A great deal of Burning, the latest work from South Korean master Lee Chang-dong (Poetry, Secret Sunshine), concerns what is real and what is wishful thinking/frustration-born fantasy in the mind of Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo), a university graduate who has apparently squandered his degree in creative writing by taking a job as a delivery boy. Based very loosely on a the short story Barn Burning by Haruki Murakami, the film centers for a time on the free-floating relationship between Jongsu and Haemi (Jong-seo Jun), a young dancer he runs into on a delivery who recognizes him from their days growing up together. He doesn’t remember her, but her reference points regarding the area they grew up seem solid, so they become fast friends, if based only on this sketchy commonality.
As you might deduce from the setup, Burning is also a story about figuring out how much we really know about someone. We learn almost too much about Jongsu right away—his mother left him and his father when he was young, and his father has issues with aggression and authority figures, so much so that he is in serious trouble with the law. The small town where he grew up is so close to the border with North Korea—a place where reality-twisting is taken to a wholly elevated level—that he can hear propaganda broadcasts blaring out of loudspeakers. The young man seems adrift, alienated and in desperate need of something concrete to stabilize his world.
Just as Jongsu and Haemi become closer, she announces that she is taking an extended vacation to Africa and asks if Jongsu will take care of her cat while she’s away. The cat is yet another source of reality-testing mystery, since it’s never seen, although there are certainly signs that it exists—summing up Jongsu’s existence quite perfectly. Eager for her return, Jongsu is slightly confused and a little hurt when he meets Haemi at the airport and she’s accompanied by a sophisticated, polished man named Ben (former “The Walking Dead” star Steven Yeun), who she befriended on the trip. As with most things in the film, the nature of the relationship between Haemi and Ben is unclear, especially when Ben takes an instant liking to Jongsu and invites him pretty much everywhere he goes.
All of these uncertainties compound and form the basis of some low-level tension that grows steadily as Burning moves forward through its two-and-a-half-hour running time. Although I wouldn’t refer to the pacing as “brisk,” the film does move along nicely, fueled a great deal by never knowing where things are headed or what odd new behaviors are on the verge of being revealed. The biggest of these is when Ben reveals to Jongsu that, despite his clearly wealthy status (shockingly enough, the source of his income is unclear), one of his passions is burning down abandoned greenhouses in the countryside. Ben discusses this strange hobby with an almost sensual fervor, and on a visit to Jongsu’s home, Ben confesses that he’s actually in the area scoping out future structures to light on fire. Although as far as we know, he never follows through on the actual act and the film offers no evidence that he ever has.
South Korea’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Burning (co-written by the filmmaker and Jung-mi Oh) is as much about its atmosphere of uncertainty as it is about figuring out the truth of any one person or situation. Being confused gives Jongsu a purpose, and solving the new mysteries in his life helps him escape the harsh world of dealing with his father’s trial and the overall loneliness that consumes his existence. When Haemi unexpectedly disappears (and all traces of her ever being around seem to as well), Jongsu grows unhinged, all culminating in a conclusion that is certainly among the year’s great, most disturbing endings.
Burning is a film that ultimately is about watching a young man’s soul degrade into almost nothing. But the question remains, is he a product of his own delusions, or does he not have the fortitude to believe the unbelievable? If you dig deeper, the movie could also be about how people don’t place as much value on being connected to each other as they once did. No matter how you interpret it, it’s an epic, eloquent, lyrical, stunningly lensed (by Hong Kyung-pyo) tragedy that will likely be one of the toughest films of 2018 to shed.
The film opens today exclusively at the Music Box Theatre.
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