By Claire Pak
Director Lee Chang Dong is very well-known among people interested in Korean film, and with good reason. His 1999 film Peppermint Candy, an ambitious tour through the turmoils of 20th century Korean history wrapped around the life story of a lonely, traumatized man, is often included within the Korean (if not international) film canon as one of “the greats,” and his internationally-recognized films Secret Sunshine and Poetry are deeply empathic, devastating character studies that will absolutely put you through the emotional wringer.
His newest film, Burning, is unlike most of his filmography in that it feels at times cold and distant, like a surreal dream that’s not scary enough to be a nightmare but still unsettles you when you wake up. This coldness is intentional. Plotwise, Burning is about a young man named Jongsu (played by Yoo Ah-in), who begins a relationship with Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), a childhood friend he didn’t initially remember. She comes back from a trip of self-discovery in Africa with a strange man who calls himself Ben (Jeon Jong-seo), and the interactions between the three of them take a slow dive into the strange and sinister, set to beautiful cinematography, lighting and soundscape.
Ah Yoo-in convincingly acts as a lonely aspiring writer in-between jobs, and his descent from someone who's basically an everyman to someone who might be either on the verge of a violent explosion feels real and grounded, a natural extension of the character and his background, when in someone else’s hands it could have been over-the-top or come out of left field. Jeon Jeong-seo, who actually debuted with this film, also delivers a great bodily performance for a character who is largely denied introspection, where her unsteady, almost childish dancing and performances give intimate glimpses into her insecurities and struggles and rich internal world even as the men around her constantly objectify her. But it’s Steven Yeun (Glenn of Walking Dead fame) who delivers my personal favorite performance, constantly toeing an extremely fine line between charming and incredibly creepy. He’s an enigma, a charismatic traveler who is also probably a sociopath, and neither Jongsu nor the audience can really ever figure out what he’s thinking, which only amplifies the creepiness factor. One of the best things about his performance that might go unrecognized is how he manages to do very cool things with his accent, where he doesn’t really pronounce words in an American way but still sounds slightly off, enough to register as foreign, even if you aren’t sure where exactly it’s from. It’s a fantastic subtle touch that brings home the idea of Ben as an outsider who places himself above other people even as he acts as their close and intimate friend.
But what the film is really about is an empty search for meaning, the disconnect people feel from others. It is about calling people who never pick up, about knocking on doors to houses with no one inside. It’s about graduating college and finding out there’s nothing out in the world for you, about propaganda blared across the North-South Korean border to the largely empty, mostly indifferent countryside. It’s about returning to a hometown to find out everyone’s already packed and left, about reuniting with close friends who don’t remember who you are, about navigating a world that couldn’t care less about whether you exist or not.
The story is loosely adapted from the short story “Barn Burning” by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, and readers of his work will probably recognize many of his favorite motifs — cats, masturbation, emotional disconnect and ennui — and his surrealist fingerprints on the imagery and plot. But though the themes it presents are universal, the Korean setting is central to the film. The characters’ relationships to their environment and their society is just as important, if not more so, than their relationships with each other. The camera lingers on characters as they move through their environment, such as how Jongsu keeps his head down low as he passes people on the streets or looks a certain way at the family photos on the wall, or how Ben glides through his upscale neighborhood and how his Prius moves like a bullet through the countryside Jongsu and Haemi grew up in.
South Korea is painstakingly brought to life with every sound, every street, every detail in every room that’s shown. I’ve walked through that crowded street as K-pop blares from speakers and buses come and go, I’ve listened to that jingle on the green line train that pops up before announcing the next station. I’ve been in that cramped apartment a small brick building on a hill, I’ve wandered into those high-end neighborhoods with the sleek and pretty cafés that always appear on expensive Korean dramas. I’ve watched hundreds of decrepit greenhouses pass by out the car window as we travelled through the Korean countryside on our way to my grandparent’s house. It would almost be nostalgic, were it not for a strange feeling of dread that sneaks its way into every shot. It’s like returning home to find nobody there. Familiar, yet strangely, terrifyingly cold. Something uncaring and indifferent and meaningless found in a place that should have been safe and warm. When the film ended, I walked out of the theater to Southport, a Chicago suburb that is nothing like the crowded loud streets of Gangnam nightlife or the almost hauntingly empty countryside of Paju. But that feeling of emptiness stayed, the memory of a house that never felt like home.
The film is not going to be for everyone. Lack of closure is the point of the film, which won’t be a satisfying experience for some. But for people who want it, Burning provides an incredible sensory experience, full of imagery that ranks as some of the most memorable I’ve seen this year. It somehow encapsulates that feeling of being lost in your 20s in 2018, drifting aimlessly from job to job or place to place, trying to find meaning in a world that increasingly feels like it doesn’t have any, and the uncertainty, anxiety, and above all disappointment it inspires.
Still, there are moments of beauty scattered around: enjoying the view of a perfectly still lake, dancing silhouettes in front of a dying sun. The ending in particular is as ambiguous as the rest of the film, but maybe it gives a little bit of hope, too. Even in an empty, turbulent world, there’s still that possibility to act, to change. You can start a spark that burns bright and red in the grey winter snow. But when you burn something essential to your past, does it set up the foundations of a new beginning, or are you refusing to confront what you’re afraid to see?
The answer, perhaps, is something you can only figure out yourself.