The first image in Burning, the newest film from
Korean master Lee Chang-dong (Poetry, Secret
Sunshine), is smoke blowing from the cigarette of the
protagonist, delivery boy Jongsu. The final shot is a vehicle
on fire in a field. The two-and-a-half hours in between are a
fantastic mystery-thriller, all slow build and slow burn.
Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) is slack-jawed and listless, and lives on
his parents’ rural property so far from Seoul that at night he
can hear North Korean propaganda wafting across the border. But
he reads Faulkner and has just completed a creative writing
course at university, so maybe there’s more to him than meets
During that opening scene, he runs into an old schoolmate,
Haemi (Yun Jong-seo), who asks him to look after her cat while
she’s on vacation. She brings him back to her flat, where the
cat refuses to show itself. Then they have perfunctory sex,
which clearly affects him more than it does her.
A few weeks later, Jongsu is disconcerted when Haemi comes back
with a new friend, Ben (Steven Yeun), a rich playboy who tells
Jongsu of his business affairs: “You wouldn’t understand even
if I told you.” Jongsu can’t warm to this ice-cold Gatsby type,
but puts up with him to be close to Haemi, whose own feelings
remain frustratingly opaque.
Lee based his film on the short story Barn Burning by
Haruki Murakami, in which he admits not much happens. That’s
oddly true of Burning as well. Haemi’s cat remains
stubbornly invisible. Ben, whose sly smile calls to mind
another literary feline, casually tells Jongsu – at the precise
midpoint of the film, as it happens – “Sometimes I burn down
greenhouses.” This sends Jongsu on a quest to discover the site
of the latest arson. When he can’t, he starts to wonder whether
it isn’t a metaphor for an even more heinous crime.
Burning features some lovely, sometimes maddening
detours, including Haemi’s memory, possibly false, of having
fallen down a well when she was a child, and how Jongsu was the
one who found her. It’s up to you whether to believe her tale,
just as it’s up to Jongsu what to make of her trick of miming
the act of eating a tangerine.
“Don’t think that there is a tangerine here,” she tells him as
her fingers flutter over empty air. “Forget that there isn’t
one.” She concludes: “The important thing is that you really
want one.” That nicely encapsulates the sleight-of-hand that is
cinema, and this movie in particular. Burning is as
ephemeral as a puff of smoke, and you can imagine just about
anything in its gaseous curls.