Of all the films at this year’s Cannes film festival, it was this Korean thriller that had the critics talking, although in the end it missed out on the big awards. It was one of my favourite films at this year’s London Film Festival, and one that lingered in my mind for days.
It’s best not to say too much of the plot as its subtle mysteries are part of the pleasures of this beautiful film, so I’ll describe only the initial set-up.
The film is seen through the perspective of Lee Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in), an unsophisticated but sensitive young man who longs to be a writer but makes ends meet with dead-end jobs. Searching for work in the city, he meets Shin Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo) and is immediately attracted to her. Haemi says she recognised him as a childhood friend although he doesn’t recall her. They have a brief fling before she flies to Nairobi on holiday.
She returns a couple of weeks later with a new boyfriend to Jongsu’s obvious dismay. Ben (Steven Yeun) is a wealthy, cultured socialite who she met in Africa. Jongsu, Haemi and Ben hang out, but Jongsu is uncertain where he now fits in and is uncomfortable with Ben’s privilege and sophistication. Ben seems to be genuinely fascinated by Jongsu, but sometimes seems to be toying with him. The three form an awkward triangle, but both Hae-mi’s and Ben’s mysterious behaviour suggest there may be something more sinister or dangerous afoot.
Director Lee Chang-dong said that the film was intended to explore the problems facing young people in today’s fractured society. All three characters are each alone, living existentially. Haemi lives by herself in the city, her origins distant and uncertain. Jongsu came from a broken family; his mother left years ago and he’s disappointed by his uncaring father who on remand for assault. Ben also doesn’t seem to have a close family, although they could be the source of his unexplained wealth.
The essential differences between the two men are also a major element. The film uses their very different personal situations to contrast their inner lives in significant and subtle ways. Jongsu is introverted and sensitive, while Ben is outgoing and a little superficial. Jongsu is a loner and is lonely; Ben is amiable and has many sophisticated friends who attend his dinner parties. Jongsu is poor, he’s tied to an impoverished family farm at the edge of a Paju, a city near the border with North Korea; Ben lives in a stylish modern flat in the posh Ganghan district of Seoul. Jongsu drives a battered, old white van, Ben drives a sleek black Porsche.
Jongsu faces the same problems as many young people in today’s world. Housing and education are unaffordable, he can only afford to rent a tiny flat and can only find low-paid jobs. The barriers to social mobility are insurmountable and he is trapped. He resents Ben for his wealth, sophistication and privilege, for having what he never can attain himself.
Ben, despite his privilege, faces an existential crisis of his own. He has the trappings of middle class success – material affluence, cultural sophistication, social capital – but his life is solitary and empty. He is also looking for something. He seeks relief from his ennui by little acts of rebellion, although maybe this is also to foster a persona that makes him more interesting than he is. He smokes weed to show off to Haemi, he talks pretentiously about his philosophy and boasts about inconsequential and possibly imaginary acts of arson.
The film views Haemi through the eyes of both men, and the film comes close at times to objectifying its single female character; this is definitely a film with a male gaze. She intrigues and attracts both men by her sexuality and her refreshing eccentricity; she flirts with Jongsu and seduces him almost as soon as they meet, and for Ben she seems to be a trophy that goes well with his Porsche.
There’s a remarkable scene where she strips topless, dancing to Miles Davis in the fading sunset in front of the two men. She starts to cry, moved by the moment’s transience and perhaps at her own fragile existence. We see her through both men’s eyes, Jongsu with a melancholic longing and Ben savouring a display of what he only fleetingly will possess. It’s a beautiful and emotionally resonant scene.
Haemi’s role is more than just of an object of desire, however. She has a spirit and energy, and a thirst for life and experience. She explains her world view that everyone has a ‘little hunger’, the everyday needs, but also a ‘big hunger’ that feeds the soul. Of the trio, she alone is truly independent and untethered, and feeds her ‘big hunger’. She acts rather than just exists and so has something that is missing from both men’s lives.
For both of them, and particularly for Jongsu, she is a cipher for something elusive just out of reach. She is mysterious. She introduces herself to Jongsu as a classmate from school, but he doesn’t remember her nor does he share her memory of a childhood incident when she fell down a well and was discovered by Jongsu. Did she invent this, and if so why? She self-mythologises and tends to revisionism: early in the film before flying to Nairobi she introduces her ‘little hunger’/’big hunger’ philosophy as her own invention, but later she claims this an insight from watching a tribal African dance.
Burning is full of these subtle mysteries and intrigues, and in this unconventional thriller the mysteries pile up as the film progresses. Very little is certain about the Haemi or Ben and Jongsu is also distanced, but despite these ambiguities the film is never frustrating nor does it seem willfully opaque. Instead they create a strange, intriguing tone that gradually build the film to a full-blown thriller. Every new enigma makes us reassess what we assumed before.
The film has a literary pedigree. It’s based on a Haruki Murikami short story called ‘Barn Burning’ – the film swaps barns for greenhouses – but also draws plot details and tone from other Murikami novels and stories. Director Lee also draws on William Faulkner for his depiction of poverty and despondency; including a short story that is also coincidentally called ‘Barn Burning’. The film symbolically connects aspiring writer Jongsu with that hopeless world by having him declare Faulkner his favourite author. Ben, who desires a more meaningful reality, is later seen reading a Faulkner novel as if to get some second-hand insight into Jongsu’s world.
By contrast, Ben is like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Gatsby’, a rich playboy with a superficial life who yearns for a more fulfilling existence, although it is Jongsu rather than Ben who sees Haemi as his unattainable ‘Daisy’. She is at one point represented by a golden sunbeam reflected by the window of an tower opposite Haemi’s tiny rented bedsit, like Gatsby’s green light at the end of the pier.
The entire film is extremely well crafted – the blocking, sound design and particularly the cinematography are beautiful and evocative. It’s so well done, I barely noticed its virtuosity.
The script is understated with a nuanced realism and the acting from the three main characters is exceptional The yearnings and discomforts are believably expressed by the tiniest of details. The initial sex scene, for example, tenderly expresses Haemi’s desire for life and Jongsu’s anxious insecurities. Steven Yeun’s performance turns his cultured, engaging character into something slightly alien and unsettling.
The most impressive performance is by Yoo Ah-in as Jongsu, who renders his character’s longings, frustrations and melancholy by making him both sympathetic and yet detached and unknowable. His discomfort when watching Haemi being thrilled by Ben’s sophistication. His lonely resignation when eating noodles in his father’s darkened empty farmhouse. The film immerses the viewer in Jongsu’s world and I was connected to it emotionally, but I always felt kept at a distance.
Burning is an incredible film. It’s beautifully crafted and it layers ambiguities and mysteries. It’s a slow-burner (!), but it’s constantly fascinating and engaging with some incredible acting. It was one of my highlights of this year’s London Film Festival and it will be released in the UK on 2nd February 2019.Follow @davefilmblog