“Burning” is a South Korean film by Lee Chang-dong that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this May. It is currently in its limited theatrical run for consideration for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, so go see it if you have the chance. It is adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning.” “Burning” features Yoo Ah-in as Lee Jong-soo, Jun Jong-seo as Shin Hae-mi, and Steven Yeun (from “The Walking Dead”) as Ben. This is the first exclusively Korean film that Yeun, a Korean American, has appeared in (last year’s “Okja” was mostly in English). In “Burning,” Yeun’s diasporic identity is perfectly suited for his enigmatic and distant character. Anchored in the mystery surrounding Ben, the three actors form a beautiful and intense triangle that fuels the central drama of this slow-burning character study; but rest assured, this is not your typical love triangle.
Lee is an aspiring writer in contemporary Korea but is currently underemployed, doing odd jobs despite his college education. During one of these jobs, he runs into Shin, who grew up with him in a remote town right outside of Seoul. After she pushes him to ask her out, the two start seeing each other until she decides to go on a vacation in Kenya, leaving him for a couple of weeks. She comes back with the charismatic and mysterious Ben, whom she met in Kenya. Ben is incredibly wealthy for his age, but when asked what he does for a living, he replies that he just “plays.” There is something off about Ben and his plastic smile. You can never tell what’s really going on in his head. One day, he reveals his odd hobby of burning down a greenhouse every two months and tells Lee that he plans to burn another one soon near Lee’s father’s farmhouse where he, Lee, and Shin are staying for the night. However, the day after the three of them spend the night at the farmhouse, Shin inexplicably vanishes without a trace, leaving the already bewildered Lee confounded as he tries to solve the mystery. He begins by searching for all the greenhouses in his area.
Although “Burning” is ostensibly a thriller due to its plot and dark tone, not a lot actually happens over the course of its 148-minute runtime. It is worth noting that the short story on which this film is based is only five pages. The film prioritizes its characters over anything else as it follows Lee’s mundane day-to-day life and his seemingly meaningless interactions and conversations with the other characters. Contrary to the general rule of cinematic storytelling, the characters do not drive the action. Instead, Lee is stuck in a reality in which he controls little and knows less. Key events happen off screen and are never explained, leaving both Lee and the viewer completely in the dark. And though the film is shot through Lee’s perspective, “Burning” never concedes access to Lee’s thoughts by means of voice-over narration — even Lee can never be fully understood as a character. But that’s what makes these characters and this film so fascinating. Nothing is what it seems at first. Nothing should be taken literally. In fact, it is the film’s laggardly pace and minimalistic narrative that forces the viewer to pay attention to the smallest details and assign meaning and depth to them in a wide range of interpretations. The film demands multiple viewings.
Due to the ambiguous plot and even more ambiguous characters, there is a definitive streak of existentialism throughout the movie. Lee is an aimless protagonist haunted by the mystery of life as he navigates contemporary society. His desperation for concrete answers is heightened by Shin’s sudden disappearance as he realizes how easily things can just vanish and be forgotten, like a puff of smoke. The film is also laced with politics: gender politics, unemployment, class struggle, etc. However, unlike most political films, “Burning” combines questions of morality and purpose with politics in a way that is more thought-provoking and equivocal than it is didactic. “Burning” is never predictable, and its purportedly daunting runtime passes by in an instant before it concludes with a final scene that is well worth the wait, even if it still does not provide any answers. Admittedly, its lack of a clear explanation and rather frustrating elusiveness may not be for everyone, but it is undoubtedly a film that people will discuss years from its release.
Feature image courtesy of wikipedia.org