Director: Lee Chang-Dong
Stars: Yoo Ah-In, Steven Yeun, Jun Jong-Seo
The first we know of Lee (Yoo Ah-In) is a wisp of smoke curling out from around a wall in the opening shot. Over the course of two and a half languid, beguiling hours, this sinuous trail will become an emblem of sorts. His chain-smoking travels ultimately take him from the smallest ember to a burning blaze. Lee Chang-Dong’s epic adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story isn’t an easy film in some ways, but it builds into an absolutely fascinating one, then leaves you in limbo, wanting more.
Lee, it turns out, is something of a deadbeat. Ah-In plays him open-mouthed and a little stupid. He’s the son of a farmer and that business is about kaput. He says he wants to be a fiction writer, but doesn’t know what to write about. One day he is accosted by an old schoolmate; Haemi (Jun Jong-Seo). Never close before, the two begin a shambolic tryst (beginning with one of the most realistic depictions of sex on screen I’ve seen). It’s possibly the only time the two do have sex. Haemi is a free spirit, about to leave for Africa. It seems as though the most she really wants from Lee is someone to feed her reclusive cat.
Haemi returns from Africa with Ben (Steven Yeun); a rich playboy type with a Porsche and unspecified means. The difference between their backgrounds couldn’t be clearer. Ben suggests that, in the modern world, there is no longer a line between work and play. But later in the picture we see farmers at their toil. Ben’s words seem bourgeoisie and meaningless. Lee perceives (perhaps quite rightly) that Ben has swept Haemi away from him. And when Haemi abruptly vanishes, Lee becomes consumed with suspicions about Ben. He is compelled to find out the truth. Even at this he seems constantly disadvantaged. Playing visually on the class divide between them, Chang-Dong keeps placing Lee physically beneath Ben, be it staring up through the window of a gym, or hiking up a hill after him.
Though it is slow and – especially in its early stretches – gives the false appearance of being aimless, there is so much going on in Burning. This is director Chang-Dong masterfully setting his film to the right tempo. “A good pace”, as Ben would put it. When he starts to turn the screws, the film tightens into a suspense thriller that Hitchcock would have been proud of. Indeed, with its unhealthy depiction of a man’s obsession over a woman he only assumes he knows, parallels to Vertigo seem all but inevitable.
But the film that Burning reminded me of most acutely belongs to another master. Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, is a close cousin of this one, especially in terms of its structure and the dreamlike odyssey its central character finds himself embarking on. Like Eyes Wide Shut, Burning pivots on a crime at its centre that may or may not even have happened. There is the build up, and then there is the aftermath, with a comically ineffectual sleuth and a sense of dots refusing to connect. Only Chang-Dong favours greater ambiguity. Hell, even Haemi’s cat isn’t a certainty.
Ben tells Lee of his secret hobby of burning derelict greenhouses, and his intent to set fire to one close to Lee’s home. With Haemi missing, Lee spends his mornings running between fields, looking for torched remains. But its worth keeping in mind a key line of dialogue from earlier in the film, when Ben tells Haemi that Lee can tell her what a metaphor is. This throwaway moment goes unanswered (of course), but it comes to feel like an overture from Ben. Lee is too obsessed to see it. The real fire Ben sets is in Lee’s obsessive nature.
With Haemi essentially a prize between them, she becomes little more than a commodity. Another conversation late in the film brings the relations between men and women in South Korea into the foreground. Chinese men treat their women better, one character is heard remarking. Burning comes to feel like a comment on this state of affairs, complimenting similar sentiments that can be found throughout the work of Chang-Dong’s countryman Hong Sang-Soo.
Burning – beautifully shot in handheld by Hong Kyung-Pyo – is stunning to look at throughout, but never more so than during a prolonged sequence that takes place at dusk. With the sun going down Haemi dances between the two men, though Chang-Dong holds only her in the frame, silhouetted by the dying sun. The character’s abandon is never more exquisitely captured. But this hazy sense of the unreal (in this sequence heightened by pot) extends throughout the picture. There’s a sunblasted whiteness to Burning. It constantly feels delicate, as though it has just appeared out of the mist, and could disappear again just as quickly. Or as though it is too bright to see clearly, the eyes struggling to bring it into focus after after the blast of a mushroom cloud.
Though it ends on a dramatic crescendo, even this leaves little in terms of resolution in the mind. Instead, it only makes the film’s ambiguities feel more pressing. The film ends, then gets up and follows you home. It sits behind you like a shadow. For those who don’t favour such sensations, this is one to skip, I’d imagine. But for those of us who get great pleasure from that which is only temporarily – if ever – truly in our grasp, Burning is quite simply essential.