The enigmas of ‘Burning’

“So many Gatsbys in Korea,” Jong-su remarks, partly in awe of the space and gadgetry of a modern condo owned by Ben (Steven Yeun). Jong-su’s beloved Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), a childhood friend he used to pick on, has been dating Ben since a trip to Kenya and shows no sign of letting him go; to Jong-su, clinging to the memory of awkward sex one night, this is frustrating as hell. Lee Chang-dong’s first film since 2011’s marvelous Poetry amalgamates Haruki Murakami’s title story and elements from William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” into an unsettling, uneven creation. Its leisurely, almost serene pace is Lee’s acknowledgment that good and bad things both require a steady gaze.

In its second half Burning abandons social comedy for a whodunit with metaphysical undertones when Haemi vanishes without a trace, but not before beguiing Jong-su (and boring Ben) with a dance routine set to Miles Davis’ score from Elevator to the Gallows. Lee has already established that she’s a dancer who delights in making her own reality; a lovely meet-cute shows her peeling and eating an imaginary orange, and there’s business involving a house cat named Boil who may or may not exist. As played by the charming Yeun, Ben relishes playing a post-yuppie serious about being superficial, which makes him a natural suspect in Jong-su’s eyes (“I’ve never shed a tear in my life,” he confesses, rather proudly, after Haemi has shared a moment of loneliness on her travels). He’s also an admitted pyromaniac, specializing in setting fire to rural greenhouses. Complicating matters, though, is Ben’s bemused, condescending, but genuine curiosity about Jong-su, who wants to be a writer but struggles with the burden of a father who’s in and out of jail over assault charges.

A writer-director fascinated by the rhythms of banality, Lee stumbles when sustaining the enigmas of the last hour, especially when an act of violence ruptures what we’ve learned about these characters without being edifying. What’s clear, though, is that Burning plays as a reflexive commentary on the nature of fictions: Haemi’s disappearance, a nod to a similar plot point in Michaelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, is likely more compelling than whatever Jongsu has written to date or may write. Murakami’s story, written in tough guy Chandler prose, draws no connection between barn burning and Haemi’s vanishing except by forcing the reader to, whereas Lee’s film studies Ben’s milieu of nattering Korean socialites; Yeun’s smirk and shrunken hollow features emphasize his isolation. You don’t have to buy the ending — go along for the ride.

GRADE: A-

One thought on “The enigmas of ‘Burning’

  1. Fascinating. It will be my first Lee experience (yep) on the always fascinating and varied K-Mart that is South Korea:from Hong to Boo, the whole spectrum.
    I hope it fights LAZZARO FELICE at my most beloved film of the year, because I didn’t love many this year (ZAMA is last year for me).

    PS: Still mumbling on “literary cinema” that is “Beal Street ” and how tortuous this award season will be if someone doesn’t start to throw curveballs from the get-go (I like some Spirit nominations, but OMG, what a mediocre year in general)

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