ProsperoFeb 1st 2019by N.B.twitter iconfacebook iconlinkedin iconmail iconprint iconLEE CHANG-DONG’S “Burning” arrives in British and Irish cinemas heralded by two prestigious recommendations. One is that it was shortlisted for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. The other is that it featured on Barack Obama’s list of best films in 2018. Both of these recommendations…
LEE CHANG-DONG’S “Burning” arrives in British and Irish cinemas heralded by two prestigious recommendations. One is that it was shortlisted for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. The other is that it featured on Barack Obama’s list of best films in 2018. Both of these recommendations are well deserved, and they may be crucial in encouraging audiences to seek out a film which is so tricky to classify.
Inspired by two short stories with the same title, “Barn Burning”, by William Faulkner (previously adapted by Martin Ritt as “The Long, Hot Summer”) and by Haruki Murakami, the film lasts two-and-a-half hours, and for a considerable proportion of that time it is hard to pin down its genre, let alone its plot. The viewer has to relax and accept that they are going to be perplexed. Indeed, that could be what Mr Lee’s teasing drama is about: the frustration and fascination of knowing that the key to a puzzle is right in front of you, but is just out of reach, like an itch you can’t scratch.
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Its hapless hero is Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a 20-something who admits that “to me, the world is a mystery”. Jong-su graduated from university not long ago, and now aspires to be an author—the next Faulkner, even—but he is better at talking about his ambitions than realising them. While he is waiting for inspiration to strike, he works on a rundown family farm (though his mother has left and his father is in prison) and he makes a living as a delivery boy in Seoul.
It is there that he bumps into a former schoolmate, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), who has the confidence and vivacity he lacks. Jong-su is smitten, but confused. For one thing, he doesn’t recognise Hae-mi. “I’ve had plastic surgery,” she chirps. “Pretty huh?” For another thing, he can’t tell whether she likes him or not, even when she takes him back to her tiny flat and has sex with him. As it happens, he has just agreed to feed her cat while she is on a trip to Kenya, so the sex might have been an advance reward. On the other hand, he never actually sees her cat.
On her return from Kenya, Hae-mi asks Jong-su to collect her from the airport, so he assumes that they are officially a couple. But when he moves to kiss her at the arrivals gate, she introduces him to Ben (Steven Yeun from “The Walking Dead”), a rich and handsome playboy she met on her travels. Ben has a black Porsche and a designer apartment in Gangnam, a fashionable Seoul district. What’s more, Ben “cooks pasta while listening to music”, which, to Jong-su, epitomises metropolitan sophistication. Jong-su accepts that he is out of his league and out of his depth. The question is, why should this chic socialite want to spend time with two new friends from a far less affluent background?
As befuddled as Jong-su is, the viewer might well believe that they have a handle on “Burning” at this stage: the film seems to have coalesced into an enjoyably awkward romantic comedy about a maddening love triangle. But the mysteries gradually become more sinister. When Ben and Hae-mi visits Jong-su’s farm near the border with South Korea, Ben coolly mentions that his hobby is setting fire to abandoned greenhouses he spots in the countryside. Is he telling the truth, or has he found another way of bamboozling his host? Either way, the message is that Ben is privileged enough to get away with anything.
As to what he is really up to, Mr Lee keeps the viewer guessing. But “Burning” eventually becomes a suspense thriller with the sadistic menace of Alfred Hitchcock and Roald Dahl, as well as a dark commentary on the gulf between society’s haves and the have-nots. Determined to figure out his love rival’s agenda, Jong-su turns detective, and there are some nailbiting surveillance sequences. But he just isn’t wealthy or well-connected enough to get into Ben’s world and uncover the secrets there. Even at the end of the film, mysteries linger like smoke. Only one thing is for sure: “Burning” is chilling.
Correction (February 1st 2019):The original version of this article said that “Burning” had been nominated for an Oscar. It was shortlisted for one. This has been corrected.