(South Korea vies for its first Oscar nomination with Lee Chang-dong’s Cannes-winner Burning, in theaters now)
Lee Jong-su (or Jong-su Lee, as Korean names go last/first) is a lonely twentysomething from a South Korean farming town near the border with North Korea. He dreams of being a writer but has yet to find a subject that motivates him. One day, running errands in Seoul, he runs across a childhood friend, Hae-mi, who works outside a department store, dancing as a sort of live-action mannequin to attract customers. They renew their acquaintance, she asks him to cat-sit for her while she is away on a holiday in Africa, and then they have a quick bout of sex before she goes. It’s all told relatively quickly, for this is all mere set-up for the slow burn of a mystery to follow.
Indeed, the joy of Burning comes from the slow but steady rise in dramatic intrigue that leads from an initial spark amidst the dry kindling of barely sketched characters to the sudden conflagration of full realization at the end. Director Chang-dong Lee (Poetry) is in no hurry to tell his story (the film clocks in at close to 150 minutes), instead preferring to take his time as he shows us Jong-su’s gradual emergence as a man of action, layering what seem like peripheral details the one upon the other as he builds his tale. When first Jong-su meets Hae-mi, he is almost catatonic, but eventually his attraction to her, along with the resultant search for meaning in his own life, irrevocably changes him.
Ah-In Yoo (Veteran) plays Jong-su with sleepy-eyed brilliance, stumbling his way through much of the story like a man on no mission at all. Jong-seo Jeon, making her film debut as Hae-mi, is his opposite, all bubbly energy, though that trait masks a deep melancholy within. In some ways they make a great pair, even if, as we soon learn, their mutually shared experiences growing up were not all happy. But then Hae-mi comes back from Africa with a new friend, Ben – played by Steven Yeun (Sorry to Bother You) – whose wealth and good looks prove a distraction from what should have been a beautiful romance. We never learn exactly what he does – “There are so many Gatsbys in Korea,” says Jong-su – but his ease with himself proves alluring to all who venture near.
And so we have a classic love triangle, except that somewhere, just when we thought we understood the measurements of all sides, the angles shift in subtle ways, rendering oblique what was straight. Is Ben malevolent, or just indifferent to the problems of those without money, seeing them as expendable? After all, his professed hobby is the burning of abandoned greenhouses in the countryside. There’s a destructive streak to him, even if we’re never sure how far he’d go. Director Lee never explicitly spells out intention, leaving us to work out the particulars, ourselves. As a meditation on class, Burning gently works its way into our psyche, hiding significance behind the intricacies of the central riddle. Like all good fires, however, it leaves its mark.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)