Burning (2018) – dir. Lee Chang-dong

Science has always been my weakest subject, but I’ve always been somewhat attached to the idea of a physical change versus a chemical change. For anyone who hasn’t had a middle school chemistry lesson in a while–a physical change is when an adjustment is made to a substance that does not necessarily change the atomic composition, such as breaking a piece of plastic, or even freezing water into an ice cube. Meanwhile, a chemical change irreversibly alters the makeup of something; think rusted metal, or lighting something on fire. The severity of that latter idea, of a chemical change, has always seemed bittersweet to me. Almost frightening, even, that parts of the natural world can only exist once before being transformed forever.

Burning has very little to do with concrete science, but is obsessive in the film’s dissection of memory and making drastic decisions based on tenuous ideas of one’s past. In fact, Lee Chang-dong’s smoldering drama, adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning,’ largely preoccupies itself with what the film’s characters think they know and see. In fact, Burning teaches us how to navigate the story early on, as one character pantomime’s eating an orange. Are we to believe what we see? What is real, and who is to be trusted? Burning is predicated on the idea of tangible knowledge, of forming an understanding of others and what they tell us, while consistently withholding clear answers.

Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is on the onset of adulthood, and is fairly aimless. He has finished school. His conscription is up. He’s an aspiring writer, but doesn’t know what to write. Even his father’s lawyer suggests he draw from his client’s life. In the meantime, Jong-su works odd jobs around Seoul, and is taking care of the farm where he grew up, while his dad awaits sentencing for assaulting a cop. At the start of the film Jong-su happens upon his childhood acquaintance, a mercurial, starry-eyed Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo). She, too, is working a small gig, flirting with crowds to get them to shop wherever she’s posted. Though Jong-su does not recognize Hae-mi at first, they begin a casual relationship with one another–one that doesn’t have much spark, but that moves the film forward.

Jong-su is silently smitten with Hae-mi–who, while clearly still coasting on an old crush on Jong-su, also harbors some passive resentment for how he treated her when they were kids, as well as some bitterness for his inability to remember her the way she remembers him. While Hae-mi is on sabbatical in Africa, Jong-su is tasked with taking care of her cat Boil. Jong-su never even sees Boil, but he enters Hae-mi’s apartment, having found eaten food and a used litter box. Jong-su will also use his visits to Hae-mi’s apartment to masturbate by the window, longing for Hae mi. This is one of the more striking recurrences, because of how vulnerable the act is, but also eggs at this primal drive that the characters are not aware of, but that lurks under the surface of the film.

Hae-mi returns after a few weeks abroad, having made a new friend Ben (Steve Yeun): The only other Korean at the Nairobi Airport where the two were stuck after a nearby bombing. Ben is a foreboding development. Ben’s role is not totally clear, even if he his personality is. Or rather, his Gatsby-esque personality as seen through Jong-su’s envious gaze. Jong-su’s jealousy doesn’t take much of a leap, either. Ben is older, but not much. He is rich, good looking, unflappably charismatic, drives a Porsche, and knows the best tripe restaurants in Seoul. He’s not forthcoming about his profession–he plays, which if a person is as wealthy as he is, why not?–but has lots of friends and likes Miles Davis. And just as Jong-su’s inferiority towards Ben is logical, so is Hae-mi’s interest in Ben.

Now, not enough can be said about Steve Yeun’s blink-and-miss brilliant performance. Yeun is so natural and so subtle in the way he brings Ben to life. He doesn’t lean into the predictably douchey qualities of an affluent playboy, but despite his amiable smile and soft voice, they’re visible in Ben’s eyes. Most of the time, Ben is bored, and Lee regularly frames Yeun as detached from a group, or will cut between Yeun by himself, with others involved in each other’s company. At one point, Hae-mi tells him and Jong-su about her time in Africa, which brings her to tears. While Jong-su–the writer–is at a loss for words because he is often speechless, Ben just stares blankly, adding only that he does not understand crying, as he hasn’t cried in years. The only time he looks involved is when he may dominate an interaction. While the three of them are out for tea, Ben does a small magic trick for Hae-mi. As he’s performing, Ben flashes Jong-su the tiniest shit-eating grin. While Jong-su is not a total brat about Ben and Hae-mi’s dalliance, one need not be a keen-eyed film critic to notice that Jong-su isn’t wild about the coupling. Ben is smart and petty enough to find a way to dominate an interaction, just so he can.

During an impromptu, stoned hangout on Jong-su’s farm in Paju, Ben confides in Jong-su that he has a hobby of torching old greenhouses. This is simply the way of nature. And Ben likes to believe he is as great a force as nature, if not above nature altogether. This is a man who likens cooking for himself unto cooking for a God, simply because he can make pasta the way he prefers. This is the most personal Ben is willing to be, and as the film goes on, one is not unsure if Ben is honest when he admits to being a serial arsonist. Still, Ben claims he’s due for another burning, and has come to Paju–a rural community, lousy with greenhouses–to find a suitable location.

Soon after this meeting, which ends rather harshly, Hae-mi goes missing. Where the first half of the film is a, well, slow burn where the film takes restraint to the antsiest of heights, the second half blows everything up, often leaving just as many questions as answers. In that sense, Burning turns into Eyes Wide Shut, right up until the end.  Jong-su splits his time between trying to track down Hae-mi, and keeping an eye on the greenhouses in Paju. They all lead him back to Ben. Jong-su wants to pin everything on Ben. Because why wouldn’t someone in Jong-su’s position want to be proven right? Early in the film, Hae-mi recounts a story where she fell into a well near her house as a child, and how Jong-su rescued her hours later. Jong-su asks about the incident to multiple people–including Hae-mi’s family–and no one can even agree if a well even existed. Does Hae-mi spin yarns just so she can hold some sway over Jong-su?

Burning can feel punishingly unknowable. This is something the film does on purpose. At one point, Jong-su is hanging around the house, watching the news, and a Trump speech is played in English, and then contextualized by Korean reporters. What they say is a version of events, but not completely accurate. Lee is clearly interested in perspective–something he only really breaks from Jong-su once. He’s not interested in justice, or family, or creativity as practices or overarching concepts. Rather, Lee is interested solely with Jong-su’s relationship to these aspects of his life as they relate to him. Burning is rife with motifs that keep the film very insular, and almost explains why the film reduces the role of women in the narrative. While Hae-mi is not exactly a manic-pixie-dream-girl–she at least does have a life that one can imagine apart from Jong-su and Ben–she also doesn’t have much of an arc. She enters the story, presents conflict between the two men, and her purpose is fulfilled.

To the film’s credit–or at least to Jeon’s feverish performance–Hae-mi’s presence lingers, haunting us the way she seems to haunt Jong-su. And for as much as Burning revels in being mysterious, the perhaps the greatest moment of clarity of the film’s goals belongs to Hae-mi. During their countryside shindig, as our three principle players sit outside, getting high and watching the sun fall beneath the horizon, Ben puts on some Miles Davis. Hae-mi wordlessly stirs, disrobes, and moves wildly to the music. Hae-mi’s motions are oddly hypnotic. Too childlike to be erotic or to feel exploitative. For all his patience, Lee can’t help but close the first half without showing his hand. At the end of the day, Burning can’t escape such a primal display of passion. Of desire. Of freedom. Burning begins and ends with a fire of some kind, one that belongs to the men, but if the film has an iconic moment, Hae-mi’s twilight dance is a safe bet. Whipping back and forth, glowing with the sunset before her.

Rating – 9.0/10




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s