Liberates itself of its literary source and sets a new standard of anti-thriller
Words by Patrick Preziosi / @PatrickPreziosi
LEE CHANG-DONG’S BURNING / BEONING IS stamped with the influence of Japanese author Haruki Murakami, whose short story “Barn Burning” is the film’s source material in more ways than one. Like Murakami, Lee has typically used his films’ premises as free-fall dives as opposed to neatly structured introductions, and Burning continues down a ravine comparable to that of the director’s own Secret Sunshine / Milyang (2007). Like that film, Burning possesses an earthbound conflict at the centre of its narrative, though it’s the more auxiliary elements that remain the most striking. Burning delivers a subtly paranoid thriller, but this is housed within the larger framework of a political and emotional portrait of disaffection. Lee Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo), recently out of both college and military service, works as a part-time delivery boy, though he aspires to be an author. On his first delivery run of the film, he runs into a young woman, who after admitting to some plastic surgery (though the passage of time undeniably contributes to her changed appearance), turns out to be Shin Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon), an old middle-school classmate, whose only ever interaction with Jongsu was his calling her “ugly” once. The two begin a very mundane romance, meeting for dinner, and then sleeping together once, before Haemi leaves for a spirit-quest in Africa, leaving her cat in Jongsu’s care. Already, there is something amiss amongst Jongsu’s universe: the cat never shows itself in Haemi’s one room apartment, though the food disappears, and the litter box is clearly in use. Then, Haemi returns, with the sinisterly agreeable Ben (Steven Yeun) in tow, a handsome, well off young man who met Haemi at the airport in Kenya. His inexplicable wealth, and performative “worldliness” (he claims to find people crying fascinating, and consistently badgers Jongsu about his nearly nonexistent writing) poses something of a threat to Jongsu, and an unspoken love-triangle—occasionally reminiscent of the one in Jia Zhangke’s Unknown Pleasures (2002)—develops between the three.
All three leads are perfect foils, and Lee takes advantage of such interplay by bringing details of their personal histories into the subtle competition that unfolds, equal parts gender dynamics and class disparities. Lee forgoes any proclamations concerning these internal frustrations, instead reducing them to comments made in passing (Jongsu complaining to Haemi about Ben’s affluence, and how he’s been “making pasta while listening to jazz”), or even just facial tics (Haemi’s wide-eyed expressions, Jongsu’s slack jaw, the way in which Ben is always ready with a slight smile when Jongsu’s gaze meets his). From this simmering romantic tension comes the film’s underlying mystery. After an impromptu dinner at Jongsu’s house, replete with wine and pot, Haemi dances topless in the sunset, much to the dismay of Jongsu, who proclaims his love of her to Ben. Ben then tells of a proclivity for burning down greenhouses, an arson habit that Jongusu finds himself also obsessing over, going hand in hand with the disappearance of Haemi; he calls her a “whore” before she leaves with Ben, and after that, neither man can get in touch with her, though Jongsu is convinced Ben is at least partly responsible. Jongsu does seem worried by Haemi’s disappearance, but he seems to devote himself even more to locating Ben’s next target. Jongsu of course would say he’s more concerned with the whereabouts of Haemi, but it becomes undeniably apparent that such concern is only a byproduct of his ever-growing obsession with Ben, and this coincidence offers him grounds to borderline stalk the assumed-to-be perpetrator. Instead of dipping into any sort of adrenaline-pumping sequences, Lee instead introduces such a conflict, only to slowly deflate it, imbuing the film with a tone of unexpected resignation. The digital cinematography of Kyung-pyo Hong is deft at capturing the twilit beauty of South Korea, without ever passing over the ugly rawness of its more urban sprawl, only furthering this deeply ingrained feeling of inescapability. It’s a vicious cycle Jongsu inserts himself into, spending his mornings jogging amongst greenhouses to see if any have been burnt down, stalking Ben, and then coming home to his always ringing phone, though no one ever answers when he picks up.
With the characters Burning follows, a host of harsh contradictions rise to its surface. Jongsu proclaims his love for Haemi to Ben, but calls her a whore to his face, and for an aspiring writer, his Faulkner and Fitzgerald references scan as trite. But are the caricatures that the three protagonists fulfill – Haemi’s aimlessness, Ben’s slick affluence – at the cause of their own hand, or dictated by such crushing external surroundings? Trump flashes on Jongsu’s television screen, and living in Paju, he’s able to hear the propaganda broadcasts from the other side of the border, this inescapability invading even his homelife. It makes sense to desire even the most stereotypical of outlets. By the Burning’s close, Lee has offered catharsis, though it’s delivered within the unsatisfying grips of inevitability. The film sets a new standard of anti-thriller, and Lee even throws in a subtle, Hitchcock-worthy Macguffin in the final third, reinforcing the mystery while also demystifing it. Jongsu’s confused obsession renders him a wanderer more than anything else, stumbling into the mystery of Haemi and Ben, once more aligning the film with the work of Murakami, such as "Kafka On the Shore", "Sputnik Sweetheart" and even "Norwegian Wood". It’s not that Lee is an overtly “literary” filmmaker, but rather one who finds himself quietly liberated through the conventions of his chosen medium.
Burning / Beoning
Director: Lee Chang-dong
Country: South Korea
Duration: 148 minutes
Rating: 15 for "strong violence, sex, nudity, drug misuse"
Release: February 1, 2019
Patrick Preziosi is a writer for Electric Ghost Magazine based in Brooklyn, New York. He has written for Little White Lies, Metrograph Edition, Photogénie and more.