Directed by Lee Chang Dong
Starring Ah-In Yoo, Steven Yeun and Jong-seo Jeon
F.I.V.E. star rating:
F. Form: 4.5 / 5 [style, structure, technique]
I. Impression: 5 / 5 [impact, relevance, provocation]
V. Vision: 5 / 5 [audacity, innovation, perspective]
E. Experience: 4.5 / 5 [enjoyment, engagement, delight]
TOTAL: 95 / 100
When Haemi (Jong-seo Yun) comes up to Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo) on the street he doesn’t recognise her. They knew each other when they were little and she mentions she’s had plastic surgery done. They smoke together in an alleyway and catch up and then grab a meal. Afterwards, she takes him back to her tiny studio apartment to have sex. She says her north-facing apartment doesn’t get much direct light, there’s only a particular time of day when a ray of light from the sun is briefly reflected from a nearby tower and passes through her windows. As quickly as it comes, it disappears. As they are having sex Jongsu looks up to see this very light cast on a wall and we watch it come and go in real time. Lee Chang-Dong’s BURNING is full of moments like these when everything goes quiet and there’s a hint of a revelation but it doesn’t crystallise until later, if ever.
We recognise these moments in life when it seems like the universe is telling us something. That something greater is sending us a message but these are rare and very few movies are adept at expressing this transcendence. In the aforementioned scene, the shot is held long enough to realise what it is we’re looking at, the light slowly gets brighter, does a subtle dance, and we are held captive like moths to a flame. Jongsu is an aspiring fiction writer and this shot is from his point of view so it feels like we are being let in to his writerly mind where a small observation of a tiny thing expands into something bigger than the thing itself. What this ray of light means to him could be a number of things and we couldn’t really know nor does it matter. What matters is that it is somehow meaningful to him.
Later, she tells him that she is going away on a trip to Africa for a few weeks and if he could look after her cat. He agrees but he never sees the cat. Only an empty food bowl and a used cat litter indicates that something was there. When she comes back she’s not alone. Jongsu is introduced to Ben whom Haemi met on the trip. The premise almost feels like a prank. Boy meets girl, both have sex, girl goes away and comes back with a new boy in tow. It sounds like a practical joke, a cruel one, and I felt a real sense of worry for Jongsu, who’s naivety seems to be tested and played with. When he hangs out with the pair it’s as if they are performing for him, performing what I’m not sure, but that adds to the suspicion and uneasiness.
They meet at a cafe where Ben performs a magic trick. He says he’s going to pull out a stone from Haemi’s heart. A pebble materialises in his hand. They laugh but he confesses he pulled the pebble from a garden outside. It’s cute and a little embarrassing but somehow it also feels like a warning sign. That someone is being tricked in a grander way. Again, this is shot from Jongsu’s point of view and at this point he’s mostly quiet, only observing the two. Jongsu is put under a spell by Ben. He’s everything he isn’t. He’s wealthy and confident. His affluence remains a mystery. What exactly he does for a living is never disclosed but this makes him even more captivating for Jongsu who at one point likens Ben to Gatsby. They are both men with power and riches who keep their secrets closely contained.
What these secrets are is hinted at when Ben confesses to Jongsu about his secret little hobby: burning greenhouses. Ben explains that this act lets him be multiple persons at once - the destroyer and the creator - and he’s drawn to it as a release. He speaks about it like it’s an addiction (“I do it at least every two months”) and it tells us something about him, the desire to possess and be in control of something, but it also tells us something about affluent people in general. That to be rich means someone else is poor. A fire keeps someone warm at the same time that it turns something else to a useless pile of ash.
This movie is vague about what it’s really about, then when mulled over it becomes clear and in that moment it gets hazy once more, the fog thickens, and you reach out to hold on to something only to realise you can’t see your hand any longer. If you are expecting for answers to be given by the end, for narrative revelations to tie everything up, then this movie may not be for you. If you expect the other kind of revelation, the kind that comes from an unknowable source, a cosmic provocation that brings with it more questions, then you are sure to find something sublime in this enigmatic film. I should also point out that bafflement is a perfectly fine and in some cases, beautiful reaction to art. BURNING is a special kind of film that takes in meaning and interpretation and sets it aflame leaving only smoke and ashes. You can’t make anything new without destroying something first.