Roma isn’t the only great foreign film to watch out for this year.
There is no right or wrong. Just the morals of nature.
Perhaps my least favorite criticism of any film is a blanket statement that it is “pretentious.” Plenty of films do undoubtedly deserve that insult, but too often it’s a code word hurled at any film that aims to be art instead of simple entertainment. Films should not be dismissed out of hand because they find meaning in images and symbolism rather than dialogue, or refuse to offer easy answers. There’s an enormous difference between a filmmaker that is intellectually overmatched or offers blank spaces as a substitute for meaning, and one that understands and investigates how life itself is an inherent mystery that can only find catharsis through intrinsic reflection. As a devout Terrence Malick fan allow me to now step off my soap box.
I bring that up because it’s the exact type of criticism I can imagine being used to discount Lee Chang-dong’s new film, Burning, which exists as a compelling mystery drama with a series of slow-burning metaphors roiling underneath. It also features one of the year’s best performances from an unexpected source.
Burning is adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning,” which derives its own title from William Faulkner’s celebrated story of the same. The film bears all of the Japanese novelist’s hallmarks — unattainable women, mysterious animals, wells, and jazz among them. But what Burning most successfully adapts is Murakami’s sense of restlessness and unease about society, often finding elements of dark magical realism where David Lynch would find a seedy underbelly. Lee Chang-dong’s mastery of mood is impeccable, presenting a vision of South Korean society that’s as impenetrable to his characters as it is to the audience.
One day Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) happens upon his childhood neighbor Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo) while doing odd jobs at a local market. The pair decide to have dinner, and Jongsu is intrigued with Haemi’s transformation from a girl he once called ugly into an attractive young woman. Dinner leads to drinks, and later to sex, and Haemi soon asks Jongsu to watch her cat while she is away on a vacation to Africa. Devotedly smitten, Jongsu feeds the mysterious cat which leaves evidence of its existence throughout the apartment, but remains ever out of sight. When Haemi finally returns home she introduces Jongsu to her new friend Ben (Steven Yeun, The Walking Dead) who she bonded with while spending three days together hiding out from a terrorist attack at a Nairobi airport.
It could be the setup for dozens of films. Boy meets girl and falls in love. Girl meets new boy and romantic strife ensues. Lee Chang-dong, however, isn’t interested in anything so simple. Burning uses that strife as an investigation of youthful dread in the modern world. Ben is everything that Jongsu is not. He’s rich, handsome, and effortlessly confident, waving away questions about his career by saying that work and play have become one and the same in modern life. “I prefer to play,” he says with a wink. Jongsu refers to him as a Korean Gatsby, a metaphor that isn’t far off the mark.
While Ben’s occupation remains shadowy, Jongsu aspires to be a writer even though he can’t get his projects off the ground. He dreams of following in the steps of William Faulkner, but doesn’t seem to produce a single word of text. As such, neither he or Ben ever seems to work, but Ben owns in a spacious apartment in the Gangnam district while Haemi lives in a claustrophobic one-room apartment that only gets sunlight if it bounces off a nearby glass skyscraper for a few minutes a day. Jongsu haphazardly works a small family farm while his father serves a prison sentence for an unexplained assault on a neighbor. Even the serenity of the countryside is disturbed by propaganda broadcasts from the nearby North Korean border.
The trio begin a friendship with their unequal socioeconomics never being mentioned beyond Jongsu and Haemi’s constant amazement at Ben’s opulence, but there’s tension bubbling just under the surface. The situation never comes to a direct head, but it lingers in every interaction between Jongsu and Ben, whose envy is as much about class distinction as romantic rivalry. You can feel his jealousy over Haemi in every scene he and Ben share as he worries that every lunch, tea, or car ride will soon result in him being pushed to the side; yet he is also unable to reveal the depth of his feelings to Haemi.
