Underemployed young adults collide with a mysterious wealthy peer.
Directed by Lee Chang-dong
Starring Yoo Ah-in, Jeon Jong-soo, and Steven Yuen
Review by Jon Kissel
On the long list of favors that Hae-mi asks of Jong-su, one is the classic of picking her up from the airport, which he dutifully does and meets the third player of Burning. On a trip to Kenya, Hae-mi met Ben (Steven Yuen), a charming and mysteriously wealthy man that Jong-su compares to the Great Gatsby. Wanting to be close to Hae-mi, Jong-su accepts her invitations to hang out with Ben and his circle of high-class friends, friends who treat Hae-mi as an oddity and a dancing bear when she isn’t looking. The film’s pivotal scene between the three involves Ben and Hae-mi inviting themselves to Jong-su’s shabby home, an invitation that sends Jong-su in a shame-induced panic, but culminates in a transcendent display of openness on the part of Hae-mi. Jong-su can’t appreciate this gesture and slanders her as she leaves with Ben, and it turns out to be the last thing he says to her. She disappears shortly after, and while it’s possible that the flighty young woman is off on another walkabout, Jong-su methodically begins to suspect foul play on the part of Ben, who has cryptically confessed an eerie habit of burning down abandoned greenhouses for thrills. Does Ben really do this, or are the greenhouses a metaphor for something else?
Within the plot of Burning rests a great deal of poeticism and meaning. Hae-mi comes back from Kenya invigorated by what she learned from the people there, primarily the idea of the little hunger and the great hunger. The former is about sustenance for the body, while the latter is an ineffable feeling of want from the universe, of needing to understand. The events of Burning, never fully revealed, are encapsulated by this idea, as Jong-su needs to understand his feelings about Hae-mi and what happened to her but can’t do anything more than wonder. Jong-su is full of these kinds of great questions, romantic, mysterious, or otherwise. Why does Ben have so much while his own life is tragically small? Why was my imprisoned father so needlessly quick to anger and am I also prisoner to that kind of impulsiveness? Answers elude this character as surely as they elude characters in a Coen brothers movie, many of which could be described as possessed by the great hunger and unable to quiet it.
Hae-mi is shown to be better able to cope with her own great hunger as she doesn’t let it torture her, but instead lead her into new experiences. An uncharitable reading of her character places her in the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, and she does check some of those boxes. She’s sexually forward with our dull protagonist and she has eccentric interests like the mime work, but she’s played in a way that absolves her of being a cipher here solely for male development. Before she leaves the film, Hae-mi is knowable in a way MPDG’s often aren’t because her worldview is so clear and her trajectory is so tragic. Her fixation on Jong-su, borne out of a childhood incident that he doesn’t even remember, marginalizes her in his view, but not in the viewer’s because we’re (hopefully) not as blinkered as he is. Where he sees her display at his farm as immodesty, Lee films it with such eerie beauty that it can only be an honest revelation of self. Honesty and a life free of shame is her calling card, and it’s one that Jong-su can’t relate to while Ben, all obfuscation and mystery, isn’t interested in at all. The men in her life might treat Hae-mi as disposable and a walking trope, but crucially, the film does not.
Yuen’s career-high 2018 was partly due to his work in Sorry to Bother You, but he’s even better here. Except for the final scene, he’s in control of every interaction, permanently at ease with everyone even when they’re obviously tailing him through his Gangnam neighborhood. We never see him working, and we leave the film having no idea where his money comes from, but he moves through the world like an aristocrat, untouchable and bored. The version of the film wherein Ben is actually a serial killer is plausible based on his alien calm, a South Korean Ted Bundy who effortlessly charms his way into a high body count. He evokes Deadwood’s George Hearst, a yuppie boy-the-earth-talks-to who’s moved to destroy to satisfy some internal voice. Yuen makes any possibility possible, never giving away anything or tipping his hand.
I’ll confess to having a high resentment towards the wealthy these days, a sentiment I have yet to plumb, so in an initial reading of Burning, I was eager to side with Jong-su. This rich asshole’s not burning greenhouses at all, he’s just concocted a clever comparison to all the women he’s used and slaughtered that allows him to confess and not confess at the same time. Look at how readily he dismisses the unique treasure that is Hae-mi, or how he dares to yawn in her presence like this person could ever be anything but intriguing with her many hobbies and interests. On second thought, Jong-su’s an utterly unreliable protagonist boiling with barely-contained rage. There’s a cultural idea of the Han in South Korea, a hot-bloodedness that traces back to the peninsula’s long subjugation by foreign powers and rises out of a sorrowful subjugation. Jong-su’s father certainly demonstrates this while the son has internalized it less as anger and more as resentment towards people like Ben, who might be a murderer and also might be a person who his crush liked better thanks to his own callous actions. Not only does Ben get the girl, but he has the apartment and the car and the confidence and the bank account, while Jong-su shovels shit under the constant threat of being annihilated by a North Korean first strike. Ben stands atop mountains while Jong-su struggles to stay hidden on a nearby slope. I doubt there’s a definitive answer within Burning as to what’s happening in the plot, but the story and the characterization are dense enough to make several readings thematically coherent, an incredible and counter-intuitive accomplishment.
The sensation of watching Burning is that of being in the hands of a master who knows exactly what he’s doing in every frame. Lee lets scenes play out to their natural conclusion, conveying maximal information. Threads introduced in the first few scenes don’t get forgotten even as so much intervening greatness makes them easy to forget. Everything is purposeful, from the hypnotic score by South Korean composer Mowg to the lonely cinematography of Hong Kyung-pyo. This is Lee’s third film in fifteen years, and that kind of deliberate resume is acceptable when so much thought is put into every facet of the film.
I loved Burning and barring two other great works that were released in 2018, it would be my favorite of the year. I thought about it for weeks after I saw it in November, and seeing it on David Ehrlich’s Top 25 video solidified my appreciation for it. Ehrlich emphasized Hae-mi in the short clip he included of Burning in his video, and it put the exclamation point on how badly she’s treated by the men of the film, whether she’s dead or not. If she was murdered by Ben, it’s certainly a great crime no matter who she was, but if she wasn’t, the way Jong-su discards her in spite of himself is crushing, both in how he misses out on someone with a unique and fully-formed view of life and in how a person easy to joy is made to feel discarded. It takes a masterpiece to so thoroughly endear me to a character, and this is one of those. A