BURNING (BEONING) 2018: a daring study of class conflict and sexual longing that blazes with mystery

Burning is the first film in eight years from South Korea’s Lee Chang-dong, a director whose challenging, ambiguous films – Oasis (2002), Secret Sunshine (2006), Poetry (2010) – are the kind that grow and grow in the mind afterwards. Sex, envy and pyromania make for a riveting mystery in Lee Chang-dong’s masterfully crafted Murakami adaptation.

Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is a superbly shot and sensuously score movie, a mystery thriller about obsessive love taken from a short story by Haruki Murakami. But with something of Patricia Highsmith or maybe the kind of Ruth Rendell novel that Claude Chabrol might have film.

It’s a psychological drama set in the modern consumerist Korea of the callous Gangnam-style rich and poor young people who often go invisibly to ground, pursue by credit-card debt.

Two childhood friends, who grew up in a farming village outside of Seoul, meet as adults, at random. They haven’t seen one another in years. They go out for drinks and reminisce. The young woman has been studying pantomime, and she shows off some of what she has learn.

She pantomimes eating a tangerine and her gestures are so specific you could swear the tangerine was really there. He is amazed at the illusion. She tells him that if he ever is hungry for anything, he can create it on his own like this.

Everyone is hungry for something in “Burning,” the new film from South Korean master Lee Chang-dong.

How that hunger manifests, and what hunger even signifies, is up for debate. The debate itself is too dangerous to even be spoken out loud, since it threatens the class status quo. Base loosely on Haruki Murakami’s short story Barn Burning, “Burning” is Lee’s first film in eight years. It is a bleak and almost Darwinian vision of the world, survival of the fittest laid bare in sometimes shocking brutality.

The three main characters circle warily, looking at each other with desire, mistrust, need, never certain of the accuracy of their perceptions. Lee’s explorations require depth and space. It’s a great film, engrossing, suspenseful, and strange.

Burning is base around an enigma – a vanishing. Whose solubility or otherwise becomes progressively less important to the protagonist than his hurt feelings, his wounded love, his damage soul and his toxic male envy. Yoo Ah-in gives a tremendous performance as Jongsoo, a country boy from Paju, near Panmunjom on the 38th parallel, a rural area where you can hear the echoes of propaganda announcements from the North.

He has an open, friendly, slightly goofy face that belies a thoughtfulness: Jongsoo wants to be a writer and admires American authors like William Faulkner and F Scott Fitzgerald. His mum walk out when he was a kid, and his angry, lonely farmer dad – a military veteran with a fierce collection of knives – is in legal trouble for assaulting a government inspector.

Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo), the young man enraptured by the pantomime, dreams of being a writer.

His favorite author is Faulkner, because—he says—every time he reads a Faulkner story, it feels like his own. This makes sense since it takes a while for us to understand the layout of Jongsu’s life. So hazy is it with strange relationships, missing figures, blank spaces. His father is in trouble with the law for assaulting another farmer, although the details remain vague. His mother took off when he was little.

When he runs into Haemi, (Jong-seo Jun), a girl he grew up with, dancing outside a store giving off raffle tickets, he almost doesn’t recognize her. “Plastic surgery,” she grins. Almost before he knows what has happen, he and Haemi have sex, and he agrees to feed her cat while she takes a trip to Africa. Rattling back and forth between Seoul and the family farm in his battered pickup truck, he is caught in an in-between state, dreaming of Haemi. Waiting for her return, shoveling food for the cows, or putting out food for her cat—a cat who is never seen or heard. It’s impossible to avoid the speculation that there is no cat, that Haemi made it up.

Now Jongsoo is a graduate, living in Seoul with no obvious prospects. When a young woman doing a department-store lottery catches Jongsoo’s eye as he slopes past and fixes it for him to win a prize. This is Haemi (the excellent Jeon Jong-seo). She tells him he knew her in high school – that he was mean to her but on one crucial occasion help her. Jongsoo has no memory of this, but things take their course.

