'Burning' Is A Haunting Mystery About The Stories Men Tell And The Lives They Destroy [NYFF]

The mysteries in Lee Chang-dong's Burning frustrate, but with purpose. Loosely based on the Haruki Murakami's 1983 Japanese short Barn Burning, part of his The Elephant Vanishes collection — the English translation by Philip Gabriel appeared in The New Yorker in '92 — South Korea's Oscar hopeful is a winding trail about the stories that men tell themselves about women and other men, and how these tales are exacerbated by our inertia. The film is as intriguing as it is exciting, centering on a shackled author who — uniquely as far as this archetype is concerned — feels nothing like a self-insert of his adept creators. Hesitantly and perhaps unwittingly, he drags us along for a journey about what happens when a man no longer gets to define his own narrative, and the narratives around him.

Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is a writer. He spends the entirety of Burning telling people he's a writer, but we never once see him write. He claims to be looking for the right story. Perhaps he finds the beginnings of one in his rekindled friendship (and occasional romance) with small-town maiden Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), who tells him tall tales and minor anecdotes of events from back when they were neighbors. Some stories involve Jong-su, like when he supposedly insulted her appearance, for which he's made to feel guilty. Others, like Hae-mi being trapped at the bottom of a well, feel like events he should have heard of at the time. He doesn't seem to remember any of them, but he takes her at her word. Why wouldn't he? They come from the same place, the same poverty and circumstance. They're both struggling to make ends meet in urban Seoul. Their story is, essentially, the same. Then again, Hae-mi is studying to be a mime, an art-form that builds truth from un-truth, pulling stories from emptiness. Upon demonstrating her craft on their first night out — she peels a pretend tangerine — Jong-su is simply riveted. Whatever stories she tells, honest or not, he's initially along for the ride.

When Hae-mi takes off for Africa for a few months, Jong-su is tasked with repeatedly visiting her shoe-box apartment in order to feed her cat. There's cat food, a litter box and even cat droppings, but curiously, he never once lays eyes on the pet. Bad timing, or a cruelly elaborate setup? When Hae-mi returns from her extended escape, she's accompanied by the well-spoken, well-to-do, deeply mysterious Ben (Steven Yeun), an inexplicably rich charmer with a bottomless wallet. He lives in a modern, expensively-furnished Gangnam abode with the ambient lighting of an indulgent restaurant. He cooks upscale European meals in his spacious kitchen, with western music echoing through his hallways. The cosmetics and hand-towels in his bathroom are arranged like hotel accessories (right above his secret drawer of curious personal items that once belonged to women) and I'd be lying if I said his sweaters didn't seem cozy. Jong-su on the other hand, often dressed in a track-suit, has just moved to his parents' rundown house on the outskirts of the city. His mother and sister left a while ago, and his father is on trial for assault. He sleeps on their musty couch, claiming to want to repair the damage to their home but never following through — yet another promise to himself he doesn't keep — though he's no better off than Hae-mi, whose cramped studio relies on reflections off a much fancier building for just a few minutes of sunlight.

Ben, a man much fancier than Jong-su, begins spending a concerning amount of time with Hae-mi. She rides around in his expensive sports car, which may as well be from the future. Jong-su drives his father's dilapidated pickup, his very movement constrained by a broken past, while those around him only seem to move forward. Ben, whatever the source of his endless income, is free. He goes where he wants, eats what he wants, and comes & goes as he pleases. Some of that freedom begins to rub off on Hae-mi, who, in a particularly intoxicating scene outside Jong-su's house, finds liberation in the wide-open farmland that both she and Jong-su once abandoned. She gets high and begins swaying with the wind, absorbing the deep sky and its changing colours as the sun begins to set. She takes off her clothes and begins to dance, freeing herself from all physical and emotional restraint — financial too, given her company. Ben brought the weed, of course, along with some expensive wine.

Jong-su's response to Hae-mi's unrestrained celebration of life is...less than kind. As if some switch has been flipped upon realizing that she'll never be his (or worse, that she might be Ben's), he calls her a whore. It's a devastating turn from a man who, thus far, has only shown her affection — the thud with which it lands brings to mind the closing lines of another New Yorker short, Cat Person from last December — but Jong-su lashing out isn't as simple as the anger of a jilted lover. Months into the trio's friendship, it's clear neither to Jong-su nor to the audience whether Hae-mi and Ben are together, or if so, in what capacity. Then again, it isn't any of Jong-su's business, but Hae-mi was also the closest thing he had to a purpose.

The story of light reflecting perfectly off the nearby tower, and into Hae-mi's bedroom, began as a mere description. Something abstract, off in the distance, but it turns out to be the only story of hers that Jong-su gets to witness and confirm. The only tale of hers that becomes their shared truth. As the two make love on her bed, it isn't until he sees that very light hitting the bedroom wall that he's able to climax, as if being part of Hae-mi's story makes him whole. Almost every tale he's told from that point on fills him with doubt. He even returns to that spot on her bed in her absence to masturbate while facing the tower, waiting for the light to return.

