‘Burning’ simmers with mystery, rage

Lee Chang-dong is back with a beautifully-shot, slow-burn mystery thriller.

This review contains spoilers for “Burning.”

In the past few years alone, many films have centered around rage — at our society, at people we know and love, at our circumstances, at ourselves. While many are well-made and serve as entry points to larger cultural discussions, it can become exhaustive and repetitive to watch them fall into a more contemporary “think-piece” format at the risk of crafting more thoughtful, enduring art.

Enter Lee Chang-dong’s new mystery thriller, “Burning.”

Despite what its title might suggest, the film simmers — through its story, through its nearly two and a half hour run-time and even through its production process (the feature was the auteur’s first in eight years). While “Burning” is based on a 1983 short story by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, Lee’s use of slow-burn elevates his character studies and entrancing, ambiguous storytelling into a masterful study of 21st century anger and longing.

We open on Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo), who is forced to give up his part-time jobs in Seoul, South Korea to look after his family’s rural farm after his father is imprisoned for assaulting a government official. He dreams of being a William Faulkner-esque novelist, but his life parallels the Faulkner’s Depression-era protagonists much more than the author himself — Jong-su’s world is an austere one whose silence is punctuated by the cries of his livestock and the North Korean propaganda messages that reach his home.

One day, he unexpectedly reunites with his former classmate Hae-mi (exquisite newcomer Jong-seo Jeon) who asks him to watch her cat while she travels to Kenya. She is making ends meet in the city, too, as she dances and hawks lottery prizes at an outdoor market. However, her world is alight with possibility and yearning — Hae-mi dreams of seeing the world and scrambling past her working-class roots. In an early scene, she describes the philosophy of “Little Hunger” (one’s basic needs) versus “Great Hunger” (the desire to find greater meaning in one’s life). Although Hae-mi leaves before their burgeoning romance can turn into anything more, Jong-su is also introduced to the idea that he really can make something more of himself.

Three weeks later, Hae-mi returns with the wealthy, confident Ben (Steven Yeun of “The Walking Dead”) in tow, throwing a wrench into Jong-su’s aspirations. Played with languorous, unsettling charm in a definitive career turn for Yeun, the Gatsby-like older man eases the film into its later acts with calculated, lavish dread. When Jong-su asks Ben what he does to earn such a privileged lifestyle, he simply replies, “I play.”

Ben’s detached interest in Hae-mi (and, by extension, Jong-su) becomes more alarming when he reveals that he enjoys regularly setting abandoned greenhouses on fire. After letting his jealousy over Hae-mi and Ben’s relationship get the best of him, Jong-su finds that his friend has vanished. The dread and unease surrounding Hae-mi’s disappearance serve as the fuel that drives “Burning” through its intensifying second half, as we join the protagonist in his search to find out what really happened to her. Is Ben’s cool, unbothered nature and collection of working class women’s trinkets and affections a sign of something darker lurking underneath? Does Hae-mi’s credit card debt and possible lies about owning a cat and falling down a well as a child speak to greater troubles in her life that made her run away?

Viewers expecting a clean answer to the film’s mystery might initially be disappointed by the time “Burning” reaches its chillingly explosive climax. However, in the dread-filled, maddeningly ambiguous second act, Lee demonstrates his directorial prowess as he subtly ricochets the tension and brings the story’s themes into relief. With Hae-mi gone, Jong-su’s idolization of her and what she could represent are gone, forcing him into a desperate search that renders him a much more active and unpredictable main character. As he learns more about her unreliability and imperfections, Jong-su’s focus shifts to Ben. If the young mogul had a malicious role in Hae-mi’s disappearance, his privileged lifestyle and large circle of engaging friends does not have to change (while our protagonist remains trapped in working-class mundanity).

In this way, Lee is able to create a fully-realized portrait of masculine millennial anger, class conflicts and our often futile attempts to rationalize events beyond our control. Jong-su doesn’t receive easy answers about the mysteries shaping his life, but the slowly unfurling puzzle leaves indelible marks on his own behavior. And, in a time where so much contemporary art seems to commodify and simplify the social factors that shape our everyday lives, maybe the most pointed cultural criticism is a slow-burn.

Edited by Siena DeBolt | sdebolt@themaneater.com

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