Beau Waycott reviews Burning, showing in our cinema until Wednesday 6 March.
Lee Chang-dong’s emotionally shot and searingly tense psychological drama-mystery, Burning, is a rare work of cinema: one that asks questions to its audience throughout but unapologetically answers none of them. Rarer still, Chang-dong succeeds wholly in this, hypnotically layering enigma atop enigma in a plot that retains a clear focus whilst exploring multiple facets of the protagonist, Jong-su and the life in which he finds himself.
Unemployed, Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is walking the backstreets of Seoul when he chances upon his childhood neighbour Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo). A close and sexual bond develops between the two before Hae-mi leaves to spend time in Africa. Upon her return, she seems changed, and begins to spend a great deal of time with Ben, a fellow traveler leading a highly Gatsbyish lifestyle: unashamedly a socialite, Ben’s source of income is mysterious and his tastes extravagant. Jong-su soon discovers his replacement’s narcissism and grows detached from Ben- and Hae-mi, who seems by now to be an extension of him at points- but fails to truly comprehend his plot-driving characteristic until too late. Ben’s psychopathy serves not only to shroud his own character in mystery but also to serves to develop Jong-su, examining the limits of human jealousy and human anger alike.
Chang-dong’s expert engineering of this trialectic structure both contextualises Jong-su’s artistic openness whilst exploring the class privileges and youth unemployment in rapidly developing South Korea. Long, expansive shots of the hauntingly quiet South Korean urbane juxtapose against blindingly bright scenes of sensory overstimulation in Jong-su’s native Paju, where the North Korean propaganda announcements quietly disseminate throughout the rolling and lush Korean hills, which themselves seem to shroud riddle and deceit. The film’s most beautiful -and haunting- scene comes midway, in these hills, before passion has fallen to fury. A still dusk in Paju is turning to night, where Jong-su, Hae-mi and Ben sit outside in warm, thick silence. The heavy baritone of Miles Davis’ trumpet permeates the scene, allowing Hae-mi to rise, sway, take off her shirt and dance. The ineffable relationship between Hae-mi and the wider world becomes deeply emotive in a scene which is representative of South Korea’s place in the wider world, South Korea’s place in Korea and, most importantly for Burning, South Korea’s value for South Koreans.
Fans of Haruki Murakami certainly won’t be disappointed, with Lee and Oh Jung-mi’s adaptation of his 1992 Barn Burning successfully recreating the deep interweaves of characters (although not following the plot religiously), which combines with the personality of Chang-dong, seen with significant changes to music. Most importantly, Chang-dong gradually builds the abstract violence seen in Murakami before unleashing its full and devastating manifestation to haunting and unsettling effect. Burning receives a fully complementary review: a gripping watch that won’t attempt to answer its own questions but rather encourage you to question its fundamental mystery.