By Liam Lacey
Some of the best mysteries have a way of scrubbing experiences fresh, using familiar elements to reveal forgotten or suppressed psychological places. Such is the case with the Korean drama Burning, a thriller about a romantic triangle between an awkward young man, Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a free-spirited woman Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo), and a rich and careless playboy, Ben (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yuen). When Hae-mi abruptly disappears, things get dark and complicated.
Burning, which seems sure to end up on a lot of critical top-10 lists, is less a conventional thriller than a dramatic composition of ambiguity and anxiety so thick it’s practically viscous. Behind the shell game of motives between the three main characters, there are subtle perceptions about class, youth alienation, and disposable people in contemporary Korea.
The director, 64-year-old Lee Chang-dong, has been a playwright, novelist, Minister of Culture and Tourism (really) and a filmmaker of international impact with his novelistic films about women struggling with loss (Secret Sunshine from 2007 and Poetry from 2010). Burning is his sixth film as director, and possibly his film with the widest appeal. To begin with, it’s based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, “Barn Burning,” which in turn reconfigured elements from a 1939 William Faulkner story of the same name about a boy and his pyromaniac father.
The film unfolds in a way that is both realistic and deceptively casual. Jong-su, an awkward delivery man, is pushing through the crowded streets when he notices Hae-mi standing outside a shop wearing a sexy outfit, promoting a raffle. She greets him, reminding him that they knew each other as children, when he once crossed a street to call her ugly. She invites him to meet her for a cigarette during her break. Jong-su tells her he has finished military service and college and is now trying to be a writer. In a memorable touch of crude intimacy, they pass a plastic cup back and forth to spit out the tobacco bits.
Things move fast. They go for a meal and she pantomimes, sensually miming eating a tangerine and showing off her distraction skills. (The trick, she says, is not to pretend something is there but “to forget that it isn’t.”) She asks him to take care of her cat while she goes on a trip to Kenya. After, she invites him her to a dark cramped apartment and they have sex. Jong-su seems almost in shock; his eyes roam the room and focuses on a glimpse of light from the afternoon sun.
For the next couple of weeks, he goes back to being alone and taking care of the remnants of the family farm. His father, who has a violent temper, is in jail awaiting trial for assaulting a local official and his mother left years before. Then Jong-su gets a phone call from Nairobi. Hae-mi is coming home. But when he meets her at the airport, she arrives with a new boyfriend, Ben, who’s handsome, rich, and sociopathic. When Hae-mi tells a story about how she cried at an African sunset, he says, “It’s fascinating to me when people cry.” Ben takes a friendly, perhaps sadistic, interest in Jong-su, insisting he tag along on dates with Hae-mi, inviting him to hang with his mysteriously rich friends.
“Nowadays, for us, there’s no difference between working and playing,” says Ben, sounding all-too credibly like a Silicon Valley jerk.
Not everyone can play. The background radio and TV reports on social and political tremors feature both Donald Trump and North Korea propaganda messages. There’s also news of epidemic youth unemployment, which Hae-mi and Jong-su know about firsthand.
At the midpoint in the movie, there’s an astonishing pivotal scene when Ben and Hae-mi drive out in Ben’s Porsche to Jong-su’s rundown farm for a visit. They sit on the veranda and share a joint as the evening sun dwindles and then Hae-mi takes off her blouse and dances. Jong-su stares in indignant lust and Ben yawns. Later, Hae-mi cries and falls asleep, as she often does. Ben and Jong-su sit and converse or rather, exchange overlapping monologues. Jong-su recounts how his father’s anger destroyed the family. In response, Ben mentions his own peccadillo: He gets a thrill out of burning down abandoned greenhouses. He adds, ominously, that he’s planning on burning one soon nearby.
Shortly after, Hae-mi disappears — possibly murdered, possibly just dodging credit card debt. Jong-su begins to search for her, driving and running through the countryside, looking for burnt greenhouses and tracking Ben’s Porsche through the city, seeking evidence of a crime. Ben remains friendly, saying he doesn’t know where Hae-mi went, either, but doesn’t seem concerned,
The movie’s pace sags during the long stretch of Jong-su’s simmering buildup, though it provides enough time to plant viewers’ doubts in every direction before we arrive at a climax which is both predictable and shocking. Possibly, we’ve had too many stories, real and fictional, about young men who lash out against their own erasure through acts of violence but in the telling, Burning is near-perfect.
Burning. Directed by Lee Chang-dong. Written by Lee Chang-Dong and Oh Jung-mi. Starring Steven Yeun, Yoo Ah-in, Jun Jong-seo. Opens in select theatres (including Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox) November 2.