Korean director Lee Chang-Dong returns with the hauntingly-crafted Burning, part mystery thriller and part social commentary, and loosely adapted from Haruki Murakami’s 1993 short story Barn Burning. Meticulously constructed and uncanny in its execution, Burning is one of those arthouse films that manages to engross viewers even when very little is happening and hints at greater themes throughout, but the ambiguity of its story, loaded onto a bloated runtime, is unlikely to appeal to mainstream filmgoing audiences.
Burning follows Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), an awkward young man from the countryside who graduated from college with a creative writing degree and finds himself working menial jobs to make ends meet. He experiences a chance encounter with his childhood classmate Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), who is selling tickets in front of a department store, but he doesn’t recognize her at first due to her having gotten plastic surgery. The two go out and develop a relationship that culminates in them having sex. Hae-mi tells Jong-su to take care of her cat while she is on a trip to Africa, and the lovestruck Jong-su quickly agrees. When Hae-mi finally returns, however, she is accompanied by Ben (Steven Yeun), a charming and eccentric young socialite who hails from a much loftier social class than the backwater rural Paju that Jong-su and Hae-mi come from. Jong-su finds himself a sudden third wheel to the new couple, simultaneously entranced by and derisive of Ben’s unsettling confidence. One night, when Hae-mi is not present, Ben confesses to Jong-su that he has a habit of burning down greenhouses, one every two months. Not long after, Hae-mi disappears without a trace, leaving Jong-su fumbling to find out what has happened to her, and what Ben was really referring to.
As a thriller, Burning lacks the abundance of plot twists and reveals that would make the film exciting, instead opting for lengthy, artistic lingering shots on faces and scenery. The reveal near the end is not particularly unexpected – it isn’t hard to guess what happened when the beautiful girl mysteriously disappears and her boyfriend is cheerily indifferent to it. Burning exists very much as a juxtaposition – class conflict, clashes of personal desire, and sorting the truth from lies feature heavily throughout the movie. In that vein, it feels as if the movie isn’t really intended to be a complex murder mystery where the killer is revealed at the end. Instead, Burning is a culmination in film technique that strives to capture the deep frustration of Korean lower-class youth in a world that doesn’t seem to make sense. Most of the meaning in the story is found in the silences – the questions that go pointedly unanswered, or the moments of wordless exchange between two characters.
The leading characters themselves are acted to near perfection, each brimming with authenticity even when their dialogue is anything but natural. Yoo Ah-in is perfectly convincing in his portrayal of a listless bumpkin, while Steven Yeun entrances as a carefully kept, attractive mystery man who casually drops hints that he is a psychopath. Jeon Jong-seo is eerily captivating in her performance as the childlike and dreamy female lead, particularly notable since this is her debut film. As the film progresses, it feels less like the characters are changing, and more like they are becoming themselves. It is notable that none of the trio have particularly likable personalities, and yet they manage to feel oddly compelling as audiences try to piece together the story of what actually happened.
The details are where it shines in Burning. The film features one of the most stress-inducing and fitting soundtracks in recent history, courtesy of composer Mowg. The sharp contrast between Ben’s sleek black Porsche and Jong-su’s beaten, rusting pickup truck is the most explicit statement of inequality between the two men in a film loaded with thematic imagery. North Korean broadcasts boom out every night in the small town of Paju, while the rich Gangnam neighborhood where Ben lives is tranquil, almost empty in its quietness. All these and more highlight the attention to detail throughout the film that makes the setting feel undeniably real even when the plot cryptically meanders through its two and a half hour runtime.
In the hands of a less experienced filmmaker or actors and actresses, Burning could easily have come off as an amateurish attempt at commentary on class conflict, injustice, jealousy, and youth unemployment in Korea. Instead, it stays afloat by consistently showing rather than telling, and the lack of a core message to the film hints at the fact that it is the journey, and not the ending, which truly matters. Despite its hefty runtime, Burning is a film that almost definitely needs to be watched more than once if viewers want to truly appreciate the nuances of the story. It is possible that the film shines not because of what it actually says, but because the abundant ambiguity allows audiences to project their own interpretations onto the events unfolding on the screen. Burning exists, not so much as a cohesive story on its own, but as an evocative, haunting examination of jealousy with a magic realism touch and a talented cast to bring all the pieces together into a single film.