Jong-su bumps into a girl who used to live in the same neighbourhood who asks him to look after her cat while on a trip to Africa. After returning, she introduces him to Ben, a mysterious man she met there, who confesses his secret hobby.
“To me, the world is a mystery,” confesses the main character of Burning, the astonishing new film from director Lee Chang-dong. Enigmas riddle this provocatively opaque story about a lost young man, the woman he falls for, and the insinuating stranger whose motivations are as unknowable as almost everything else that follows. Ah-in Yoo is remarkable as Burning’s ineffectual, withdrawn protagonist: he’s the perfect vessel for Lee’s grand treatise on the immutable fact that none of us truly understands anyone or anything — not even, in the case of this quietly devastating film, the precise genre of the movie we’re absorbing.
Screening in Cannes, Burning is the first film from Lee since 2010’s Poetry, which won Best Screenplay at the festival. Cinephiles will cheer the South Korean’s long-awaited return, and although his movies are limited commercial players, the presence of The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun among the ensemble could boost visibility.
Yoo plays Jongsu, a twentysomething deliveryman who encounters Haemi (Jong-seo Yun), who he knew in childhood but hasn’t thought about in years. Reminding him that he was once cruel about her looks — which Jongsu doesn’t remember — this beautiful woman seduces the deliveryman, starting an impromptu relationship. But soon, Haemi asks for a favour: she’s leaving for an African trip, so would he be willing to housesit her cat while she’s gone? Jongsu obliges, although he begins to doubt her feelings for him once she returns with a handsome, wealthy new friend named Ben (Yeun).
Based on a Haruki Murakami short story, Burning consistently leaves us uncertain about how to process the information presented to us in a film that is populated by three characters hiding parts of themselves. Jongsu never does see a cat at Haemi’s tiny apartment, although its food is eaten each time he returns. Haemi tells a traumatic story about falling down a well as a child — which isn’t remembered by Jongsu, who later receives contradictory information about the incident. The origin of Ben’s wealth is unclear — not that the jealous Jongsu doesn’t try to wrest the information out of his rival — and even the exact nature of Ben’s relationship with Haemi remains ambiguous.
The perplexities extend to Lee’s deftly executed story arc. At first, Burning appears to revolve around this romantic triangle. But Lee, who in earlier work such as Secret Sunshine and Poetry proved to be a master at dramatising the complexity of human beings, subtly starts to shift Burning’s tone, keeping us bracingly unmoored.
Burning’s performances require comparable degrees of shading. We see hints of Jongsu’s difficult childhood — an abandoned family home, a violent father on trial — but the spectacularly stoic Yoo refuses to share what is going on behind his character’s melancholy eyes. And yet, the actor convincingly illustrates that something is drawing him to Haemi and Ben — especially to Ben, who has replaced him as Haemi’s paramour.
The growing connection Jongsu feels toward his rival opens the door for a bizarre confession that, rather than being a narrative game-changer, merely deepens the mystery of what is going on beneath these characters’ placid exteriors. Burning is filled with incidents that can be interpreted in different ways, and that lack of certainty starts to take its toll on Jongsu, whose attempts to win back Haemi seem to speak to something deeper, and more troubling, within himself that he can’t reconcile. It would be criminal to disclose precisely where Burning is headed, but this muted film unloads small surprises that end up having huge ripple effects, building to a finale that’s shocking without feeling manipulative or unearned.
Yeun is excellent as an almost stereotypical romantic rival, slyly lording his status and confidence over the timid Jongsu. Still, there are flickers of vulnerability within Ben, which only makes him more puzzling: Is he toying with Jongsu or trying to extend an olive branch? Yun intentionally plays Haemi as a distant figure — the fetching love interest whom Jongsu may be idealising. Potentially distorted perceptions are commonplace in Burning, which is about how we view others and ourselves — and what we do with that hopelessly inconclusive information. Once again, Lee has crafted a film of wondrous complexity and inscrutability. The more we see in Burning, the less sure we are of what we are watching.
TIM GRIERSON, SENIOR US CRITIC, Screen Daily, 17th May 2018.
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.
