Burning with class conflict, rage, and sexual longing in Modern South Korea Society
Burning (2018) ‘NYFF’ Review: Every person has secrets buried deep down inside them, well guarded and protected, which in turn makes them mysterious. This mysterious aura, sometimes obvious, loud, and sometimes subtle, is fascinating and intriguing. It creates an independent and uncommunicative orbit that should be left untouched by others. Only explored at the discretion of that individual.
This elliptical orbit of an individual’s mysterious aura and puzzling nature is patiently explored in Burning (Beoning), an adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story Barn Burning, except that it is set in Korea.
Three distinctive characters intersect in this slow-burning psychological drama that examines the class conflict and tensive interpersonal dynamics emerging from brewing rage, sexual longing, and animosity that culminates in a queasy bone-chilling climax.
The mysterious characters fuel the drama
An introverted and shy Jongsu (Yoo Ah‑in), who aspires to become a novelist, falls by chance in the elliptical orbit of a mysterious, playful, and charming girl, Haeimi, who happens to be her neighbor during school time. She reminds him that he never spoke to her except once to call her ugly.
Haeimi has a keen interest in pantomime. In one of the most intriguing scenes, she mimics peeling off the skin of an orange and having it. Later she explains that it’s not a work of talent but all in mind. She explains not to imagine that the orange exists but forget that the orange doesn’t exist.
It has a subtext, quite a profound one, that layers the drama unfolding in the film.
She lives in a small room in a cramped building that receives sunlight for a fraction of a second. She has a cat named ‘Boil’ that never shows up whenever Jongsu visits the flat. Jongsu, on his first visit, enquires in jest if the cat actually exists or it is just in her imagination. Of course, there is a concern and a fraction of truth to his question, which he shrugs off with his goofy smile.
Haime travels to South Africa for two weeks and returns with a mysterious and handsome rich guy, Ben. Jongsu calls him Korean’s Gatsby. Though his jealousy is never made apparent, there is some sense of resentment and envy when he questions his affluent status and his reservation about hanging out with Haime. In more straightforward terms, Lee Chang-dong tries to portray class division and slanted economic distribution in Korea.
Ben’s mysterious character makes the drama murkier
Ben is the ace in the hole in this film. It is here that master story-teller Lee Chang-dong takes you by surprise. While it might appear that we are heading for a love triangle in the backdrop of a class division. Soon the tone of the film shifts when two off-the-wall events put Jongsu in an inexplicable and uncomfortable spot.
Haeimi, on impulse, breaks into a topless dance to Miles Davis composition. Ben confesses a bizarre hobby of burning greenhouses to Jongsu. He, in fact, reveals that the purpose of paying a visit is to inspect the greenhouse and zero down on it. It deepens the mystery of what’s happening beneath these characters’ placid exteriors.
The greatest achievement of Burning lies in the controlled and restrained narration that uses minimal exposition, relying on visual cues to express the airtight tension among the characters. The anger, grief, rage, love, and envy are never explicitly expressed; rather, they are internalized and reflected in discomfort and silence, further heightened by Kim Da-won’s unsettling score.
Burning is a stunning opaque story riddle with ambiguous enigmas and uncertain turn of events. It is rather a well-crafted and stunningly muted cinematographed film with absolute control of its writing, displayed in powerful characterization and a well-earned climax that you won’t see coming from five hundred miles.