Burning

The characters in Burning, director Lee Chang-dong’s newest film, exist apart from one another. Even in scenes together they appear to inhabit separate layers of the frame; it’s like they’re superimposed upon one another to create the illusion of proximity while they remain irrevocably isolated.

In this stratified Korea, Lee focuses on Lee Jong-Su, played by Yoo Ah-In, a part-time delivery boy and aspiring creative writer, as he falls in love with Shin Haemi, played by Jeon Jong-seo, a bubbly girl from his childhood. Slack jawed, with vacant eyes, baggy clothes and ungainly posture, Yoo’s Jong-Su is an empty vessel, unsure of how to fill the space he commands, lacking discernible agency or interiority. It’s rare to hear Jong-Su speak; for most of the film, he is silent and alone in the frame, an object of observation and a surface onto which the viewer can project. At the narrative’s outset, Jong-Su moves from the city of Paju to his family farm to maintain the grounds after his father is indicted for the assault of a government official, just one of many actions he takes in service of others’ needs. When Haemi leaves for a trip to Kenya, the smitten Jong-Su agrees to feed her cat, commuting daily from his father’s farm to Haemi’s apartment.

Early in the film, Haemi tells Jong-Su that everyone hungers for something—for food, maybe, ora sense of meaning. Framed such that a column visually separates her and Jong-Su, one begins to wonder what Jong-Su hungers for and if he is capable of taking it. To complicate matters, Haemi later returns from Kenya accompanied by Ben (Steven Yeun). In contrast to the reserved Jong-Su and the eager Haemi, Ben is magnetic. Confident and enigmatic, he speaks volumes with coy smirks and false laughter. Ben is tight-lipped, though the Porsche he drives, the spacious apartment he lives in, and his wealthy friends belie his class—a class of “Gatsbys,” as Jong-Su calls them. With Ben’s arrival, the trio enter into a tense triangular relationship where the characters occupy distinctly delineated spaces. Little of this dynamic is explicitly stated; rather, it is slowly communicated by Lee’s staid camera. Subtle glances between each of the three cast members convey multitudes, and Lee racks focus between foreground and background characters conversing in the same scene to highlight distance.

The film’s pivotal scene finds all three together at Jong-Su’s farm, where, awash in the brilliant colors of the setting sun, a topless Haemi dances the dance of “Great Hunger,” which she learned in Kenya. Silhouetted against the fiery sun, the camera is transfixed by Haemi’s performance, unmoving as she seems to reach some communion with the world around her. Despite the loose tranquility of her movements, the air surrounding the trio is tense, foreboding—as if the catharsis of Haemi’s dance is a mere palliative for what may be to come. After Haemi goes to bed, Ben reveals to Jong-Su that, as a hobby, he sets fire to abandoned greenhouses, claiming that he is restoring a natural world order, disposing of the unnecessary.

In Lee’s world, fire and the sun’s light are tied to power, agency and intrinsic meaning. In Haemi’s apartment, she claims she only receives sunlight for a couple minutes a day, reflecting the emptiness she feels in her life. Everyday when he feeds Haemi’s cat, Jong-su stares at that glimmer of sun, masturbating to the thought of Haemi and, implicitly, the meaning she has afforded him. Where the world asserts itself onto Jong-Su and Haemi, Ben asserts himself onto the world, as judge and destroyer of that which he deems insignificant. Where Haemi must imagine what she desires in order to acquire it (earlier, she peels and eats an invisible tangerine, considering her hunger sated after she is finished), Ben can have and destroy whatever he wills. He rarely hungers.

Lee explores this dichotomy between what is and isn’t. Haemi has Jong-Su feed her cat, but he never actually sees the cat. Her life, contained in a tiny apartment room, is woefully isolated and empty, yet she is capable of conjuring up inventions, and stories that fill in her world. Ben, by contrast, is possibly speaking metaphorically when he discusses his hobby for greenhouse burning. Days after Haemi’s hunger dance, she disappears, and Jong-Su comes to believe that she was little more than a “greenhouse” to be burned by Ben. In this deliberately restrained and observant film, the conceit that a character is a mass murderer of girls—metaphor or not—seems uncharacteristically fantastical, and undercuts the quiet, introspective explorations of the rest of the film. Nonetheless, Lee is still able to leverage this questionable choice to raise some divisive questions. What makes an individual exceptional within a class-bound system? As observers of Jong-Su, viewers are privy to his actions, but see little of what he thinks. He appears to be a blank slate, but is he?

Motivated by Haemi’s disappearance, Jong-Su begins to assert control over his life. In the film’s moving final scene, he strips on a frigid day and burns his clothes in a conclusive act of agency, confirming the presence of deep inner turmoil that viewers could only presume up to this point. The film’s central question regarding Haemi’s fate is never resolved, but it’s not a question Lee is particularly concerned with. After all, to Lee, what is matters less than what one believes to be.