How complacent are we in our ability, or lack thereof, to retain memory in the fashion in which it is materialized? How complicit are we when inability to see past our own desires, our own justifications and belief systems leads us astray? When the world as we know it is on fire and when our hopes and dreams remain buried beneath cobwebs and ashtrays that fill the corners of our minds, how easily can we justify a world view that is ours and ours alone? In Lee Chang-dong’s masterful and stirring Burning, based on the similarly brilliant short story “Barn Burning” by popular Japanese author Haruki Murakami, he challenges us to see through eyes unclouded by our own unreliable self-built narrative and to peer around our hero’s point of view long enough to question his position in all of his isolation and the tragedy that befalls him.
Early in the film, the girl that Yoo Ah-in’s Jong-su is smitten with (the same girl he called ugly in their youth) tells him of her recent dabbling in pantomime, telling him that the trick to making it believable it to genuinely think that it’s real, that the orange that she’s peeling weighs down her hands and moistens the bed of her fingertips as she breaks into the skin. If we believe in something strongly enough, Chang-dong poses, we can justify anything because then it must be true. Such an idea stabilizes the backbone of the film that follows Jong-su as he grows increasingly delusional and paranoid once a strange man, a Gatsby in a country full of enigmatic Gatsby’s, Ben (Steven Yeun) enters their lives, leaving Hae-mi (newcomer Jeon Jong-seo) besotted and Jong-su distrustful of his motives. When one day Hae-mi mysteriously disappears, Jong-su becomes wrapped up in his own narrative of events to catastrophic results.
For a film with a title that promises such potential externalized destruction, the story is much more fascinated with internal debris and what happens when someone spends far too much time locked inside their own head.
Naked emotion compared to chilly aloofness is often juxtaposed, specifically in the best scene of the film and one of the finest scenes in the last decade as Hae-mi stands bare and broken against the sunset, dancing, her hands in the shape of birds trying to float along the skyline that she so often wishes to vanish into, the idea of oblivion taunting her but the fear of loneliness keeping her at bay. In the background, Ben and Jong-su look on, the former seeing little more than a plaything to be disposed of when he’s bored, demonstrated earlier with a wry, disinterest grin at her antics, and the latter, a girl he’s projected all of his ideals onto, never once stopping to ask her what she is looking for in a relationship and if they’re even in one. It’s masculine toxicity dancing with sincerity, nearly voyeuristic to behold as her silhouette is cloaked in shadows, her facial expressions hidden as her back faces us. The movements and the clarity of the scene offers the audience a chance at visceral joy, even as Hae-mi is burdened with inconsolable and quiet grief she’ll only hint at.
With all of the makings of your stereotypical manic pixie dream girl archetypes, what with her odd hobbies and flighty globe trotting tendencies, Hae-mi deconstructs this idea by shouldering the expectations of two ill suited men as we watch as both their attention hurts her. Ben is dismissive, Jong-su presumptuous, a “nice-guy” who happens himself upon a villain to play hero to, believing it is his job to save the girl when it might’ve been him who hurt her in the first place, as evidenced by his past, scarring remarks that he can’t recall yet she’ll never forget.
Jong-seo and Ah-in are tremendous as Jong-su and Hae-mi, both endearingly awkward in their early flirtations but imbuing both with barely concealed darkness so that we’re never lead to believe in their projected purity. It’s Yeun however, the most familiar face of the three, who makes the greatest impression as Ben, yet another character who in a lesser film would’ve been treated with little care for nuance. Yeun has always been a star, dating back to his The Walking Dead days and continuing through to his supporting work in Sorry to Bother You and Okja which made the case that he was more than ready to lead a film, carrying a movie star glint in his eyes and genuine talent to justify his success. In Burning he puts his charisma and depth to good use; he’s a sociopath detached from reality, his main hobby being burning down greenhouses that he deems imperfect enough to meet such a fate, bragging to Jong-su about how easily he can get away with it. It’s not a trait that makes for a likable character and yet, much to Jong-su’s chagrin (and our gain) he is likable with a nefariously sinister underbelly where the baring of his teeth could be seen as a sigm of amusement or a warning, wolfish grin.
The three share tremendous chemistry, with their sunset filled night of smoking and drinking red wine in dingy old chairs remarkable in their shared intrigue in one another and gravitational longing to be close. Without that chemistry that burns across the screen, the tension that follows would never have made as large an impact.
The artistry is remarkable and anyone unfamiliar with Chang-dong’s prior works will be overwhelmed with his ability to find beauty on screen in our ugliest moments. Humanistic in his unflinching look at our fallible natures and impulsive destructiveness, Chang-dong and Oh Jing-mi’s script is raw and unmerciful but never inherently cynical. He simply is intrigued by the gray in our world.
The work by cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo elevates a story that already manages to hover a foot above the ground. Kyung-pyo utilizes space, allowing it to dominate the screen the longer the film goes on. At the start of the film, Jong-su is lost in a sea of bodies, buried in busy streets when he reconnects with Hae-mi. As the film progresses, people disperse and Hae-mi and Ben become his worldview, no longer walking among the familiarity of harried strangers but instead running through barren farmland, retreating from society and into the narrative he’s built himself.
What the audience takes away from the film and it’s purposeful ambiguity will depend on just how dependable you find Jong-su’s perspective, a thrilling prospect because the answer to that ambiguity only makes for a small morsel of the cinematic feast Burning offers you. Its musings on life, the fascinating and unraveling character work and equally magnetic performances along with a film that from the ground up has been made by pure artists, Burning succeeds because it understands that the answers it refutes and the questions it refuses to grant closure to are only part of what makes an experience such as this so ultimately thrilling. Anything from Jong-su shoveling shit to watching he and Hae-mi smoke in vacant alleys and quiet pent house decks instantly enriches the story with all of the character work embedded into to the silence and unspoken words.
The journey makes it all significant and the in between moments spent with each character are moments that allow the final, desperate crescendo so deeply felt. It all matters – it all shapes perspective – Lee argues, as we look on as they feed an invisible cat and rummage through drawers or sip wine as flies swarm and a North Korean propaganda broadcast echoes in the background, or when a young woman weeps at a table, face flushed from food and drink while two men watch on, too busy dissecting one another to pay any attention to her pain.