The Pitch: One day, while doing odd jobs to maintain a living, Jong-su (Yoo Ah-In) runs into an old schoolmate in the modest city of Paju. He doesn’t remember Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) right away, particularly given the plastic surgery she claims to have had since childhood, but she certainly remembers him. They reconnect, they bond over their rural upbringings, and before long they’ve become lovers. Then, without warning, Hae-mi disappears. When she returns from a backpacking trip through Africa, she returns with Ben (Steven Yeun), a well-off young man with mysterious intentions, who seems to have just as active an interest in Jong-su as he does in Hae-mi. Soon Jong-su is led to wonder exactly who Ben is, who Hae-mi really is, and what one or both of them ultimately want from him.
Burning For You: With Burning, director Lee Chang-dong‘s first film in eight years, a different version of South Korea emerges from the one that’s been so common in the major crossover films of the last 10-15 years. So many of the biggest global hits to emerge from the country have focused on the lurid, the kind of outré filmmaking that tends to grab eyeballs the fastest. By contrast, Burning exists alongside those films while also functioning as a more intimate piece. This year’s South Korean nominee for the Oscars, Burning plays out the modern class struggle in South Korea through a trio of lost souls, two of them wandering because of their own uncertain place in the world, and the other because he’s simply pursuing the cheapest and most hedonistic thrills.
In Yoo, the filmmaker finds an endlessly expressive blank slate onto which to play out so much of the film’s high drama. Burning unfolds at an incredibly deliberate pace, and if that pacing occasionally draws the film into listless territory, even its most wandering moments have merits to take away. As Jong-su starts to be invited to high(er) society parties and adventurous group dates, the seduction of Ben’s lifestyle is writ clear. It’s not that he isn’t a suspicious figure, but to Jong-su, he’s suspicious solely because of his unyielding privilege. To Jong-su, who maintains his family’s farm while waiting for his reckless father to finally get out of prison, Ben’s world may as well be an alternate reality, a place of opulent condos and high-end restaurants and casual drug use and a general devil-may-care attitude about life. Burning is largely concerned with privilege in all of its forms, and the ways in which people who grow up outside of that social structure have far too little of an understanding of just how alternate a reality the rich live in from the rest of us.
Into The Fog: We’ve already referred to Lee’s film as deliberate, but it’s tough to think of a better way to illustrate the way in which Burning unfolds. The film peels itself back in tiny increments, never allowing for a sense of easy comfort as Jong-su’s intentions are perpetually called into question. Yoo delivers his performance with such a sense of halted silence that Yeun’s slick, assured presence feels like an immediate and violent interruption of Jong-su’s life without Ben ever having much to say at all. Where Yoo and Jeon are both reluctant in the way they move through life, people from an impoverished environment who’ve learned to be over-polite in every scenario, Ben practically slithers his way through the day. He’s endlessly cool, but when he acknowledges that he’s never once cried in his life, the red flags immediately begin to crop up.
Yet Burning is hardly your everyday potboiler. For as relentlessly charismatic as Yeun is, in a turn that asks him to shed so much of the nice-guy cred he’s built up through his more genial onscreen roles elsewhere, this is Yoo’s film. In centering the film around a protagonist so paralyzed by social anxiety that his words feel like a struggle, Lee tells a very different story of modern Korea, a story about the people being abandoned by the inexorable march of progress. Wisely, Lee never situates the rural parts of the country as quaint; the open expanses are every bit as fraught with tension and fear as the claustrophobic cities. As much as anything, Burning is a chronicle of a rapidly changing nation, a country watching its traditions disappear in the face of modernity. In this way, it’s a distinctly South Korean story, but also achieves an aching universality as well.
The Verdict: Burning is the kind of thriller that keeps its grander implications close to the chest. They won’t emerge until long after the film rolls, to many viewers, and this kind of pacing may be off-putting to some. However, to look past the way in which Lee tells his story is to look past what gives the film so much of its dramatic impact. The film’s languid storytelling eventually gives way to a strangling paranoia, a sense that danger is just around the corner, whether because of Ben’s increasingly mysterious behavior or simply because Jong-su is passing his time in a part of the world in which he fundamentally does not belong.
Much of the film’s 147 minutes is simply devoted to following Jong-su, who himself is often following others. In his aching need to make sense of the world’s unyielding chaos, Burning emerges as one of the most trenchant modern portraits of the ways in which affluence can blacken the soul, and how struggling to attain it can often end in the exact same result. This is despairing filmmaking, but also the kind that arrests the eye from its first moments. Lee has made something rare here: a portrait of poverty that treats its subjects not as victims or as aggressors, but simply as pawns of a far grander social scheme than any of them can possibly comprehend.
Where’s It Playing?: Burning is now out in limited release.