Korea’s renowned auteur, Lee Chang-Dong embraces the power of ambiguity in Burning, his first movie in eight years since Poetry back in 2010.
Inspired by Haruki Murakami short story Barn Burning, the movie follows Jong-Soo (Yoo Ah-In), a deliveryman-cum-aspiring writer who met his former schoolmate, Haemi (Jeon Jong-Seo) one day outside a department store. Haemi gradually seduces him and even asking for a favour to take care of her cat while she’s off to Africa.
Things get complicated when Haemi returns home with her new friend, Ben (Steven Yeun). Unlike the poor country-boy Jong-Soo, Ben is a rich and handsome young man who drives Porsche and lives in a posh apartment. Jong-Soo begins to feel jealous of Ben, even though the three of them occasionally hang out and enjoy each other’s company.
Then one day, Haemi is mysteriously disappeared without a trace. Jong-Soo suspected Ben has something to do with it, particularly after he reveals his dark secret about his certain twisted hobby. But is Ben actually the cause of Haemi’s sudden disappearance? Or is he playing him, given Jong-Soo’s slow-witted nature?
Over the course of nearly 2 hours and 30 minutes, co-writer and director Lee Chang-Dong refuses to provide an easy answer or even spoonfeed his audiences with obvious clues regarding Haemi’s disappearance and Ben’s sneaky role. Burning is definitely not the kind of conventional mystery drama that you might expect in the first place.
Instead, it’s a slow burn full of teases that are both emotionally and psychologically vague. I won’t be surprised if some of those who watched Burning would end up accusing Lee Chang-Dong of being pretentious. Or perhaps getting all artsy-fartsy for artistic sake.
But cinephiles would enjoy dissecting the equivocalness nature of this movie. Besides, it becomes apparent that Lee Chang-Dong aims to ask us questions. Questions that are up to our own interpretations about the mystery that happens throughout the movie.
From what I see here, the “mystery” is more of a state of mind. Or more appropriately, Jong-Soo’s increasingly perplexing mind which fuelled by jealousy and obsession. He’s a loner, a loser and an introvert at the same time. He doesn’t seem to have any friend to hang out with. The only thing that makes his life exciting in his otherwise self-contained, mundane world is Haemi. He is so fixated on Haemi that he would spend time masturbating every now and then when she’s not around.
When Ben is introduced and Haemi subsequently vanished, Jong-Soo immediately concludes that he’s the obvious suspect. After all, Ben is the only one he saw who frequently hang out and flirt Haemi even when Jong-Soo is with them. Never once he occurred that it could be Haemi who played him instead. But sheer jealousy clouded his judgment to rationalise the whole situation in a proper manner. To me, Ben represents a symbol of fear that exists to mess up Jong-Soo’s already-rigid mindset.
Again, this is just my interpretation of this movie. Burning is never meant to have a clear and definitive answer. You might draw your own conclusion. And this is what makes the movie curiously fascinating, yet mesmerising at the same time.
Kudos also go to Hong Kyung-Pyo’s cinematography and Mowg’s score for successfully establishing the enigmatic mood and atmosphere altogether. In one particularly memorable sequence, Haemi is completely stoned and started dancing in front of the sunset while stripping off her top. All beautifully set to the seductive jazzy tune of Miles Davis’ Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. It almost makes me feel like I’m watching a slow-dance sequence directed by David Lynch.
As for the actors, all the three principal cast display excellent performances. But it was Steven Yeun (the US-based Korean actor best known for his role as Glenn Rhee in TV’s The Walking Dead) who fascinates me the most with his creepy role as Ben.
I do admit the deliberate first-half runs a little too slow for its own good. But Burning remains one of those rarities, where a supposedly inspired short story stretched to such a long slow-burn actually works in its favour.