Korean film-maker Lee Chang-dong makes the kind of simmering slow-burn dramas that keep haunting our mind long after the screen fades to black. Lee’s character studies, engulfed by humanistic concerns, unfold in a disquetingly naturalistic fashion. He painstakingly realizes his character, so much that their actions at some point in the narrative comes across as reflexive than dramatic. That also kind of explains the director’s slow working nature (six films in two decades) and his features' sprawling two-hour plus running time. Lee’s protagonists are very often troubled characters; the disabled, dispirited, and ostracized individuals, whose painful existence unmasks the callousness of modern society. Moreover, despite the very personal and realistic examination of outcast subjects, sharp sociopolitical critique throbs beneath the surface of Lee’s works. The same thematic preoccupations and rigorous style persists in the film-maker’s latest offering Burning (‘Beoning’, 2018), a brilliantly orchestrated study of contrasts at both micro (personal) and macro (social) levels.
Loosely based on Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s short story (‘Barn Burning’), Burning opens as a meet-cute love story, then turns into a love triangle of sorts, and before long becomes a spine-chilling mystery that seems both easily interpretable and inexplicable. Lee opens the film in a bustling city street with Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a young man moving around while carrying some merchandise on his shoulders. Surrounded by brightly colored advertisement boards and cacophony in the street, Jong-su meets Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a girl from his home-town. Jong-su is the underemployed (works part-time as deliveryman), aspiring writer son of a poor farmer. The striving and eccentric Hae-mi, estranged from her family, works part-time doing dance routines to attract the shoppers. She loves pantomime and showcases this love by peeling and munching on invisible oranges before Jong-su, who sits mouth with his agape. She remarks the trick isn’t pretending that the mango is there, but forgetting that it isn’t. Over their reunion drink, Hae-mi also explains the African tribe’s ritual dance of ‘little hunger’ – the physical needs – and ‘great hunger’ – a search for life’s meaning.
Lee Jong-su holds a degree in creative writing, but usually loses himself in the discordant mixture of thoughts, and lacks the drive to focus on particular subject for his first novel. Hae-mi is strikingly different as she is full of stories and goes after her desires. She lives in boxy, single-room apartment, but to satiate her ‘great hunger’ Hae-mi plans a trip to Kenya. Soon, the two youngsters mend the loneliness and emptiness in each other’s lives. They make tender love in Hae-mi’s little apartment, a beam of sunlight flickering on the wall above the bed. Before going to Africa, Hae-mi asks Jong-su to routinely feed her cat. Hae-mi says her cat ‘Boil’ is super-shy and the only proof that a cat exists is the droppings in a litter box. But, Jong-su dutifully visits the apartment and feeds the unseen cat. Jong-su also handles troubles back at his family farm in Paju, a city closer to the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas. His violent and untalkative father is caught in a legal trouble (mother is long out of the equation).
Jong-su seems to have fallen for Hae-mi, but she returns from her North African trip with Ben (Steven Yeun), a wealthy socialite who drives a flashy Porsche. Hae-mi seems smitten by Ben’s lavish display of wealth (a high-end apartment in Gagnam, worlds apart from the dirty, impoverished Paju). Nevertheless, Hae-mi insists Jong-su to tag along with her to fancy restaurants and sophisticated parties, which only stokes Jong-su’s envy for Ben. What Ben does for a living remains a mystery. Accordingly, Jong-su compares the rich man to ‘The Great Gatsby’ and the subtle tauntings of Ben that threatens to overturn Jong-su’s love only intensifies. The imbalance of power in this relationship between the three is starkly felt in the scene Ben and Hae-mi visits Jong-su at his broken-down farm. Hae-mi, captivated by the unobscured view of the orange glow of sunset, goes topless to imitate the ‘great hunger’ dance. She seems satiated one moment, but in the next moment as the dwindling light in the sky turns dark, Hae-mi distressed by the anxieties and sorrow in her life begins to uncontrollably sob (on hindsight, the memory of this sequence would haunt us). She is laid to sleep and then Ben shares with Jong-su his secret hobby of burning ‘greenhouses’. Soon after this confession, Jong-su’s world begins to unravel as he scrabbles around to get a grip on his life’s biggest loss.
Murakami’s thin story is deceptively simple that’s actually a riff on William Faulkner’s 1939 story of the same name. Director Lee Chang-dong adds meaty layers to the story, channeling the hierarchies of privilege and class into Jong-su’s existential angst. The slow-burn realization of the characters, especially in the first-half, may frustrate some viewers. However, when the element of mystery rears its head into the narrative, director Lee makes us revisit in our mind the meaning of certain conversations and actions, elegantly pushing us to make the links like Jong-su. The director is also clever in the way he never provides answers to some missing links. We are convinced about what Ben meant when he talked of ‘burning greenhouses’, but Jong-su never confronts the guy about it. It forces us to think of the ‘there not there’ reference Hae-mi makes in her pantomime with invisible oranges. From the cat Jong-su feeds to the sinistral motivations we associate with Ben, the narrative alludes to the feeling of ‘there not there’. Furthermore, director Lee’s intricate crafting of Jong-su and Ben’s psychological dynamics plays a pivotal role in keeping us on the edge despite easily guessing the truth behind the central mystery.
The well-honed performances naturally smolders us with worry and rage. Yoo as the rudderless Jong-su perfectly showcases the dread and confusion of an emasculated individual. Newcomer Jeon earnestly captures the yearnings of an unprivileged girl, caught between hard reality and shiny dreams. Yeun of ‘Walking Dead’ fame effortlessly wears the cloak of arrogance and cockiness. Doomed romances are a constant thing in Chang-dong’s movies. But Burning boasts the most affective doomed romance of the director’s oeuvre, so distressing that my mind kept playing the last thing Jong-su says to Hae-mi. To better understand the mesmerizing complexity and lyricism of Lee’s aesthetics repeat viewing is necessary (masterfully lensed by Hong Kyung-pyo). What I especially loved about Lee’s images is the atmosphere of twilight that oppressively hangs over after Jong-su’s (late) epiphany. By the final image, when Jong-su sits naked inside the truck, obscured by windshield covered with snowfall, the twilight concludes and a sort of abyss opens and the image of Hae-mi doing the ‘great hunger’ dance becomes a distantly glowing memory. A car is burning at some distance from the moving truck, but it only brings coolness unlike the scorchingly hot memory of beatific Hae-mi.
Burning (148 minutes) is a discomfiting yet beautifully rendered love triangle mystery that subtly probes into the themes of class privilege and emasculation. Director Lee Chang-dong once again proves himself to be master in underlining the unexpressed and unseen forces of an unforgiving society.