This review was originally published during the Cannes Film Festival.
Easy-listening jazz wafts through Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, but it’s not the smoky American variety one associates with Haruki Murakami, whose short story “Barn Burning” the film is based on. It’s a kind of anemic, amniotic variety, primarily there to soften the edges of tastefully modern cafés and condos inhabited by the wealthy. It’s bloodless, perhaps enough to be vampiric. It is a very suitable soundtrack for class warfare.
Lee’s film, which relocates the action to present-day South Korea, is very much a generational story. In an interview, the director has mused that the young people of today must look at the world and “wonder if it’s a mystery that can’t be understood,” and that sentiment is echoed by protagonist Jong-soo (Yoo Ah-in), a post-collegiate bumpkin with vague ambitions of being a novelist. He has no idea how to start his novel, because nothing much about his life makes sense to him — not his unshakable unemployment, not the reappearance of his old classmate Hae-mi, not the DMZ visible from his backyard.
Jong-soo and Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) are young and poor and living decidedly outside the ascendant Korean Dream. They bump into each other while Hae-mi is working as a promotional dancer for a discount store, announcing new markdowns while half-heartedly executing some pop-star choreography. He doesn’t recognize her at first, because she’s gotten plastic surgery — she claims when they were kids he crossed the street to tell her she was ugly. “Pretty now, right?” she asks with cynical laugh. They get dinner, they sleep together in her tiny one-room apartment, and she asks him a favor — she’s going to Africa on some kind of quest of self-discovery, could he come by to feed her cat while she’s away?
This being a Murakami story, the introduction of a cat is a good sign things are about to get weird. A noirish haze blankets Burning and its baby-faced protagonist, whose amnesia about half of his own childhood seems to be as much a function of his spacey personality as the lack of history in his life — in the land, in the city, between him and his family. The cat never shows up, however, even though Jong-soo shows up dutifully to feed it every day. When Hae-mi returns, it’s with Ben (Steven Yeun), a rich, somewhat older man she met in Kenya, and with whom she’s clearly now having an affair. More confused than heartbroken, Jong-soo starts hanging out with them, waiting for Hae-mi to choose him, or for her and Ben’s relationship to make some kind of sense, neither of which — I hope it’s not spoiling to say — ever happen.
Steven Yeun, in his first leading Korean film role, is the perfect antecedent to Yoo and Jeon, the latter a first-timer with a youthful onscreen unguardedness. Yeun, on the other hand, is suave and unknowable, regarding everything, especially and including his two new young friends, with a kind of removed bemusement. His job is unclear, he says he likes to “play” for a living, and that, along with his Porsche and his sleek Gangnam apartment, carries a kind of malevolence, even before he tells Jong-soo about his secret penchant for burning the neglected greenhouses of the Korean countryside. It seems like he gets some kind of light amusement just out of watching Hae-mi’s uninhibited emotionality — during a dinner with some of his rich friends, she shows the group a dance she learned in Kenya, which communicates both “little hunger” and a bigger, more philosophical hunger, and is suddenly overcome while demonstrating the latter. Yeun absorbs the moment with the impassive eyes of someone who’s never experienced either.
There is so much fascinating, underplayed tension running through Burning — oddly, I found myself put in mind of Elon Musk stepping out with art-pop singer-songwriter Grimes at the Met Ball last week. I don’t claim to know anything about the inner life of that relationship, but the perception of the rich vampirizing youth — not directly biologically or physically or financially, but emotionally — is incredibly compelling. I was a little let down, then, when Burning lost its steam in its second half. Jong-soo becomes obsessed with finding the next greenhouse Ben is going to burn; meanwhile, Hae-mi goes missing, and the kid seems woefully unable to see the strings being pulled all around him for what feels like forever. Ben remains a cipher — an increasingly by-the-book sociopathic cipher — and the film’s final moment of release is as underplayed as the rest of the film, at the moment you’re craving something bigger. Perhaps the mystery of the world has yet to be solved.