In this world, there is Little Hunger and Great Hunger.
Little Hunger is when someone is physically hungry. And Great Hunger is when a person yearns for the bigger answers, like the meaning of life, shares Haemi (Jun Jong-Seo), the female protagonist of Burning.
Director Lee Chang-dong is renowned for tackling the Great Hunger in his films. His critically successful efforts, such as Oasis, Secret Sunshine and most recently Poetry, often harbour Love, Purpose, Identity as keystones to his stories, framed around tragedy, and tackled in a familiarly cruel world.
Burning adds itself to that universe. It’s a simmering film loosely inspired by Haruki Murakami’s Barn Burning, but injected with South Korean sensibilities, and most of all, grills the effects of a world gone bleak for the younger generation.
Yoo Ah-in is odds-and-ends worker Jongsu, who bumps into childhood friend Haemi on the streets. The effervescent and candid young girl quickly draws the slack-jawed Jongsu into an easy friendship, and has them bonding over a meal. He reveals his ambition to be a writer. She shares her upcoming dream trip to Africa.
And with that, Haemi asks the simple Jongsu for a favour – to feed her cat while she’s gone. They head up to her apartment to meet the elusive cat, but ends up sharing more than just stories.
The smitten Jongsu dutifully fulfills his promise, and with every visit to the apartment, relives his brief intimate moments the way only a guy knows how.
So imagine his surprise when Haemi returns from her trip with a dapper new friend named Ben (Steven Yuen). Jongsu is immediately wary, but for a person who ambles when he walks, is also slow to react.
The threesome come together for a few meetings, where the dynamics intertwine uncomfortably, and the mysterious Ben raises more than a few flags for Jongsu. But before the jangly youth can figure out Ben’s intentions, Haemi goes missing, and he slowly reasons the cause to be clear.
Burning is definitely a slow (sorry had to do it) burn. Audiences looking for traditional structure and directional plot need to come in prepared. But that’s not to say the film is any less riveting. All three actors manifest their nuances with skill, keeping our attention honed onto clues with their every look and sentence.
Yuen’s Ben is a distant person from his The Walking Dead character Glenn. While heroic and selfless in the TV series, he is the cold and humble-bragging friend you wouldn’t trust your back with in this film. Which makes his fascination for Haemi, that much more disturbing. While newcomer Jun’s Haemi is obviously attractive, especially when her charm lies in the way she twirls her whimsical intent without censorship, her fluctuating states hint at a bipolar disorder, and has her actions stirring confusion, and at best ambiguity.
Through it all, we watch as Yoo’s weak-willed Jongsu turns from paramour to chaperone, and finally to circumstantial detective, who grasps at the implications of his findings, but frustratingly fails to connect the dots. But Yoo’s performance is stellar in its layers of mundanity and impotence, which no doubt allows for that gut-punch of an ending.
One can derive satire from this film. Ben is the upper-class who starts to dehumanise their fellow comrades, Haemi’s the aspiring but struggling middle-class used by those above them, and Jongsu, the infirmed lower-class who can only stand by with their pent-up frustrations. But to solely do so is to miss out the intimacy of the personal tales, which are captivating in their own right.
Through cold hues, misty landscape and dismal weather, Lee reminds us always that there are embers. Some go out, while others catch aflame gloriously, and also terrifyingly so. His Burning takes on several forms. It is lust in the odd moment of reflected light in Haemi’s room. It is rage in Jongsu’s father. It is a release for Ben in his arson. It is compassion in Haemi’s pet stray cat, named Boil after the boiler room it was found in. So we ask, what makes Jongsu burn?
We can probably find those moments in Mowg’s provocative score. It’s a bassy soundtrack, one referenced to by Ben (“We need to find the bass in our lives.”), but disrupted by plucky strings when Jongsu is fueling up in pursuit. It’s an effective and disturbing accompaniment, all the way to the end.
Burning is a poem of a film in essence – and most like a haiku, where a few words are crafted to draw out a scene, and leaves the listener waiting to exhale.
A searing commentary at the dynamics of social strata, and the unfolding presented in a twisted threesome of a relationship, leaves one breathless.
First published: www.movieXclusive.com