Produced, directed, and co-written by Lee Chang-dong, South Korea’s entry for the Foreign Language Oscar, Burning, is a clever piece of artistic filmmaking, seamlessly blending elements of romantic comedy with suspense and mystery. Featuring a three-lead cast that play off each other commendably, Lee is able to weave a tantalizing story full of visual metaphor and homages to the greats of western cinema, while still maintaining the style of Asia’s best. The film competed at Cannes (winning the FIPRESCI Prize and the Vulcan Award), and joins Shoplifters as a Spirit nominee for Best International Film.
The story revolves around Jongsu, played by Yoo Ah-in. He’s an aspiring novelist and part-time delivery worker unsure of what to write about. He also has to deal with a massive amount of family drama, as he is estranged from his mother and sister, and his father faces prison for assaulting a police officer. As such, he’s forced to travel between the city of Paju and the rural outskirts, taking care of the family cattle farm (of which only a single calf remains).
One day, in the city, he’s flagged down by a promotional model at a store giveaway. He thinks she’s just flirting at first, until she reveals that she is his childhood friend Haemi (Jeon Jongseo), all grown up and genuinely attracted to him, despite him teasing her as a kid. She takes him to her apartment, where they consummate years of pent up tension, and Haemi asks Jongsu to look after her autistic cat (who doesn’t come out to greet strangers) while she’s away on a trip to Africa.
There’s a flighty sweetness to Haemi that straddles the line between cute innocence and whatever the Korean version of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is. She doesn’t have much agency of her own, but there is one solid, almost literary characteristic about her. She loves light. In her apartment, she can’t see the Sun, apart from a few minutes when its light reflects off of a nearby radio tower and into her window, which Jongsu notices as they make love. In a later scene, she gets high and prances around topless in Jongsu’s yard, celebrating a sunset before the darkness makes her literally cry and become despondent. It’s a wonderfully artistic trait, if somewhat nebulous, but it’s the most definition she has as her own independent character.
When Haemi returns from Kenya, she brings along a new friend, Ben, played by The Walking Dead star Steven Yeun. They connected because they were the only Koreans on the trip, but Jongsu immediately sees him as a romantic rival and threat.
The rest of the first half of the film plays like an awkward love triangle straight out of a Hollywood rom-com. Jongsu has an inferiority complex because Ben is rich, urbane, and honestly, a bit of a douchebag. I imagine he’s seen as the Asian equivalent of a hipster. Ben tolerates Jongsu as a third wheel, but certainly seems to enjoy looking down on his societal inferior, though he takes an interest in William Faulkner, as Jongsu mentions him as his favorite writer. Jongsu compares Ben to Jay Gatsby, in that he has money to burn on lavish parties, but no one really knows what he does for a living. At best, Ben says that he “plays” as his work.
The film takes a hard left turn midway through as Ben confesses to Jongsu that his favorite hobby is burning down abandoned greenhouses all over the country, and that he’s scouted out a new one. When one of the group goes missing, the film shifts from a somewhat lighthearted dramedy into an almost Hitchcockian thriller, Haemi’s sadness at the darkness a hint of where the story leads. Several clues and red herrings present themselves, like a mysterious person who calls Jongsu’s farm but never talks when he picks up. There’s also the question of whether Haemi’s cat even exists. It all comes to a head nicely with a lot of visual cues because Lee Chang-dong gives his audience enough credit to figure things out without having to explicitly state them.
The whole thing proceeds at something of a deliberate snail’s pace, letting the audience absorb each moment, each clue, and process them. All the while, Lee peppers in several bits of visual artistry, including some great light and shadow play (including framing all of the second half scenes with dark tones, even when it’s daylight), as well as a fire dream with literally no sound. Even Haemi, who can easily be interpreted as just an outlet for sexual fantasy, is pursued with the misogynistic zeal of a Fellini leading man.
The suspense is carried partly by Jongsu, who at first seems like a dullard but becomes more serious and focused as the story progresses, like many a character in Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness narratives. The film is also elevated by a chilling score from award-winning Korean film composer Lee Sunghyun, known professionally as Mowg. Mowg uses a combination of eastern strings and western percussion instruments to needle at the audience’s psyche as Jongsu’s world starts to make less and less sense. He hasn’t gotten much attention outside of Asia, but I’d love it if Mowg got an Original Score nomination.
It’s really an apples and oranges comparison, but looking at Burning side by side with Shoplifters, I give a slight edge to the latter. Burning is a much more artistic film, but it is noticeable how much of a cipher for desire Haemi’s character is when there are only three principle characters. Meanwhile, Shoplifters has a larger ensemble cast and is much more fleshed out, with a better-constructed story. I’m happy I’ve seen both of these films, and if they both get nominated for Foreign Language, you won’t hear me complain.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you a fan of Asian cinema, and if so, what’s your favorite movie? Would you feed a cat if you weren’t sure it was actually there? Let me know!