TIFF 2018: Burning, by David Bax
With its palette of crepuscular light, its mounting paranoia and its offbeat sense of humor, there are things about Lee Chang-dong’s masterful new film, Burning, that seem like they wouldn’t be out of place in a late-career entry from David Fincher or the Coens. But, even though Burning hits many of the marks of the thriller and mystery genres, Lee has crafted a seductive and idiosyncratic beast all his own.
Yoo Ah-In stars as Jong-su, a quiet loner and budding writer who singlehandedly runs his family’s small farm just outside of Seoul while his father serves a prison sentence for assault. In the city one day on an errand, he runs into Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), an optimistic and aspirational young woman with whom he went to grade school. Soon, they are making hesitant steps toward building a relationship. But, when Hae-mi comes back from a volunteer trip to Africa with a new, rich, sophisticated friend named Ben (Steven Yeun), Jong-su feels threatened. Burning begins to take on shades of The Great Gatsby but, soon enough, Jong-su begins to put together clues that suggest Ben is a danger to more than just his romantic prospects.
Grave as the stakes are in Burning, the movie is also consistently funny, though in an almost uncomfortably awkward way that won’t come a surprise to fans of Lee’s work. Most of the laughs come from Hae-mi’s idiosyncratic air of quiet fearlessness (she’s a student of mime who’s always happy to show off her skills in front of people she barely knows) or from Ben’s ridiculousness pretentiousness (as an archetype, he’s not unlike Rob Lowe’s character in Wayne’s World). There are also times Lee and Yoo invite us to chuckle at Jong-su’s general lack of experience in socializing with others.
It’s that same trait, however, that makes Jong-su a sometimes unsympathetic protagonist, intentionally so. His clumsy first sexual encounter with Hae-mi is somewhat humorous in a cringing way but his unhealthy inability to process their dynamic in the aftermath turns him into an avatar of the all too real “nice guy,” whose shyness only slightly obscures his immature entitlement. He’s practically a boy so there’s some reason to feel sorry for him but boys can still be mean. In fact, they often are. He eventually gets a taste of a new perspective when one of Hae-mi’s coworkers—whose job it is to wear skimpy outfits and hawk products—spells out the societal Madonna/whore complex she must navigate every day and concludes, “This is no country for women.”
Burning is too serious a movie, though, to be about lessons learned. In a way, it’s about the quest for learning itself. Hae-mi distinguishes between “little hunger” (I want to eat something) and “great hunger” (I want to know and experience as much of the world as possible). Jong-su’s developing great hunger leads him to question more about humanity than he’d ever considered before. If he’s unhappy with what he finds, though, will his hunger turn to anger? Or despair? After all, searching for the meaning of life assumes there is one. Burning is many things—a thriller, a mystery, a comedy, a tale of unrequited love—but all of it builds toward a crushing, existential masterpiece.