Ben and Jongsu’s truce comes closest to an explosion in the film’s most riveting scene. Haemi and Ben unexpectedly drop in on Jongsu at his humble country home one evening and share a joint as the sun sets. The trio talk about their lives, and Haemi brings up her fixation with the bush dances she observed in Africa. She recounts fasting participants lifting up their hands and succumbing to the rhythm and dance until their desire for food is transformed into the “Great Hunger,” a need to find life’s meaning that reaches far deeper than physical appetite.
As Miles Davis blares from Ben’s Porsche, she strips off her clothes and dances hypnotically in the day’s dying light, fully enraptured by the marijuana and her own overwhelming desire to know the “Great Hunger.” She soon falls into an exhausted sleep leaving Ben and Jongsu to get high and continue to talk amongst themselves. Ben, succumbing to either friendship or the weed, soon reveals his private hobby, his own transcendent experience akin to Haemi’s dancing or Jongsu’s nights alone with his Faulkner: Every few months he burns down a greenhouse somewhere in the countryside. South Korea is littered with them, he says, and it’s not the type of crime the police would waste their time investigating. The greenhouses are worthless. Who would ever miss them? Furthermore, he confesses, he’s discovered his next target on this drive to Jongsu’s and it’s very close.
Jongsu’s fascination with the greenhouse burnings, or their metaphorical significance, becomes an obsession for the remainder of the film as he roams the countryside looking for Ben’s target and ruminating on Ben’s destruction. How can a rich man so easily decide a poor farmer’s property is worthless? That reflection also hides an innate curiosity on Jongsu’s part about how the other half lives. It’s both curious and envious, and it finds Jongsu soon igniting a stray strip of greenhouse plastic himself.
Yoo Ah-in will be a new face to many, but the film hangs on his performance. Anyone who bristles at the film’s later developments should consider how much Burning revolves around Jongsu’s character and whether its depiction of Haemi’s one-sided sexualized quirk is really the film’s own view, or the projection of an envious, angry young man. The same goes for Ben’s position as Jongsu’s rival, and as the film’s greatest mystery. Steven Yeun’s enigmatic, vampiric calm is equal parts scary and cool, and one of the most intriguing performances I’ve seen on screen this year. Ben’s dialogue isn’t specifically eerie on the page, but Yeun adds incredible depth to make it feel like there’s a hidden meaning behind every word. Coupled with his charismatic supporting performance in Sorry to Bother You, Yeun is quickly becoming one of film’s most interesting character actors. Glenn died on The Walking Dead so that Yeun’s acting career could live.
Burning is filled with enigmatic symbols that undergird its elusiveness. There’s Haemi’s previously mentioned invisible cat, the unknown nature of Jongsu’s father’s crimes, and everything about Ben’s past and lifestyle. Add to that the series of phone calls Jongsu receives where no one speaks at the other end of the line, and Jongsu’s striking dreams of standing in front of blazing greenhouses, to get a sense of what Burning asks the viewer to contemplate. Cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo says that dozens of shots of Jongsu jogging in the Paju fog were deleted because they were “too beautiful” for what the film was trying to achieve. I’d love to see them because the surviving shots are gorgeous, and with Haemi’s dance and Jongsu’s dreams comprise the highlights of the film’s fantastic visuals. Shoutout to any film that loves blues and purples in its color palette.
While much of Burning plays out as a near-thriller (including a cental mystery I’ve left unaddressed), its underlying themes offer extensive room for interpretation. Its plot beats feel less obvious than predestined, and that’s a reminder that the film’s mysteries are lurking under the surface. It’s a film about sex and class, envy and anger, and an investigation into the reliability of narration. It’s also two and a half hours long and entirely in Korean. That’s to say, it won’t be everybody’s cup of tea. Much like the equally excellent Roma, it’s measured pace is by design. Burning aims to lull the viewer into its rhythms and ethereal sense of place. It’s an impressive creation, and the work of a master. I was unfamiliar with Lee’s previous work, but Burning places him firmly on the world stage. I’ll be watching now.