Burning Movie

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.

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