Review: In ‘Burning,’ Love Ignites a Divided World

Posted October 25, 2018 5:50 p.m. EDT

One of the most beautiful scenes in a movie this year — in many years — comes midway through “Burning.” Two men and a woman are lazing around outside a home. They’re in the South Korean countryside, near the border with North Korea, where the squawk of propaganda drifts in and out from loudspeakers. Now, though, in the velvety dusk light, the sound of Miles Davis’ ethereal trumpet fills the air, and the woman begins swaying, taking off her shirt. She is dancing for the men, but mostly she’s dancing in what feels like ecstatic communion between her and the world.

Desire, ravenous and ineffable, shudders through “Burning,” the latest from great South Korean director Lee Chang-dong. Set in the present, the movie involves the complicated, increasingly fraught relationships among three characters whose lives are tragically engulfed as desire gives way to rage. The story has the quality of a mystery thriller — somebody goes missing, somebody else tries to figure out why — one accompanied by the drumbeat of politics. The larger, more agonizing question here, though, involves what it means to live in a divided, profoundly isolating world that relentlessly drives a wedge between the self and others.

The story opens the day that a young delivery man, Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo), meets a young woman, Haemi (Jong-seo Jun), in a chaotic, anonymous city. She works as store barker, dancing in scanty clothing while tempting shoppers with raffle prizes. Haemi hails Jongsu and reveals that they know each other from their hometown — he has no memory of her — then blurts out that she’s had plastic surgery. Later, she reminds him that when they were young he once crossed a street to tell her she was ugly, news she casually delivers while searching for a reaction that never comes.

Jun gives a physically open, natural performance that works as a lovely counterpoint to Haemi’s cryptic actions — she has an unseen cat, peels an invisible tangerine — while Yoo invests Jongsu with a reserve that suggests social awkwardness that can seem self-interested. (Slack-jawed, Jongsu hunches like a man in retreat or a teenager who hasn’t settled into his adult body.) Despite his seeming indifference to Haemi, he responds to her friendliness, and before long they’re in bed. This nascent intimacy abruptly ends when she leaves on a trip. When she returns with a wealthy enigma, Ben (Steven Yeun), the three form an awkward triangle, a configuration that derails Jongsu.

The movie is based on “Barn Burning,” a 1992 short story by Haruki Murakami that throbs with unspoken menace and shares its title with a far more blatantly violent 1939 story by William Faulkner. Lee nods at Faulkner (a favorite author of Jongsu whom Ben begins reading), but takes most of his cues from Murakami’s story. Lee retains its central triangle and some details, while making it his own by, for instance, changing the Miles Davis music. Mostly, Lee slowly foregrounds the uneasy violence that flickers through the Murakami to stunning, devastating effect.

Written by Lee and Oh Jung-mi, “Burning” unfolds in realistic scenes that don’t necessarily seem to be advancing a strong theme. Things happen, casually. For the most part, the story follows Jongsu, who’s as closed-down as the door in the movie’s opening image. Seemingly friendless, he says he wants to write. But his father’s legal troubles have forced Jongsu to take over the family’s rundown farm alone. “What kind of ‘writing’ are you going to ‘create,'” his father’s lawyer mockingly asks Jongsu, as if to remind him of his place in life. The lawyer also compares Jongsu’s father to a protagonist in a story, a remark that suggests our stories are written for us.

For the lawyer, fiction writing is clearly useless, and it certainly has no instrumental value for Jongsu’s father. That the movie is based on a story by a celebrated writer invests this seemingly uneventful scene with dark comedy, even if the larger point is the question of free will. (Is Jongsu writing his own story, or has it been determined by his father, whose rage landed him in jail?) The movie engages this question more directly once Ben — with his silky smiles and laid-back imperiousness — begins disrupting the equilibrium. “There is no right or wrong,” Ben tells Jongsu, after confessing that he torches derelict greenhouses. “Just the morals of nature.”

An understated visual stylist, Lee shoots and edits this scene simply but elegantly, initially cutting between the two men, who are each isolated in the frame. They’re sitting fairly close yet seem worlds apart. It’s the same night as Haemi’s ravishing dance. But now she’s asleep inside, the sun has set, and the men are alone in an exchange that grows darker, figuratively and literally, as Jongsu talks about his unhappy childhood and Ben shares his worldview. As the scene progresses, Lee joins the men visually in two-shots that leave one or the other blurred, only to punctuate this back and forth with an image of them seated side by side like mirrored images.

Here and throughout, Lee allows the actors to fill in their characters, letting them add pointillist detail to their portraits rather than smothering them in close-ups or self-regarding directorial virtuosity. All three leads are sensational (Yeun turns yawns and soft laughter into nightmares), giving performances that retain a sense of mystery that dovetails with the movie’s ambiguity. Again, things happen, often casually. Yet while each event expands the narrative — filling in the larger picture with nods at sexual relations, class divisions and a riven people — they don’t necessarily explain what happens or answer the fundamental question that burns through this brilliant movie.


Not rated. In Korean, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 28 minutes.