Recently, a film has come on Netflix US that was one of the most unforgettable and mesmerizing films I had seen last year. It would feel almost like doing a disservice to not call attention to the availability. One that feels a bit incomprehensible once the credits roll but the journey and clues itself become all the more intriguing as opposed to the answers and clues hinted at. Of course, this is none other than Korean filmmaker, Lee Chang-Dongs Burning, a film that is just becoming more enigmatic the more I ponder about its complexities. Nothing is as it seems, it all feels a little off and Dong utilizes very kind of tension in the book. From romantic to humorous to horrific and everything in between.
Only about four things really happen to conjure a “plot” together. Somewhere it hangs in a space between seeming both too plotty and plotless, but somehow never manages to lose grasp on its many puzzling mysteries. We follow our loner protagonist Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), in the midst of his seemingly directionless life, fresh out of college and in hopes of becoming a William Faulkner-esque novelist. When he bumps into Hae-mi, (Jun Jong-seo) a childhood friend that he does not recall, she asks him to take care of her cat while on a retreat in Africa. On her arrival, she brings with her a sense of inner peace, a new dance and a friend Ben (Steven Yeun). Ben is a man who is everything Jong-su is not. Confident, intelligent, well off, and has a fruitful set of friends. Yet, he never finds himself to be particularly happy or satisfied – it seems that Lee Chang-Dong never wants to give off that impression.
Burning is adapted from the short story “Barn Burning ” by Haruki Murakami and there is a long-standing reputation to be had that short stories make even better adaptations as opposed to novels or graphic novels. Sure, the short story may have its admirers but nothing quite like a fandom that a popular literary series can attract, which can result in outrage when not adapting correctly. The filmmaker has an easier translating to the screen if it is a short story because there is no fat to trim or baggage to add, the creative liberty is much more valid. Think Brokeback Mountain or Arrival in how they have never bound to the straps of their former conception. Burning‘s beauty comes from its simplicity and how Dong chooses to expand upon the ideas brought up in the short story. “Barn Burning” and Burning have their commonalities and differences, however, both works come and go but linger and bewilder, just like they do to Jong-su.
Burning is really never one mystery for Jong-su to solve, but multiple that continue to introduce themselves without ever really exiting the film. All these bizarre questions is what’s most intoxicating – never the possibility of coming to any concrete conclusions or what Dong would want to show you (because everything is so particular). It all starts with Boil the cat and if he really exists in the first place, wondering how the food can disappear and the shit can reappear in Hae-mi’s tiny apartment that would not be difficult to lose a cat in. If Boil was never real, then why did Hae-mi manipulate Jong-su to come to feed him while she’s in Africa? Forgetting all this, they may not even have known each other during their childhood, because she said she got surgery since Jong-su called her ugly, which is at least some explanation to why he doesn’t recognize her at first. To me, Boil is what catapults Hae-mi to ask Jong-su to pick her up from the airport and meet Ben, given Jong-su’s lack of confidence and obsession, he can then be easily fed information that may not be legitimate.
Then, there is the big mystery at the core of the film that not only keeps Jong-su curious, but also myself, and that is the titular burning moment. Dong, like Ben, keeps his cards close to his chest, resisting to reveal but implies his actions just as frequently. In one of the best scenes (or sequences) of last year, Hae-mi and Ben arrive at Jong-su’s plantation for a dinner. They came to him unexpectedly, but Jong-su was okay with their visit given his minimal schedule. After dinner, Ben begins to smoke pot and Hae-mi and Jong-su soon join. She begins to perform a dance that she learned in Africa, along with a particularly romantic Miles Davis tune in the backdrop of a gorgeous sunset.
After Hae-mi goes to sleep, Ben and Jong-su have a conversation that opens with Jong-su’s disdain for his ill-tempered dad (who is on trial for an unspecified reason), and slowly moves towards the reveal of Ben’s hobby of burning down abandoned greenhouses. He likes two things: weed and rain. The pot for the meaninglessness of the so-called crime he is committing, and the rain like he is just as nonjudgmental – like a force of nature. Ben only burns them down once every two months and he actually came over to scout his next greenhouse, only to then admit that it is close by.
Jong-su never questions if Ben is telling the truth because he has no reason to believe he would lie about something so peculiar. Sure, he has come off a bit strange, like openly admitting he has never shed a tear and that finding it fascinating when Hai-mi cried, but he has been kind to Jong-su so far in the film. The questions that he faces never deviate from his character, a man who is lost and knows what he wants, but never knows how to achieve it. His dad has “bad temperament” and his mom left when things got bad, so Jong-su never had the guidance to build a career path and find a career in writing, as well as never being as well off like Ben.
Hae-mi may as well be still living in Africa, given her distance from her family and how proudly she talked about that initial retreat and never thinking about Ben after that. Or Ben is just an emotionally repressed killer who puts up a facade with his friend group, never touched by the police given his societal class. The masterful work of Burning comes from how there is never one definitive theory the movie latches onto, which makes anything at fair play. No legitimate evidence or motive points to Ben killing Hae-mi, but that’s not to say it didn’t happen.
On top of all these elusive narrative puzzles to solve, the film looks immaculate. Shot by Hong Kyung-pyo, (a longtime collaborator with Bong Joon-ho and Na Hong-Jin but first time working with Lee Chang-Dong) the use of natural light and methodical long takes make for an even more hypnotic viewing experience. Dong has a certain familiarity with Korea, and it helps that there are various locations where he can show off the many facets of how class is structured in his native home. The location always informs the atmosphere, never the other way around. It’s impressive but never showy, capturing the innate juxtaposition between Jong-su’s family rural life isolated from the majority of Korea, and then Ben’s urban apartment which carries all the chic looks that would be found in a the home of a modern day Jay Gatsby.
This brought attention to one conversation between Hae-mi and Jong-su, when he likens Ben to “a Gatsby” and follows this up with “there are many Gatsbys in Korea”. Meaning Ben isn’t the the only rich, charismatic loner in Korea and Jong-su recognizes this. It is only when Ben interferes in his life that he starts to become obsessed. Jong-su never wants to be Ben, but his fascination with him starts to take over his sanity, even when dealing with his love for Hae-mi.
Burning isn’t for everyone and that’s okay. Dong knows never to rush what has no right to be rushed, though the speed at which things are introduced may be a turn-off. Patience is required but it’s staying power is well worth the two and a half hours. Nevertheless, it shows great talent from a writer/ director such as Dong to give so little and yet it simmers with significance, never seeking out one valid interpretation to give credence to the others that are invalid.