Lee Chang-dong’s Burning begins with a meet-cute and ends with a murder. What happens in the middle is a steady, bravura mutation from quirky romance to woozy mystery to psychodrama to stark tragedy, all of it playing magisterially against a changing South Korea.
This filmmaker is most famous in the west for his 2010 masterpiece Poetry. If you’ve seen that celebrated character study about an elderly woman whose interest in poetry coincides with her battle with Alzheimer’s disease, you know the director is a patient observer who is fond of internally sprawling narratives. Burning runs a customary two-and-a-half hours, but its provenance is surprising: It’s adapted from Haruki Murakami’s haunting 1992 short story Barn Burning. An oblique, pungent plunge into a heart of darkness, Murakami’s tale of two guys and a girl is given considerable new heft, complexity and backstory on the big screen.
In the movie’s kismet-like opening, Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a socially awkward, aspiring writer from a farming community, happens to bump into an old neighbor, Shin Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo), outside a noisy market. He doesn’t have the faintest recollection of her, but she remembers him vividly. She’s running a raffle to entice customers to enter the shop, and she rigs the process to win Lee a women’s watch. “Do you have a girlfriend,” she asks him slyly, upon bestowing the prize? When he says no, she practically volunteers for the title, suggesting a date.
Hae-mi is one of those Manic Pixie Dreamgirl (MPD) archetypes that flourished in the cinema of the early Aughts. Loquacious while Lee is laconic, she’s a fount of energy and sexual confidence who studies pantomime, cries easily, and suffers form a form of narcolepsy that is more adorable than troubling. She has a reclusive cat named Boil (she discovered her in a boiler room), whom she describes as having “severe autism.” She’s a strange one, but, like most MPDs, her impulsiveness and emotional extremities are interconnected with her attractiveness.
As Hae-mi and Lee get to know each other, an ulterior motive soon surfaces. She’s about to leave, randomly, for Africa, and she needs him to feed the elusive Boil. Smitten with his new friend, he agrees. As a thank-you or out of genuine affection, she then sleeps with Lee, after making the first move. Just as we’re feeling out her motives, and trying to decide if she’s anything more than a film-noir succubus, a new character enters the picture. At the airport in Seoul, following her sojourn in Nairobi, Hae-mi is suddenly partnered with Ben (Steven Yeun), a dashing, upper-crust Korean she met in Africa.
Murakami’s source material jettisons romance between its unnamed central protagonist and Hae-mi, but jealousy and longing are at the heart of Lee Chang-Dong’s adaptation. At the airport and at a restaurant where Lee joins the famished travelers for a post-flight meal, the director positions the characters in subtle triangles, his mise-en-scène underlying unspoken tensions. The new friends appear joined at the hip, with Lee the wobbly third wheel. Shortly after their dinner, Ben’s car arrives, and it’s a Porsche, which contrasts mightily with Lee’s mud-spattered pickup truck; given the choice, it’s not surprising whom Hae-mi decides to ride home with.
With his American name, Western musical tastes and grandiose apartment, Ben is an enigmatic embodiment of the globalized South Korean prosperity. In Murakami’s story, he tells the narrator that he’s involved in “foreign trade” and leaves it at that. In the film, he’s even more evasive: “I do this and that. I play.” Lee’s envy is apparent and vast. He can’t seem to process Ben’s inexplicable status, exemplified by his clothes, his car, his freedom to “listen to music while cooking pasta.” Being a writer, Lee likens him to Jay Gatsby.
If so, that would certainly make Lee Nick Carraway, but other allusions include Faulkner — Lee’s favorite author, whose high strangeness percolates throughout Burning — as well as Antonioni and Hitchcock, storytellers unafraid of ambiguity, experimentation and mid-narrative disappearances.
In the film’s most striking scene, at Lee’s home in a former livestock farm, Hae-mi has fallen into one of her sudden slumbers. Ben, influenced by the weed they’ve been enjoying, confides to Lee that his favorite hobby is to burn down abandoned greenhouses (in the Murakami story, it’s barns) — just for sheer, psychopathic jollies. This flummoxes Lee, who can’t wrap his head around this moral abnegation, and the unbridgeable chasm between privilege and its absence.
“There is no right or wrong,” asserts Ben, “just the morals of nature.” He leaves that night with Hae-mi, vowing to burn down a greenhouse “very close by.” In the days that follow, Hae-mi stops picking up her phone, which soon becomes disconnected.
A subplot about Lee’s father, a struggling, hotheaded rancher imprisoned and tried for assaulting a government official, enriches the increasingly ominous proceedings, aided by a creepy score from the composer Mowg, with its skittish percussion and distant, shofar-like wails. There are examples of potentially unreliable narrators, and of maddening phone calls in which the caller remains silent, and of amateur sleuthing and voyeuristic POV shots. Burning becomes not a thriller so much as a deconstruction of one, an existential soup of movie motifs that rewards perceptive viewers.
In the most unforgettable extrapolation of what was a virtual throwaway line in Murakami’s story, Hae-mi, high on pot, removes her top and dances narcotically to a Miles Davis cut that floats up out of nowhere and disappears just as quickly. Is this song diegetic or non-diegetic? Does it originate from inside her head, or from someone’s stereo? We’re not entirely sure, but when the trumpet fades, she’s suddenly vulnerable, naked and alone, her ecstasy darkening into misery as quickly and vertiginously as a child falling down a well.
And soon enough, she becomes like the “tangerine” she peels early in the film, in an initially endearing display of her pantomime technique: invisible and ripe for consumption. It’s an extraordinary allusion in an extraordinary, unclassifiable film.
BURNING. Director: Lee Chang-dong; Cast: Steven Yeun, Yoo Ah-in, Jun Jong-seo; in Korean with English subtitles; Distributor: CGV Arthouse; Opens: Friday at Coral Gables Art Cinema