for assault and he must take over his father’s small cattle farm. After Jong-su agrees to look over Hae-mi’s apartment and the duty of caring for her cat Boil when she goes away to Nairobi, the two begin a brief affair before her travels. When she returns from Africa, Jong-su is surprised to discover that Hae-mi has struck up a friendship-turned-relationship with the young, charming and wealthy Ben (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun), whose strange hobby disturbs Jong-su.
Unfamiliar with the work of Chang-dong, my experience of Korean cinema is brief but respected. I have enjoyed the works of Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, so Chang-dong’s Burning was already well-loved by critics (with a Metascore of 90) and it held the esteemed reputation of being in the final nine shortlist of the Academy’s 2018 contenders for Foreign Language Feature category in 2019. A grievous oversight in being snubbed, a film shroud in mystery and intrigue, Burning is an uncertain but highly accomplished piece of work.
Loosely based on the short story Barn Burning, the plot shares traits of the story in which it is fleshed out in a 148 minute thriller with an unmistakable Korean identity with unsuspecting and uncomfortable unease that is superbly effective. Its small moments such as of the farm being of enough proximity to hear the North Korean public announcements or Jong-su’s daily runs to misty and rural greenhouses are eerie. The power of Hong Kyung-pyo’s camerwork in which it lingers upon scenes for seconds too long adds to the growing tension between the three characters of Jong-su, Hae-mi and Ben.
Its title of Burning is apt, particularly in the layered plotting such as the film’s slow-burn pace, the burning sexual tension between Hae-mi and Jong-su in the first twenty minutes, the tense jealousy of Jong-su of Ben’s relationship with Hae-mi despite the unspoken and unseen triage that occurs between them, the wilted childhood memory of Jong-su’s enraged father and the dissolution of his relationship with his mother, and the strange and disturbing hobby that Ben reveals to Jong-su setting a growing paranoia. Whilst the film’s impact will not hit you immediately, its hypnotic power plants a slow growing seed in your mind that allows you piece together many of its puzzles. Chang-dong’s take on the short story and how this reinforces his clever direction is exceptionally executed, although its slow-burn running time will be off-putting for some, and the mystery can come across as meandering.
Yoo Ah-in’s naturalistic performance he brings to the unassuming protagonist is great, most intriguing is despite his character Jong-su being unlikable and seemingly aimless, we still follow his journey and unsavoury methods with hesitant curiosity that goes deeper into the mystery that transpires in the film’s second half. The dynamic between Joon-su and Ben is particularly anxiety-ridden throughout, with Yeun creating a collected, seemingly charming and handsome man with an outward air of such chilling and unassuming disconcertment towards Jong-su. In his second Korean film after Okja, Steven Yeun’s choice of this role is certainly well considered and adds another element to his range. The actor commented on his participation in Burning as ‘a wonderful experience‘ as it was one of the first times in his career where he felt he did not have to explain his Korean American identity and its relevance to the story; he could just be the character.
The film isn’t without its flaws, such as Hae-mi’s limited characterisation in which she becomes the central source of tension between the two men. Although misogyny seems to be a key theme to the story and in part to its brilliance, actress Jong-seo is given few moments to make a grander impression. An early scene in which Hae-mi discusses an African dance known as ‘Little Hunger Great Hunger’ and in both its philosophical and social class significance, which seems to be represented in Hae-mi’s want for more from her impoverished life. It could be considered as to why she clings on to her relationship with Ben for his wealth, whilst continuing her platonic companionship of Jong-su. That being said, I do also argue that another brief scene without titillation of her would’ve allows us to understand Hae-mi instead of relying on the words spoken about her from other characters, such as a scene when Jong-su goes to speak to Hae-mi’s distant family at their restaurant. Without giving much away, this may have been the intention of Chang-dong to add another sense of mystery to her presence on and off screen.
Burning burns brightly and slowly in the plus two hours it runs for, and its climatic ending is one that will discussed for years, whether you agree with the outcome or not. (I did). With its two male characters at odds, Chang-dong has created something both provoking and perplexing, but mark my words this is a film to be admired and not to be overtly questioned.