Film Review: Burning (2018), Dir. Lee Chang-Dong
Based on the Haruki Murakami novel Barn Burning, one could predict that this would be somewhat opaque. In this respect, it does not disappoint. Based in South Korea, the story involves three unlikely characters in a sort of tango of attraction and rejection. Jongsu, the protagonist, is a laconic millennial who has aspirations to being a novelist. He seems a bit lost at the moment searching for something to write about. He has left his job in the city to return to take care of his family’s small farm near the border of North Korea. His father has gotten into trouble with the authorities and is temporarily incarcerated. The work is boring and mindless and life on the empty farm is lonely.
One day in the city he is approached by a cute, sexily-clad busker selling raffle tickets while gyrating to disco music, in the market. Haemi claims to have gone to school with Jongsu and be from the same village. He does not precisely remember her but goes along with it anyway. She is a free-spirited breath of fresh air in his tedious, uneventful life. When they meet after work she entices him with demonstrations of what she is learning in mime school. That seems to be her career choice. When she asks him to look after her cat while she is off on a trip to Africa, he agrees. And the visit to the apartment leads to sex but no sign of the cat. Jongsu finds it odd that he never sees the cat when he visits the apartment while she is away. All of this exposure to Haemi starts to stimulate his imagination and he becomes obsessed with filling in the blanks. He has been drawn out of himself finally.
When Haemi returns from Africa with a handsome, sophisticated, wealthy Korean man she met on her trip, and by whom she appears to be mutually smitten, Jongsu is crestfallen. He settles for second prize and becomes friends with them, as a couple. When he sees the way that Ben lives, with a large beautiful art-filled apartment and a Porsche in the garage, he remarks that he is like Jay Gatsby. It would be fair to continue the Scott Fitzgerald metaphor to the rest of the characters, which would make Haemi a stand-in for Daisy Buchanan, and Jongsu would have to be Nick Carraway. But apart from the social and emotional dynamic between the three, the similarities end there. The bonding of the three allows secrets to be revealed. The strangest one comes from Ben who confides that he regularly enjoys burning greenhouses, of which there are many in the villages outside of towns like the one where Jongsu lives. Jongsu starts be wary of Ben. And then Haemi goes missing.
Jongsu, single-mindedly launches a full investigation into what could have happened to her, tracking down and questioning all of her friends and relatives. Meanwhile, Ben seems barely to have noticed and to care less, moving forward philosophically and without curiosity. That is when Jongsu begins staking out Ben’s apartment and following him. We have now moved into crime drama territory largely wordlessly. We watch his movements and actions tell us how he is processing information. It is an interesting technique used effectively to both distance us and still keep us engaged in trying to decipher his actions. But, that is true of the whole film. One is kept wondering what it is all about. There are curves ahead and many switchbacks with little or no signage. The final scene, while being very final indeed, left both me and my companion baffled but with opposite theories. I guess that is the point of so many independent films today. In order to enjoy them, you have to engage your brain while watching, and possibly beyond that to get answers. I call that a good thing.
You can watch a trailer for the film here