True complexity and originality in film is something that is hard to come by these days. Managing to make a film that is entertaining at the same time is something that few achieve but South Korean writer-director Chang-Dong Lee (Secret Sunshine) has made a career out of it, though this is his first film since 2011’s fantastic Poetry.
His latest, Burning, based on a short story called Barn Burning by Haruki Murakami — though I suspect William Faulkner’s novella of the same name is something to do with it as well — follows Jong-su, a part-time delivery man, and kicks off with him bumping into old female friend Hae-mi from his hometown. The two hit it off after a night out and he agrees to look after her cat while she takes a trip to Africa. On return, she has an enigmatic friend in tow called Ben, a man with lots of money and a seemingly privileged lifestyle. But when Ben starts to talk about one of his favourite hobbies, things start to take a strange turn in Jong-su’s life.
Burning is one of those films that could easily be spoiled but the one thing I can say is that it has a fascinating evolution of genres that should keep the viewer intrigued as to how the story will pan out. It starts off like a romantic — though rather surreal and totally deadpan — comedy between Jong-su and Hae-mi, with what can only be seen as one of the most bizarre, yet enthralling representations of courtship put to screen. The director sets the mysterious tone from the start, as you are not quite sure what is real and what is fake.
As Ben becomes more prominent in Hae-mi’s life, the story slowly becomes more sinister: Jong-su gets friend-zoned and Ben woos her with his cultured, flash lifestyle and high-society friends. But the more that Jong-su finds out about Ben, the more suspicious and, ultimately, jealous he becomes. This leads into the realm of a suspense/thriller, though you are never really sure of what is going on, or whether Jong-su is possibly cracking up. The director drip-feeds information on each character throughout, creating a real potboiler of a film that is pretty unique in its execution.
Burning will not be for everyone, as it has a very art-house feel, slow pace and long shots without much dialogue. Protagonist Jong-su —played exceptionally by Ah-In Yoo — is a bit of a loner and his daily routines are followed quite intricately. There’s also a lot going on surrounding the main plot, as you get snapshots into his turbulent family life concerning his parents, his apathy towards getting a full-time job and his yearning to become a writer.
First-time actress Jong-seo Jun, is a wonder as Hae-Mi. On the surface, she seems like a ditzy, happy-go-lucky girl but there are deep issues lurking under the surface that come out in the most subtle of manners. There are amazing moments when it feels like she’s doing a monologue, as well as mesmerising dance scenes; in particular, one that was shot during a sunset to a jazz number. It apparently took them a month to get it right because of the speed of the setting sun, but it was worth it. You won’t learn too much about Ben, played by The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun. He’s charming and sophisticated but has a layer of passive-aggressiveness that gradually surfaces. But again, nothing is telegraphed too much. You’re never sure of his intentions. Yeun nails this narcissistic role with aplomb.
You may not be totally surprised by the finale, but Burning still left me asking lots of questions about what was real and what was imagined. The film peels back like an onion, delving into issues like class, gentrification and a bit of geopolitics (Trump and the north/south border feature minimally but importantly) alongside the primary stories of the trio.
Chang-Dong Lee has deftly crafted all these layers into a stunningly shot film that provides answers while leaving a certain level of ambiguity in its wake, as he uses mostly metaphors, visual symbolism and relatively subtle clues to shape his premise and outcome. He’s definitely left it open to interpretation, though I know where my thoughts lie. Remarkable film-making. Kev Lovski
Burning is out on limited release.