What's exceptional about Burning is clear right from the start. A kind of meandering, daylit noir that is as invested as any of the best of the genre in the most buried parts of our psychology, Lee Chang-dong's brimming newest film is as sensitive to group dynamics and the emotional temperature of a room as it is to class, desire, weather, or light. At once subjective and observational, Burning's camera catches its characters with humor and insight well enough to spoil the viewer, shaping how we regard them in a way that never feels prescriptive or intrusive.Even as the movie shifts in tone, it is unified throughout by an air of mystery.
The first character we meet is Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo), trudging into frame at the film's start, and caught in a familiar 20s sort of limbo. After completing a degree and military service, he spends his days maintaining a defunct family farm, drifting between menial jobs, and chipping away at an amorphous novel. Chang-dong's movie doesn't dramatize this angst at first. Instead, it documents it as a standard feature of our time, willing nonetheless to poke fun at it. (When Jong-su tells a mentor his degree is in creative writing, the man replies with heavy air-quotes: "Oh? What kind of 'writing' are you going to 'create?'" Jong-su doesn't have much of an answer.) His dull routine is quietly disrupted when he's stopped by Hae-mi (Jong seo-Jun), an old schoolmate now working as a promotional model at an open-air street market, raffling off cheap watches. When he fails to recognize her, she blurts out that she's had plastic surgery since their last meeting, asks if she looks pretty, then invites him out to dinner, where she acknowledges an old and spurned affection for him. These exchanges, with their balance of reserve, confession, naked want, and ulterior motive, set the tone for the remainder of the film. Chang-dong's chief subject is desire, or what we might like from ourselves and others, and it binds his characters in a manner that does little to suspend their unease.
The third player to complete the triangle is Ben (Steven Yeun of The Walking Dead and Sorry to Bother You), who meets and snaps up Hae-mi on a trip to Africa. What transpires there is an ellipsis on-screen, but their return together leaves Jong-su spurned romantically with no real apology or comment. What's clear is that he's been out-competed; Ben's a well-heeled operator with a posh apartment and a confident demeanor, self-possessed and magnetic, and he regards Hae-mi with an air of satisfaction that scans as possessive — though it's never quite clear what she has that he's after. All the while, he seems compelled by Jong-su, inviting him to clubs and dinners while questioning him about books and Hae-mi, who now considers him a "best friend."
Ben's contentment is called into question, though, when he admits to a dangerous habit: He sets fire to abandoned greenhouses for fun. He conducts this exercise with no fear of reprisal, assuring Jong-su he leaves "not a trace," and his privilege — his ability to do so — is what separates the tenor of his long and empty days from Jong-su's. In different ways, Hae-mi and Jong-su are in his thrall, as compelled by his chilly opacity as by his lifestyle. When asked personal questions — such as how he makes a living or how he affords his Porsche — his default mode is to blink slowly while smiling with his eyes, giving nothing, yet always politely. As Ben bides his time over joints and coffee, Jong-su whiles his own time looking after his farm's lone cow, exercising, and pining not just for Hae-mi but for the sort of life that might entice her. Whether this aggravation of class envy is wasted or justified is left to the viewer; Chang-dong never tips his hand, making for a story (an adaptation, it's worth mentioning, of Haruki Murakami's Barn Burning) that seems to tell itself with nothing underlined.
Whether in Hae-mi's presence or absence — and with a bond as inevitable as gravity — Jong-su and Ben come to orbit each other as the film progresses. Seeking to catch Ben burning one of his greenhouses as well as solve another mystery, Jong-su begins spying on and tailing Ben, and the film's last half is given over to their games of artful (and sometimes clumsy) dodges, potential lies, and cat-and-mouse. As his windings' repetitions in both route and rhythm draw him closer to both Ben and Hae-mi, he's greeted with conflicting information. Finding dead ends and turnabouts instead of conclusions or confrontations, even what he thought he knew previously is called into constant question. Though it may not be for everyone, Burning provides its viewers with the same sorts of open questions, building suspense and atmosphere while answering little with much sense of finality even as its plot unfolds. As a mystery skeptical of clear conclusions, Burning is the rare film that manages to avoid the expected; as a work more honest than most any of its characters, it can't give answers it doesn't know.
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