Desire, insatiability and an overwhelming feeling, eventually becomes fury in Burning, an excellently crafted film by one of South Korea’s most acclaimed directors, Lee Chang Dong. Based on Haruki Murakami’s short story, Barn Burning, the film presents the increasingly complicated and tense relationships between three drastically different characters, Jong-su, Hae-mi and Ben, as their lives are changed by desire and then, rage.
Jong-su’s initial encounter with Hae-mi appears to be the beginning of a simple yet charming relationship, that is interrupted when Hae-mi returns from a trip to Africa with a new man in her life, Ben. While Jong-su is impassive and rather uneasy, Ben is, as Jong-su describes, “a Gatsby” who is confident and enigmatic. This sparks a sense of jealousy and resentment in Jong-su as an unfair rival for Hae-mi’s affections. The dynamic between the trio is interesting, as Lee manages to conjure up themes of anger, isolation, indulgence and jealousy during interactions.
The homes of Hae-mi and Jong-su are small and cluttered and blatantly juxtaposed with Ben’s apartment, which is sophisticated and large. Jong-su’s home in Paju is filled with the sounds of news broadcasts explaining the problems of high youth unemployment, while outside, Korean propaganda messages drift in and out; he is at the edge of a society that does little for him. Meanwhile, Ben’s home is filled with the sounds of jazz music; it is relaxing and indicative of an easy life without worries. From Ben’s Porsche standing out prominently in traffic, to him being the only character with an English name, it is impossible not to see the glaring class difference that exists between the three protagonists as it extends to other aspects of their lives.
The use of metaphors across the film is very impressive, with the ‘greenhouses’ that Ben mentions, to Jong-su in what appears to be deep and intimate conversation becoming the most significant one. This ignites an obsessive curiosity in Jong-su, who struggles to understand and potentially defeat Ben, whose confidence never seems to wane. Ben is able to act without consequence, while Jong-su remains trapped in his own circumstances. Over the course of the film, the conspicuous differences between Jong-su and Ben become prevalent and are a catalyst for rage and indulgence as Lee presents the murky side of the male psyche.
Yoo Ah-In, Jeon Jong-seo and Steven Yeun deliver tremendous performances. Yeun’s performance manages to be intimidating whilst charming, and very unsettling while Yoo perfectly captures Jong-su’s formless and distracted personality. Jeong’s portrayal of Hae-mi adds vibrancy to the film, and her absence visibly darkens its tone. The isolation that Hae-mi feels, coupled with the desire she expresses to disappear without dying, is a poignant reflection of a lonely individual from a big city with few attachments to her past. One of the most memorable scenes of the film sees her stripping to the waist and dancing to a Miles Davis song, appearing to have forgotten that Jong-su and Ben are both watching her while they smoke, as she is consumed by her own ecstasy. This debut performance allows this actress to shine, especially in her bliss in this scene, as a character who is yearning for freedom as she gets lost in differentiating from reality and her imagination. This is one of two scenes where Lee addresses the harsh realities that many women face which are against them and make them feel like disappearing, as does Hae-mi.
Gripping and unpredictable, despite the slow pace, Burning explores rage, class conflict, sexual-longing and isolation in very subtle ways, that are not fully visible until almost the end of the film. Before the mystery begins to materialise, it is easy to mistake the previous scenes as serving no purpose other than providing context and wonder if the it can truly be classified as a thriller. However, once the true mystery manifests itself in the film, the dialogue and the scenes that seemed inconsequential become important in this disconcerting drama. Mowg’s score is fascinating, with low guitar notes and irregular chaotic percussion that, although sparse throughout the film, remain tense.
The film is carefully crafted in its ambiguity and incites certain assumptions not in the audience, but in the characters as well, and does little to confirm these theories by the end of the film. The result is a haunting film that leaves the viewer thinking: if Lee had set out to make sure every word and every shot was significant in a film almost impossible to forget, he succeeded.
Edited by Eloïse Wright, Head Film Editor
Burning has a limited release in February 2019 at various cinemas, including BFI Southbank, Institute of Contemporary Arts, and Barbican Centre.