After an eight-year hiatus from directing, Lee Chang-dong has returned with Burning, a simmering mystery and social commentary on the growing income inequality in South Korea—among other, insurmountably large issues.
The film loosely borrows from Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning,” but its richly literate script is like a book all its own, bouncing from soliloquies on mortality and dissatisfaction to scenes of tribal dancing, emotional sex, intense violence and silent contemplation. While the film occasionally stretches to connect these disparate elements—and struggles to keep the characters’ dense musings from sounding like words on a page—Burning is ultimately much greater than the sum of its parts, and all tedium is forgotten by its haunting conclusion.
For a film about three people in one metro area, Burning covers a lot of ground, physically and thematically. Jong-soo (Yoo Ah-in) is a sensitive twentysomething who works part-time, whenever he can find something that pays. He graduated with a degree in literature and aspires to be a novelist, but without time, money or a subject, he’s only a writer in quotations. On a day like any other, Jong-soo runs into childhood neighbor Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo), and the two kindred spirits quickly reconnect.
Yet Jong-soo’s ambitions and blossoming relationship with Hae-mi are cut short when his father faces jail time for assault, and Jong-soo must return home to Paju to manage what’s left of the family farm. Jong-soo’s working class struggles are magnified by the introduction of Ben (Steven Yeun), Hae-mi’s mysterious new friend who lives in a gorgeous Seoul apartment, drives a Porsche, and claims he’s never cried in his life. As the three begin to spend more and more time together, their power dynamic becomes complex in unexpected and terrifying ways, leaving Jong-soo on the brink of revelation and madness.
It’s only natural that Lee’s time away from the cinema would produce a film centered around absences. Hae-mi learns pantomime to recreate the experience of what she can’t have, her apartment is always empty, her cat never seen, and her trip to Africa revolves around a search for a kind of existential curiosity called the “Great Hunger.” Jong-su’s mother is long absent, his father in prison, and he is constantly searching for something he may never find. Ben, too, seems to dance around a hole at the center of his life.
The ambiguous, almost-subject-less nature of Burning, which recalls the English modernism of novels like Jacob’s Room, can make some scenes feel tedious and impersonal—how do you covey this kind of distance without alienating your audience? Yet Burning is always quick to pull you back in, thanks in a large part to mesmerizing performances by all three leads.
It’s an unfortunate element of the script that Hae-mi is often presented as little more than a beautiful, wistful girl-woman who must suffer at the hands of dangerous men, but Jun Jung-seo grounds Hae-mi’s frustratingly childlike behavior and mood swings with essential psychological complexity. Yoo Ah-in is also particularly compelling as Jong-soo, his mouth often ajar as if about to speak, to protest, but never quite able to make a sound. He’s a real contender for this year’s best actor at Cannes, although his win would, unfortunately, disqualify Burning from the Palme d’Or.
To the unacquainted, the film’s shift from drama to mystery-thriller may feel unexpected: much of its two-and-a-half-hour runtime is meandering and not propelled by the motion we usually associate with mysteries. There’s arguably an excessive number of unanswered phone calls, meetups that go nowhere, and driving shots throughout as well. However, Burning drops plenty of hints along the way that something more is afoot: nobody delivers a speech about right and wrong and doesn’t have secrets.
Despite the shift, the film is also visually beautiful throughout, mixing entrancing point-of-view shots of the Seoul skyline with handheld sequences of the Paju countryside. One sequence in particular, in which Hae-mi dances in a marijuana haze against the setting sun, is an instant classic of contemporary filmmaking. Burning may not have pacing on its side, but the final product is well worth the wait.