Some films resist an in-depth review. With Burning, the sentiment is two-fold, for not only is Lee Chang-Dong’s newest feature so crucially dependent upon being viewed with as little prior knowledge as possible, but is charged with the sort of visual mastery that pertains solely to cinema. Still, if there’s one film released this year that deserves an attempt, it’s Burning.
It encompasses young part-timer, Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), who runs into a childhood friend, Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) while out on a delivery. After an overdue reunion, it transpires that Hae-mi is soon departed for Africa, and needs someone to care for her cat while away.
The favour comes amid an intriguing concern with metaphor. As Hae-mi digs into an imaginary orange while Jong-su looks on impressed, she claims it is not a case of convincing the spectator the orange is there, but simply ‘forgetting’ there isn’t one, and surrendering to the imagination.
What could easily have read as a bolshy attempt at symbolism becomes an intriguing primer for the film’s existential musing. When the young woman starts sharing childhood memories of the awful things Jong-su said to her while in school, the protagonist is presented with aspects of himself he’d rather have left forgotten; a doubt that is – like most things in Burning – left to smoulder eerily beneath the surface.
The rest of Chang-Dong’s endlessly intriguing mystery spawns from this point, with Hae-mi’s shruggish comments haunting the young protagonist’s world with an almost magical realist bent. Cinematographer Hong Gyeong-Pyo captures the ethereal pleasance of the teenager’s daydreams with an airily sun-dappled palette, casting a fragile warmth over a lonely South Korean suburbia that saddens as much as it invites.
It’s also the crucial primer for the film’s gradual descent into deep, dark paranoia. The dreamlike musing is punctured when Hae-mi returns from Africa with new friend Ben (Steve Yeun), who’s confident, masculine and seemingly without grief. When Hae-mi returns with Ben, however, the idyllic dream gradually bends to constant, deep-seated paranoia. As Hae-mi sleeps, Ben confesses to Jong-su a secret pastime of his: every two months, he chooses an abandoned greenhouse to burn to the ground. What’s more, the next burning will be happening ‘very soon’, and close to Jong-su’s home. ‘Very close,’ Ben wafts, chillingly understated.
For fear of puncturing the magic, suffice to say that the liberating half-reality girding Jong-su’s existence becomes an unnerving spiral of jealousy, inferiority and passion, unravelling at a pace that sees none of its 148 minutes wasted. Amidst it all, Hae-mi remains the blissfully unaware centre of Chang-Dong’s disturbing meditation on masculinity; her elusive presence captures beautifully the troubling mythologisation of the passive love interest by self-destructive sexual desires.
Chang-Dong has long been an established auteur in Korean tragedy, but Burning quite possibly marks his most personal entry to date. It’s a gorgeous palimpsest of male anxieties, subjectivities and manifold imageries, framed with the languid, spectral air of a memory that is at once nostalgic, and deeply painful.