Directed by Lee Chang Dong
I CAN’T think of a more ambiguous, more elliptical, more unsettling film last year — or, for that matter, the past several years — than Lee Chang Dong’s latest, Burning. Like its eponymous action, the film transforms itself several times over, from a chance encounter to a budding affair to an intricately constructed and frankly mystifying triangle to something else entirely (among other things, a missing person search and a stalking) — each stage combusting material, releasing volatiles, sending soot and ash and smoke tumbling upwards to form suggestive shapes.
The film begins with a chance encounter between two childhood acquaintances: feckless deliveryman Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), attractive dance model and pantomime Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo). “You once said I was ugly,” Hae-mi reminds Jong-su; “I’ve had plastic surgery.”
If Jong-su had any reservations about Hae-mi’s appearance they’ve long since vanished; he’s tumbled into her bed for quick sex and agrees to feed her cat while she’s off on a spiritual quest in Kenya, only he can’t see the cat. “Am I coming here to feed an imaginary cat?” he asks; Hae-mi doesn’t quite directly answer.
And that possibly sums up Lee’s approach to storytelling, at least to the telling of this particular story: is Hae-mi in love with Jong-su? Or with Ben (Steven Yeun from The Walking Dead), the handsomely wealthy new friend that she met in Kenya? Did she really fall down a well when she was a child and did Jong-su rescue her (and is the memory a homage to Hong Sang-soo’s The Day a Pig Fell into the Well?)? Are they really childhood acquaintances (“I’ve had plastic surgery”) or is Hae-mi just really good at improvising pickup lines? Hae-mi isn’t giving any definite answers and Lee doesn’t supply us any, at least not definitively. Both tease us with implications, possible consequences.
Besides the ambiguity Lee draws upon several literary sources: Haruki Murakami’s “Barn Burning” for the rough plot outline and some of the dialogue, and through Mr. Murakami’s short story a conflation of F. Scott Fitzgerald (with Jong-su as Nick, Hae-mi as Daisy, and Ben as Jay — or is Jong-su Daisy’s husband Tom? Or is Jong-su Jay and Ben Tom?) and William Faulkner (the penchant for arson). Gatsby is at one point mentioned; a collection of Faulkner’s short stories is at one point brandished; Mr. Murakami isn’t mentioned once, possibly because that would be too on-the-nose — Jong-su (an aspiring writer) could simply read the story to find out what happens next.
Lee’s film has been criticized for the character of Hae-mi — a male conceit it’s said, a sexually available free spirit who doesn’t really make sense except as an engine to keep the plot moving, the male characters motivated. I don’t know — does apparent contradiction indicate complexity or incoherence? Does sexual activity suggest the indulging of male fantasies? Hae-mi wants to go to Kenya because she’d heard that tribesmen divide hunger into “little hunger” (the kind you feel when seeking food) and “great hunger” (the kind you feel when seeking meaning in your life) — she apparently wants to satisfy the latter. Come to think of it, she’s the only character in the film with a need that can’t be sated by easy gratification, that goes beyond immediate want — the only non-materialist in the film, if you can believe her.
Thinking more about it, Hae-mi’s a walking wealth of details compared to Ben, of whom we know almost nothing (When asked what he does Ben replies that he plays; when pressed he adds that for him play and work are the same thing). Later Hae-mi describes the sun setting into the Kenya desert: “I must be at the end of the world. I want to vanish just like that sunset.” She weeps; Ben marvels — in a rare moment of candor he smilingly admits he’s never wept in his life.
Ben drops his mask just one other time, when visiting Jong-su’s farm (actually Jong-su’s father’s farm, which son is watching while father is in prison). “I love Hae-mi,” Jong-su confides to Ben. “I burn greenhouses,” Ben tells Jong-su. Lee has shot the scene just so, with light dim enough to veil much of the scene, yet bright enough that you can just pick out details — the kind of light that illuminates our dreams, I imagine, or perhaps nightmares.
Jong-su does a double-take, presses Ben. “In Korea there are tons of greenhouses,” Ben says. “Useless, filthy, unpleasant-looking greenhouses. It’s like they’re all waiting for me to burn them down.” As Jong-su stares, Ben adds: “And as I watch them burn… I feel a bass sound right here. A bass that rings to my very bone.”
Does Ben have a great hunger after all? Who knows? Hae-mi is the most forthcoming, having admitted to hers early on; Jong-su mumbles his out as if in a confessional, only to be trumped just seconds later by Ben’s casual admission. Hae-mi possesses mysteries, only we’re not sure we can believe the answers; Ben is equally enigmatic, though stingier with responses; Jong-su as it turns out has his own secrets (a father with anger management problems, for one) only no one bothers asking. All three seem content to wander here and there as dictated by appetite or need, at least by what appetites and needs we observe or learn about, an unshrill yet pointed portrait of Korean youth wasting away its time on earth.
Viewers have called Lee’s film a “thriller” — why yes; yes I think so. Lee fashions a slow-unfolding mystery that somehow keeps you scrambling to keep up; he fashions thriller setpieces out of the most unlikely material: an unseen cat, a well that may or may not exist, a girl that may have disappeared or just gone away. In Jung-so’s investigation of Hae-mi’s veracity the film resonates — unfortunately so — to our present times: how much should we believe a woman who says (or doesn’t say, not directly) that violence was done to her? What kind of evidence should we accept or reject for and against her? And what should we do about it?
As for the ending — skip this paragraph if you plan to see the picture! — it’s been criticized as being too explicit compared to Mr. Murakami’s more ambiguous end but is it really? Jong-so has an intimate physical encounter at film’s start, has a second one at film’s end, completing the triangle Lee has been suggesting throughout. Ben responds to Jung-so with a tight embrace — an acceptance if you like — and a small gesture that if you blink you’ll miss: his hand pressing Jung-so’s bloody palm to his breast (“I feel a bass sound right here”). Ben has shared his great hunger with Jung-so, passed on the torch so to speak. Of course we’re not really sure Ben is passing anything — we only have that twilight conversation as evidence, and a handful of other hints and suggestions. Lee plays with light (a fleeting flash of reflected sunlight so brief you wonder if you actually saw it) and shadow (Ben and Jung-so’s twilight conversation) using a camera that lingers and glides and overall sets the film’s pace — never hurried, never extraneous, always evocative. It’s the unfussy, undemonstrative filmmaking he’s practiced for most of his career (from Secret Sunshine to Poetry to Peppermint Candy) and in my book perches him on or near the top of the pyramid of greatest living Korean filmmakers (or filmmakers, period), with this as being one of his finest works (but they’re all fine, so what am I talking about?).
At one point in the picture, standing in Jung-so’s father’s farm and in full view of her two men Hae-mi strips her shirt and — half naked, to the tune of Miles Davis’ music for Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud — dances to the setting sun. Ben and Jung-so undoubtedly want her — hell I want her, who wouldn’t? — but she in turn wants something too: in her graceful hand movements we recognize the African gesture for “great hunger.” When the dance ends — and it’s a tribute to Lee that we think this the perfect point for the dance to end — Hae-mi is reduced to clumsy steps and awkward waving, her face a mask of indescribable loss, and that is perfect too: she’s given everything of herself in that moment; she’s got nothing left to say.