After Haemi has taken off for a planned trip to Africa, Jongsoo is excite when she calls, asking to be pick up at the airport. But when Haemi comes out of Arrivals, it is with her new best friend. Ben (Steven Yeun), a rich, handsome young man, well-travelled and worldly, who greets the stun, dismay Jongsoo with frankness and charm, utterly unintimidated.

“Burning” takes place in a world of fluctuating and amorphous borders, invisible yet pressing in on the characters.

Jongsu’s village is on the border of North Korea. Where the air is pierc with shrieking propaganda from a loudspeaker across the hills, creating a sense of emergency among the gentle pastoral landscape, like some attack is imminent, like something dreadful lurks beyond the horizon.

Haemi’s cat is literally Schrodinger’s cat, caught in a borderland between being and non-being. The food vanishes, the litter box is full, but the cat never manifests. The phone rings repeatedly at Jongsu’s farm, but no one’s on the other end. Just empty space and dead air. Images and motifs repeat, creating a fractal effect.

Closets are important: each character has a closet containing secrets, mysteries (a shaft of reflecte light, a gleaming knife, a pink plastic watch). Fire is important: For Haemi, it’s the fire that the Kalahari Bushmen dance around. For Jongsu, it is the bonfire of his mother’s clothes in the backyard, one of his only clear memories from childhood.

And for Ben, as he casually admits to Jongsu.

Almost daring Jongsu to be shock, it’s the greenhouses he burns down in his spare time. “You burn down other people’s greenhouses?” Jongsu asks. Ben, smiling smoothly, his face telling no tales, nods.

In one extraordinary sequence, Haemi and Ben drive out to visit Jongsu on his farm. The three sit out on the patio, get ston and watch the sun set, the tree leaves rustling overhead, the light growing dimmer and dimmer. Haemi takes off her shirt and dances on the patio, staring off at the hills of North Korea. Her silhouette undulating against the pink and purple glowing sky.

Both Jongsu and Ben are frozen in their seats, as they watch her fluid gestures.

Her primal openness to the beauty of her own experiences. Jongsu had seen this in her when she pantomimed the tangerine. He fell in love with this part of her. Ben yawns again. By the end of the dance, she is in tears. Jongsu now knows that Ben is, apparently, an enthusiastic amoral arsonist. There’s a serious and alarming sense of danger, only you can’t really point to its source. The whole of “Burning” feels like this.

There’s so much disorienting background noise in “Burning,” the traffic, the ringing of the phone, the street music, the loudspeaker blaring North Korean propaganda. Trump on the television in the corner of the room. It’s hard for anyone to keep their thoughts straight; it’s hard to believe what might be staring you right in the face.

The tension between “what is” and “what isn’t,” start with Haemi’s beautiful tangerine pantomime, is in urgent operation throughout. Things are never what they seem. Or, perhaps, they are, and that’s even worse to contemplate. The tangerine is delicious but it’s invisible. It won’t provide sustenance for long. The cat was never there. Haemi made it all up. Greenhouses don’t provide space for things to grow, they just stand there in the fields waiting for the arsonist’s match.


Rating: NR
Genre: Art House & International, Drama, Mystery & Suspense
Directed By: Chang-dong Lee
Stars: Ah-in Yoo, Steven Yeun, Jong-seo Jun
Written By: Oh Jung-Mi, Chang-dong Lee
In Theaters: Oct 26, 2018 Limited
On Disc/Streaming: Jan 29, 2019
Runtime: 148 minutes
Studio: Well Go USA Entertainment

Jake Wilson
This is the kind of film that all but demands a second viewing in order to appreciate the complex elegance of the design, assembled from details systematically calculated to lend themselves to more than one interpretation.

Trevor Johnston
So much ambiguous detail to ponder, while the visual design insidiously marks your memory.

Adam Graham
Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning” will leave you breathless.

Ben Sachs
The film paints vivid portraits of three distinct characters and inspires sympathy with a bewildered protagonist; moreover, it depicts a particular social milieu in such a way that one comes to see it as existing beyond the subjects’ control.

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