Lee Chang-Dong, South Korea, 2018
Hangul: 버닝 – RR: Beoning
Maintaining and leaving a thorough sense of ambiguity, when done correctly, can create the most haunting of fiction. For this reason, for example, Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ will always be a Rorschach test and it seems to me that no line of Henry James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’ can be trusted; or maybe it’s just perhaps something you can’t quite put your finger on, like the early works of Nicolas Roeg. Lee Chang-Dong’s ‘Burning’ is all about ambiguity: for example, is there a cat/well/killer?
Lee Jong-su (a rivetingly disarming Ah-in Yoo) is a loner looking for a story to write. But he mostly seems aimless and friendless. Also, his dad is on trial for violent behaviour, leaving the farm for his son to look after. Then one day he runs into an old a neighbour, Shin Hae-Mai (a charmingly shambolic Jong-seo Jun) … or is she? After all, he doesn’t recognise her as she says she had plastic surgery to now make her beautiful. Like everything else, there indeed seems to be some truth in there somewhere: she does seem to recognise the old neighbourhood, for example...
She asks him to look after her cat when she’s away, which he never sees. Nevertheless, it’s obvious he’s becoming obsessed with her, so when Hae-Mi returns with rich-boy Ben (a mesmerisingly opaque Stephen Yeun), Jong-su is put out and even more repressed than before. Ben’s behaviour seems more and more like that of a sociopath, and Jong-su starts to suspect him of being a serial killer. Or maybe he’s just privileged and shallow?
Maybe Hae-Mi just disappears because the last thing that Jung-su said to her was staggeringly rude and she no longer wanted to play? Maybe the watch is in the drawer because she deliberately left it behind because she didn’t like it – maybe she dropped it? And maybe the thing about Ben and burning down greenhouses is just a pretension, a fancy? After all, there does seem to be some fabrication going on. And who can trust a cat's reactions? Everything is circumstantial, which means bewildered Jung-su’s escalation of assumptions and conclusions takes a more chilling and tragic turn. The more you try to pin down the film’s certainties, the more they tend to the subjective. It’s all in Hae-mi’s pantomiming: just believe it’s there.
It’s the mystery that lingers, but as well as precisely staged, ‘Burning’ is beautifully filmed in slightly washed-out colours that verge on film noir, wallowing in slow reveals until it has fully planted its questions in you. Like everything else, the sound design and music also take time to show how meticulously placed and riveting it is. Based loosely on Haruki Murakami’s short story ‘Barn Burning’, it’s as much based upon its lacunas and ellipses as what we see. There’s the gamut of issues of violence, class, repression, sexual longing and rivalry informing this troubled central love-triangle: big game is being caught here, even if motivation is often obscure. There’s the sense that the elusive centre is just within reach, calling from a distance like the propaganda blared across the border to the Lee farm.
The three leads are exceptional, all playing a little abstract and yet thoroughly human. Yoo gets so much from silences beneath which sexual jealousies and class resentment is festering; Jun is the life and soul of the party, both bubbly and slippery and it’s easy to see why she would be the object of infatuation. Yeun is rivetingly all surface and slick, unknowable; saying so little but seemingly doing so – unlike Jung-su – out of arrogance and a superiority complex. ‘Burning’ is firmly anchored by these performances while taking its time distributing its clues and secrecies and pantomime.
Is Jong-su looking for the truth or a story? But that’s a little disingenuous: he’s looking for both and the question is of how much the latter obscures the former. Then again, perhaps things are just what they seem. And we’ll never know because all we are left with are assumptions. And also a great film about how those assumptions and our need to impose narratives dictate our obsessions and behaviour. And class war, and sexual jealousy, etc...