08-21 February, DCA
Burning is the sixth feature film by South Korean director, screenwriter, and producer Lee Chang-Dong after his critically acclaimed 2010 feature Poetry. Based on the short story Barn Burning by Haruki Murakami, the film follows Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a lazy aspiring writer who spends his days hazily going through the motions of his life. Jong-su reconnects with a girl he knew from his youth, Shin Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), who introduces him to the enigmatic Ben (Steven Yeun) after holidaying in Nairobi. The three start to spend time together as Haemi begins to date Ben, who divulges to Jong-su his hobby of burning down decrepit greenhouses in the South Korean countryside. Soon, the seductive mystery of Ben stokes the embers of suspicion in Jong-su, and when Haemi disappears without a trace, his suspicion turns to searing paranoia.
‘You forget that the tangerines are not there,’ Haemi tells Jong-su, as she mimes throwing one into the air and catching it in such a manner that one can feel the impact of the ripened orange fruit as it hits her palm. She throws it from hand to hand with deft skill, brings it to her mouth. Haemi aspires to do pantomime in much the same way that Jong-su wishes to be a writer, and their earnest desperation to escape their lives is as palpable as the imaginary weight of the tangerine; it’s subtextual, but blindingly apparent. Burning is full of meditative mystery that eases it forward at a beguiling crawl and leaves us placing the cryptic pieces together to create a whole image that, like the tangerine, seems to exist intangibly.
The performance by Steven Yeun as the handsome and inscrutable Ben is a part of this puzzle. He appears everything that Jong-su is not: wealthy, carefree, and nonchalantly unaware of his privilege. It becomes clear that Ben belongs to a class that views Haemi and Jong-su as an entertaining distraction: in one scene she performs for his friends at an upscale restaurant, stamping her feet and waving her arms like a puppet as they watch on disinterestedly. As the divide becomes more apparent, Ben’s actions appear increasingly sinister, and in the second half of the film, as he applies makeup to a new girlfriend like a doll, the slow-building morbidity is crystallised in haunting fashion.
The style of Murakami is well suited to the languorous school of slow cinema that is favoured by Chang-Dong. There is something magnetic in the way in which his camera observes its subjects, flitting between the coolly observational and the uncomfortably intimate, that does a great service to the sensibilities of the source material. But maybe more fascinating than his oscillation between the inter-personal and intra-personal, is how he captures the soul of South Korea. Whether it is in the mist-dappled countryside or the cramped and sweaty streets of the city of Panju, it all feels alive. In one scene, we watch as Jong-su stares out across the cityscape as he masturbates, and later when Haemi removes her shirt and dances entrancingly to the setting sun as if performing a sacred rite, each a melancholy love letter. To add to these richly understated visuals is the soundtrack from Mowg: sombre and unsettling, it accentuates the malaise of unease perfectly.
Burning is an endlessly intelligent work of patience and quiet, its unnerving silence surpassed only by its genuine humanity, and in its closing moments I couldn’t help but think of the words spoken to Jong-su early in the film: ‘aren’t all protagonists a little nuts?’