Burning Review

Lee carves out an entire rabbit hole for us to follow the characters down, building intrigue by rapidly changing the specifics around Jong-su but refusing to release the tension of not knowing; he denies him, and us, the luxury of answers, yanking him rapidly from question to the next. Each mystery is met with Jong-su's blank stares, or befuddled responses, or desperate actions. He doesn't know if the cat he's been feeding is real. He doesn't know if he's been spending time with two friends, or third-wheeling a couple. He doesn't know his place in this story thanks to a man with enough wealth to tell any story he chooses, and a woman who starts to evolve past needing Jong-su at all. He's trapped by his circumstance but limited by his perspective, unable to see past even Ben's financial freedom as anything but a means to control Hae-mi.

Steven Yeun imbues Ben with the supernatural confidence of someone who's unlocked the secrets of existence. Yoo Ah-in plays Jong-su as slack-jawed and perpetually uncertain. Ben is an enigma. He shrouds his past and motivations in mystery, releasing only tiny bits of his story to Jong-su, like a novelist holding back pages from an eager reader. Jong-su however, is an open book, his life sprawled out on his parents' dirty porch for all to see, and he's unable to write it in new directions. Ben claims to burn down greenhouses because he can, asserting control over property that isn't his. Jong-su doesn't know whether to believe him, but begins checking on all the greenhouses in the area just to be sure. Perhaps Ben is talking about controlling, or destroying, something else entirely; when Hae-mi seemingly disappears from both their lives, Ben moves on and begins spending time with new women. Jong-su, suspecting Ben of... something, begins stalking him daily, while haphazardly trying to hunt down the details of Hae-mi's past to figure out where she might be. What's unclear however, perhaps even to Jong-su, is whether he's trying to find this woman, or uncover her secrets.

It's this unknown "something," of which Jong-su suspects Ben that makes Burning such a haunting mystery. Jong-su is forced to fill in so many blanks at once that the story before him begins to feel formless. Whatever the truths of Ben and Hae-mi's lives, Jong-su isn't privy to them; he isn't so much trying to solve a mystery as he is simply working his way into a story that isn't his, struggling to make order out of the chaos engulfing his very being when the pieces don't seem to make sense. He's constantly peering in on these narratives of love and wealth and power — Yoo Ah-in's glazed-over look makes Jong-su seem hypnotized by Ben — but he can't seem to make his way past the invisible hurdles, which turn his every attempt to find answers into an increasingly desperate search. 

burning trailer

What is, or was, the nature Ben and Hae-mi's relationship? Where did Hae-mi suddenly go, and why didn't she tell Jong-su? Why won't Ben be more forthcoming with him? Why do so many people, including his sister, his mother and his father, keep leaving him without letting him have a say in what his own story looks like? The void at the center of Jong-su's narrative continues to widen, eventually reaching the point of dangerous obsession; he parks his truck outside Ben's apartment every night, clearly out of place in his upscale district hoping to pick up on some clue about him, or about Hae-mi, or perhaps even the both of them. Ben, however, might be catching on. He might even be a couple of steps ahead of Jong-su. Then again, he might not know (or care) at all.

Ben, several rungs above Jong-su on the class ladder, needn't spare him a second thought, though he gives him the time of day with a knowing smile. Hae-mi, whether growing dependent on Ben or simply independent in general, is shedding her need for Jong-su regardless. Jong-su can no longer exert control over her while Ben exerts control over him, both by drawing Hae-mi's gaze away from him and simply by existing. Ben has more, which allows him to be more; he's a more perfect projection of Jong-su's limp self, able to tell stories at fancy parties attended by his fancy friends, while Jong-su has nothing to write about and becomes slowly excluded from the stories around him, including those which he claims as his own. He's outclassed by Ben in every way, which makes him lash out at Hae-mi as a consequence of her being smitten by Ben — or, as she dances at twilight, a consequence of simply being.

Lee Chang-dong doesn't give us any answers to the questions in Burning. He approaches them as if they are not his to give, personal details and secrets just beyond his reach. The film is a story of others as told through the eyes of Jong-su, a story made inaccessible to him through the frustration of class divide, which in turn manifests as his feelings of ownership over a woman he cares for. He defines Hae-mi as a part of his story, rather than someone with her own (or worse, someone in whose story he's a supporting player). The film paints a chilling portrait of the power structures that trap men and turning them rotten — rather, those that bring men's inner rottenness to the surface — when the stories they get used to telling, about money, women, power and themselves, are no longer in their control. Hae-mi was Jong-su's to love. His to use. His to destroy. But he may have been robbed of his only release valve: burning something beautiful. And so, he unravels, bit by bit, taking everyone in his orbit down with him.