That rule particularly applies here, because of a skin-crawling climactic scene, brilliantly orchestrated, which bathes every previous one in a chilly, but retrospectively-there-all- along, new light. What precedes is a study of buried class conflict in contemporary Seoul, of unspoken rage, palpable alienation and sexual longing. But it keeps a remarkably tight lid on all these simmering themes, until the shocking eruption in store.
The film’s mysterious immensity is especially striking given the source, “Barn Burning” – a typically refined, 10-page short story by Haruki Murakami, with the same title as one by William Faulkner. Lee has built a carefully modulated story of his own around Murakami’s matchbox of an idea, about two rival suitors, one of whom makes a strange – and not necessarily trustworthy – confession about arson.
The main character is Jongsoo (Yoo Ah-in), a young, working-class guy from a farming background, whose father, who never speaks, is in and out of courtrooms, because of a repeated pattern – this comes from Faulkner – of vengeful and violent behaviour.
At the very start, Jongsoo meets the forward, impulsive Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo) at a raffle on the street, and she says she remembers him from a childhood episode when he rescued her out of a well. Jongsoo can’t remember this at all, but shows no objection when Haemi invites him back to her small flat, on the pretext of feeding her cat.
Tenderly, and clumsily, they have sex, in a touchingly awkward sequence that’s characteristic of Lee’s skill for enchanted realism. Whatever we feel about Jongsoo at this stage, though – he gazes mysteriously during the act on a sunbeam, reflected off the Namsan Tower, that brightens Haemi’s room just for a brief moment each day – is going to mutate unpredictably as the film proceeds.
The same is true of Haemi, who abruptly departs to Kenya on a two-week trip, leaving Jongsoo listless and underoccupied. The cat, which he returns to try and feed, never makes an appearance, just as Jongsoo’s father is perpetually absent from their run-down farm. And Jongsoo’s idea of keeping his own company, which he often has no choice but to do, is pretty unsettling, tending towards masturbation – eyes fixed on that tower out of Haemi’s window – and an alleged writing project we barely see him bothering with at all.
The story gains a crucial third character when Haemi sweeps back from Kenya, having been thrown into a three-day airport crisis and thereby met Ben (Steven Yeun), a well-to-do yuppie who accompanies her, much to Jongsoo’s obvious dismay, when she comes through arrivals. Whatever Jongsoo’s assumptions were about any potential with Haemi, they’re thrown into disarray, and though the new couple make a pointed effort to hang out with him, visit, and smoke weed, his third-wheel status is cringingly obvious.
There are parallels with Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley books here, particularly in the envy and resentment Jongsoo feels towards Ben, who has a fabulous wood-panelled apartment in the middle of Seoul, a sportscar, and an affable if bored air: twice we catch him yawning distractedly at social events. This film’s Jay Gatsby or Dickie Greenleaf, he’s given a lot of smiling poise by Yeun – a Korean-American star on the rise – and a facade of unrufflable bonhomie which makes him Jongsoo’s secret nemesis.
Ben is described by Haemi, whose feelings towards him are quite opaque, as just being one of those indefinably rich people who can do whatever they want – even if it’s a hankering, unknown to her, and for which the film provides no evidence but his own say-so, for burning down greenhouses in the countryside. The contrast with Jongsoo, mucking out cow stables, because he must, in a state of manic exasperation, could hardly be any clearer.
The daring of the film is how rudderless, desperate and slow-witted Jongsoo, played so very discomfitingly, becomes as a protagonist, while he scrabbles around to get a grip and convinces himself that he’s fallen in love. Haemi, given to impromptu moments of performance art, such as peeling imaginary tangerines, is not without her own damage.
In the film’s most beautifully composed and emotionally pregnant sequence, she dances to Miles Davis, stoned and topless, with the sun disappearing behind trees at Jongsoo’s farm. As the light fades, she starts to cry, and it’s not long before she will vanish yet again.
This is Lee’s closest ever film to a thriller, but it defies expectations, offering multiple, murky solutions to a set of mysteries at once. The mystery of the cat is maybe-or-maybe-not solved. Haemi may have voluntarily departed, or been killed. Ben may be a sociopath, a liar, or both.
The only clarity, in a perverse way, comes in the irreversible last shot, as if everything that has vexed, confused and thwarted Jongsoo could be symbolically torched to purify his soul. But it’s a black place inside. The sun has gone for good.
Tim Robey, The Telegraph, 31st January 2019.