Burning is a mesmerizing character study of modern loneliness.
At the center of its broken heart, the psychological thriller Burning is a mesmerizing character study of modern loneliness. Director Lee Chang-dong (Poetry) and his pitch-perfect leads navigate an anxious romantic triangle that pours tragic fuel on a slow burn that’s one of the best movies of the year.
Aspiring young writer Jong-su (Yoo Ah-In), the modest son of a farmer, is kind of invisible. In the movie’s first frame, we meet him taking a cigarette break, and you see his smoke before you see him. With the shambling gait of the defeated, he walks through a street fair like a ghost, and when he picks the winning number in raffle led by a pair of pretty young advertising models, he’s reluctant to speak up.
It turns out that one of those models, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), was an old classmate. To Jong-su’s surprise, she sleeps with him, but he’s distracted during sex, trying to see the play of light on Hae-mi’s apartment wall, a reflection she says bounces off the tower across the way.
This tentative affair doesn’t take hold; when Hae-mi returns from a trip to Africa, Jong-su meets her at the airport, where she has brought along her new friend Ben (Steven Yuen of “The Walking Dead”). While Jong-su drives a rusty white pickup truck, Ben drives a Porsche. It’s not clear where Ben gets his wealth, and Jong-su comes to call him “The Great Gatsby,” but however he makes his money, he unceremoniously wins Hae-mi’s affection.
Jong-su seems slow, his expressions caught in a half-sleep, but is this merely a put-on? In one scene with Ben and Hae-mi, with whom he’s become simply a third wheel, Jong-su seems to drop the simpleton act for a moment of awareness, a subtle shift that turns the movie around towards its inevitable conflagration.
Burning is ambiguous enough about intentions—both its characters, and its own—that its ripe for projection of various anxieties. But throwaway political references, such as a Trump speech on TV or the location of Jong-su’s family farm near the DMZ, seem like distractions from what is a universal alienation.
The central scene that everyone is talking about, when the three smoke pot and Hae-mi takes off her top for a twilight dance, is the primary overlap with the film’s source material, the Haruki Murakami short story “Barn Burning.” But where most Murakami adaptations for the screen fail to capture the author’s elusive tone, Chang-dong avoids that entirely by expanding the material into his own fascinating vision. In Murakami’s story, Jong-su is older than Ben, and there’s no class difference between the two; Chang-dong, who co-wrote the screenplay with Oh Jungmi, develops the characters so that Jong-su falls short of Ben in both maturity and social stature, which heightens a resentment that quietly seethes until it boils over.
Ah-In is a K-drama regular, and Chang-dong seems to distill some of that subgenre’s melodramatic elements into a subtle arthouse thriller, thanks to strong performances from all three leads. Ah-In is a dork without being coy about it; Yuen, in his first lead in a Korean film, gives Ben a hint of sympathy despite the character’s cool arrogance and, finally, Jong-Seo, in her very first acting credit, lends an underlying tragedy to a character that in an American film would be simply another manic pixie dreamgirl. Chang-dong immerses us in Jong-su’s desperate loneliness so that we know him uncomfortably well. We feel his shame at meeting Ben’s rich friends, and in showing him and Hae-mi his meagre farm. We feel Jong-su’s frustration that he never completely knows Hae-mi or Ben, who both seem to harbor deceptions that will keep them and their world forever unattainable.
Its emotional richness originating in a skeletal short story, Burning develops Murakami’s framework into a rare cinematic achievement: It patiently introduces you to its characters until they become real to you, then slowly leads you to their grueling fate.