Slow-to-ignite South Korean thriller requires patience
Directed by Chang-Dong Lee
Cast: Ah-In Yoo, Jong-Seo Jeon, Steven Yeun
Chang-Dong Lee’s slow-to-no-burn mystery thriller Burning is like a thousand-piece LEGO set that builds itself slowly, one tiny block at a time. There are moments when progress is so gradual you can’t even recognize the pattern. But in the end, there it is, fully formed and staring you right in the face.
It starts with the smallest of coincidences, when occasionally employed college grad Jong-Su (Ah-In Yoo) bumps into Hae-Mi (Jong-Seo Jeon) on the streets of Seoul where she’s working as a sidewalk model (little more than a living billboard) at a dinky electronics store. Seems that Jong-Su and Hae-Mi grew up in the same rural village just a stone’s throw from the North Korean border. They haven’t seen each other since junior high. Jong-Su, for his part, hardly recognizes his old schoolmate. In the intervening decade, she’s grown up, gotten a touch of plastic surgery and is “pretty, now, huh?” (as she puts it). Despite his poor memory and taciturn manner, Jong-Su finds himself invited out by Hae-Mi for a catch-up drink.
The two have little in common, other than that long-ago desire to flee their restrictive hometown. Jong-Su recently finished college with a degree in creative writing. He harbors vague ideas of becoming a writer but has no idea where to start. Given the pedestrian, go-nowhere nature of his life, it’s no wonder he’s at a loss for ideas. Hae-Mi, on the other hand, is busy living life in the moment. Despite being broke she’s about to take off for Africa, touring the jungles and generally searching for the meaning of life. On a whim, she asks Jong-Su to look after her pet cat while she’s away. On the same whim—presumably—she also sleeps with him. The next day she’s gone, a pleasant if puzzling memory for Jong-Su.
For the next couple of weeks, Jong-Su dutifully visits Hae-Mi’s cramped apartment to take care of shy pet. It’s an extra burden, given that he’s just opted to vacate urban Seoul for his parents’ small cattle farm up north. Mom abandoned the family when Jong-Su was just a kid. Now dad has had an angry run-in with a local agriculture inspector and is facing jail time. Jong-Su is prevailed upon to return and look after the lonely old homestead.
Eventually, Hae-Mi drifts back to South Korea. Much to Jong-Su’s confusion, however, she’s got a new “friend” in tow. Ben (Steven Yeun, better known as poor dead Glenn on “The Walking Dead”) is a mysterious rich kid, whom Hae-Mi befriended in Africa. Ben is a good looking young fellow who drives an expensive Porsche and lives in a spacious modern apartment in Gangnam. When asked what he does for a living, he offers vague responses like, “There’s no difference between work and play these days.” Jong-Su isn’t sure what to think of the guy, but he’s definitely all turned around about where he stands with Hae-Mi now. Are they a couple anymore? Were they ever a couple? Is Ben Hae-Mi’s new lover? Or are they all just a bunch of happy-go-lucky millennial pals, free of serious entanglements?
Abruptly transformed into a third wheel, Jong-Su’s normally passive, go-with-the-flow personality starts to slip. He grows suspicious of Ben. He becomes uncharacteristically philosophical. Assessing the wealthy young Ben, he laments, “There are so many Gatsbys in Korea.” Jong-Su’s search for answers fuels the remaining narrative of Burning. To say more, though, would rob the film of its icy punch. What is the deal with Ben? What is his connection to Hae-Mi? Are Jong-Su’s suspicions based in reality or on deep-seated class-conscious jealousy? And for that matter, what the heck kind of movie is Burning? Sorry, I can’t say.
Burning is like a hard-boiled egg that takes two hours to crack. When it does, spilling its messy secrets, it’s a doozy. But getting there requires a good deal of patience. It lacks the energetic craziness of other contemporary Korean films like I Saw The Devil or The Wailing. In fact, it’s got more in common with the chilly sangfroid of some Nordic noir cinema (one film in particular springs to mind, though naming it would also spill a few too many of Burning’s secrets). Jong-Su’s flat affectation and stubborn lack of dialogue make him a difficult protagonist, adding to the inscrutability of the story. But the more you stick with the 148-minute run time, the more you’ll realize what a long game the writer-director is playing. Pay attention to the credits and you’ll notice the screenplay is based on the short story “Barn Burning” by Japanese author and gritty surrealist Haruki Murakami (Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, Kafka on the Shore). That should give you a further clue of what you’re in for. Subtle, slow-going and shot through with a storyline that starts out slack and tightens to painful tension, Burning is the sort of film to make you question everything you know and everything you think you know.