★★★★ / ★★★★
Watching Chang-dong Lee’s “Burning” is like sitting in front of a whiz poker player. It keeps its cards close to its chest, it has no tell, and everything is on the line. It is a fascinating story that evolves slowly then suddenly… and just when we think it has completed its final stage of metamorphosis, we wonder if the developments are simply a reflection of our own expectations all along. It is a mysterious, engaging, modern picture that is certain to frustrate those who expect to be spoon-fed. It is a gift for both deep thinkers and movie lovers.
This Rubik’s Cube’s opening moves involves two acquaintances from childhood meeting by chance. Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo) is a delivery boy and Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun) is an entertainer who dances in front of a store. She recognizes him, but he does not recognize her. She claims it is because she is beautiful now post-plastic surgery. It is a bizarre opening chapter, but Yoo and Jun share an intriguing and effortless romantic chemistry. If the film were a romantic comedy or drama, this duo would be worth following on the basis of the performers’ physicality and surface personalities. But, in essence, the work is a mystery; and so the sort of meet-cute exposition becomes a wonderful but purposeful juxtaposition of what is to come.
The pacing is slow but never boring. I found it interesting that although the first third of the story focuses on Jong-su’s romantic attraction to Hae-mi, love is not what the material is really about. I think it is about how genetic predispositions can limit a person psychologically, how a traumatic past can change a person permanently, and how pressures of the current situation can lead to acts of desperation. On the surface, not much happens—this is true. But just beneath the sclera is a wealth of commentary that goes beyond human psychology.
It also has something to say about social classes in South Korea, the anger of youth culture, destiny being tethered, in a way, to where one starts off in life. Take note, for example, of where Jong-su lives—his country home is so close to the North Korean border that he is able to hear daily propaganda being broadcasted on air as it were an alarm clock. Contrast this to the home of Ben (Steven Yeun), a wealthy man Hae-mi meets during her trip to Africa, how it is so quiet and the sound that can be heard is that of actual music rather than disinformation. Of course, the interiors and exteriors of the residences are nearly opposites. “Ben” is a western name, “Jong-su” is not. This isn’t to suggest that in order to have an appreciation of the film, one must analyze every frame. These details are simply there should one feel included to look more closely.
Perhaps the most curious relationship is between the two men who are stark opposites. Yeun plays Ben almost like sociopath—but not quite—who feels a certain kinship with our protagonist from the moment they meet at the airport. In some scenes, the director, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jung-mi Oh, makes a point to communicate that Ben is elated—relieved even—because he is able to share a part of himself to Jong-su. Maybe they even have a common understanding or morality. But due to life’s circumstances, their commonalities end up tenuous at best. Others might say these are simply suppressed or hidden.
“Burning” is an enigma, a work worthy of rumination both as it unfolds and well after the final chapter ends. I enjoyed being led by it and in directions that made me feel unease. By constantly being two steps ahead, always ready to pivot, the suspense builds as we are left with more questions than answers. Like great novels, the more profound answers are found in us, how we perceive and interpret the story and its characters. It is no accident that Jong-su is an aspiring novelist whose favorite writer is William Faulkner.