Characterized by the robotic sexual gestures of dancing women luring customers inside a discount store, or the surreal circumstance of characters listening to North Korean propaganda announcements dusting the South Korean landscape like acid rain, director Lee Chang-dong’s latest film, Burning, shows a world defined by a pervasive sense of disconnection.
In Burning, Lee paints an often disturbing portrait of contemporary South Korea as seen through the eyes of his aimless protagonist Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo).
An aspiring writer, Jongsu is temporarily caring for his jailed father’s farm and becomes infatuated with Haemi (Jong-seo Jun), an eccentric young woman from his rural community with whom he reconnects in Seoul. Haemi seems to divert his listlessness for a time, directing it toward a less lonely, more romantic fixation. They have sex and spend time together, but something is missing. When she travels to Africa, Jongsu is enlisted to watch Haemi’s cat, and his infatuation grows.
Based on the short story “Barn Burning” by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, Burning revisits some of the author’s familiar tropes: cats, missing girls, bucket loads of ennui, and an emotionally castaway protagonist. In his review of Murakami’s latest novel, Killing Commendatore (2017), British novelist Hari Kunzru describes the author’s signature “Murakami man” as “a listless, socially isolated guy,” and Jongsu certainly fits the bill.
American pop culture brims with clichés about Asian life; ideas about tightly-knit families, upward mobility, and discipline dominate conventional narratives. But Burning (like its source material) reassures us that there is a modern global reality that trumps national and racial stereotypes, a borderless zone where shared qualities of yearning and dissatisfaction—and a gaping divide between the haves and the have-nots—provides common ground for many young people.
This world is filled with unrooted, aimless, unhappy people who are estranged from their family and friends, living in tiny, one-room apartments like Haemi’s, with a cat litter box tucked under the bed. Viewers learn Jongsu’s father has an “anger problem” and that his mother abandoned the family decades ago, reemerging suddenly during the events depicted in in Burning as a self-involved twit who obsessively checks her cellphone while meeting with the son she hasn’t see in 16 years. With his pouty baby face and docile manner, Jongsu feels like a broken soul whose deepest connection may be with the calf he eventually sells to another farmer, in a scene that may be the most emotionally resonant and heartbreaking in the entire picture.
Something close to intrigue blossoms when handsome Ben (Steven Yeun) enters Haemi’s orbit during her trip to Africa. When they step off a plane back in Seoul, Jongsu meets his new rival. He seethes with quiet jealousy at this wealthy, supremely confident man with an enormous Gangnam apartment who spends his time in chic cafés, surrounded by fashionable young things who smoke and drape their limbs on his furniture.
If French New Wave films like Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part (1964) often privileged joyful effusion as its definitive threesome galloped merrily through the Louvre or danced the Madison in a smoky cafe, then in Burning the predominant mood is emotional restraint or, perhaps, smoldering. Emotions lay beneath the surface, and the most intense bellwether of repressed urges is the slightly flaky, slightly tortured Haemi’s ability to instantly fall asleep sitting in a café or in a bar, or her tendency to throw off her clothes and dance her heart out at the sight of a beautiful sunset. Feelings are tamped down so that viewers notice lust, resentment, jealousy, and smugness percolating—but barely disrupting the film’s tranquil mood. Ben, it turns out, sets fires for fun, but this activity registers less as sociopathy and more as a destructive byproduct of privilege and boredom. Nevertheless, you cringe when Haemi goes missing, waiting for the true depths of Ben’s malevolence to be revealed. It doesn’t seem coincidental, either, that the greenhouses Ben targets for destruction are all located in the countryside. Class divides are stark in Burning, and there’s an implicit violence and resentment roiling beneath the surface as Ben drives his Porsche through seemingly endless farmlands looking for his next bonfire.
Something is shifting in the culture that Lee depicts, and Jongsu, Ben, and Haemi are indicators of that change. “Where did all of these young rich mysterious Gatsbys come from?” Jongsu wonders when he and Haemi first take in Ben’s luxe apartment. Astounded by a life so distant from his own, Jongsu marvels to Haemi at how Ben appears like a cinematic cliché of a rich person who “listens to music while he cooks pasta.” Threaded throughout the film are filaments of Murakami’s similarly melancholy, edge-of-the-earth mood, a sense of the celebrated Japanese novelist perfectly reading the zeitgeist of the time, even while bigger-picture matters of love, family, and the future preoccupy the film’s protagonist.
Lee’s films—such as his masterful, deeply tragic Secret Sunshine—often register as disarmingly subtle but burrow deep. You find yourself, days later, pondering why you can’t shake a feeling of ennui, one that Lee has implanted like a virus beneath the skin.
Burning opens Friday, November 9 in Atlanta at Regal Tara Cinemas.