Burning is an elliptical thriller directed by Lee Chang-dong that’s rooted in Korean class and income inequalities.
Distress Flareby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
While stolid countryboy Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in), after graduating in Seoul in creative writing, is working as a deliveryman he bumps into Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo). He doesn’t recognise her, but she recognises him as an old classmate from the same village, and reminds him that he called her ugly – she’s since had plastic surgery and is confident she looks pretty. Telling him she is going on a trip to Africa, she inveigles him into feeding her cat while she is away and swiftly seduces him. But when she returns, she’s accompanied by a slick, good-looking rich Korean man who’s slightly older – Ben (Steven Yeun, The Walking Dead) – and though they make an effort to include him, Jongsu finds himself a bit of a gooseberry.
It’s the beginning of a shifting dynamic between the three of them. Ben is so smooth, he makes Jongsu seem lumpen and there’s a huge class and income gulf between them. In Ben’s swish Gangnam flat with his smart friends, he seems to incite Jongsu to laugh at Haemi’s African dancing. Jongsu is obsessed with Haemi, who seems not to notice. Haemi perhaps sees her relationship with Ben as being upwardly mobile. The three go together to spend time Jongsu’s family home, a run-down farm within earshot of the North Korean propaganda coming over the border. He’s living there alone as his father is being sentenced for various crimes including assault and his mother left when he was little. While they’re there, Ben reveals he enjoys arson, Haemi disappears and things start to unravel.
But how much of this is really happening, what is memory and what is imagination? Ben may or may not be telling the truth. Jongsu’s mission is spy on him and protect the farms nearby and find Haemi. Jongsu doesn’t remember Haemi’s stories of the past and when he tries to check he gets contradictory answers. His perceptions may be unreliable. He has ambitions to be a writer and he says life is a mystery to him. He finds clues that lead him to conclusions that may or may not be mistaken and eventually trigger a horrifying event. Though it comes as a sudden shock, it exists because of the buildup throughout the film.
Lee Chang-dong’s thriller is a subtle, involving, mysterious and shocking slow-burn. It’s based on a short story Burning Barn by Haruki Murakama, which is in turn based on a short story also titled Burning Barn by William Faulkner, who Jongsu cites in the film as his favourite author.
Burning screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 19 and 20 October 2018.