Burning ★★★★½

Part of March Around the World 2019

“She just...disappeared. Like a puff of smoke.”

Having finally married his one true love, Estelle Oldham, after her intervening-but-ultimately-failed marriage to Cornell Franklin (he of the law degree and the respectable name and the top prospects and the antecedent family friendship with the Oldhams (Mr. and Mrs.)), William Cuthbert Faulkner required a home for his new family. And so he purchased The Sheegog Place (so named for its builder, Robert Sheegog), an old Greek revival house fallen into some disrepair. But William was a Faulkner, not a Sheegog—the name would not do. And so Faulkner changed the name to Rowan Oak.

Why Rowan Oak? According to the home’s official website, it was chosen “after the rowan tree, a symbol of security and peace.” And this may be—the rowan has a long history of folkloric and mythical associations. The Greeks believed that the rowan was birthed from the eagle sent to retrieve the goddess Hebe’s chalice after its theft by demons, the eagle’s feathers becoming the tree’s leaves and the bird’s blood becoming its berries. In Norse mythology, the tree is said to have saved Thor from being swept away in a river, granting him a lifeline to which to cling. And many Europeans (especially in the British Isles) believed in the rowan’s protective capacity against witchcraft and other evil spirits.

Then again, part of this belief sprang from the five-pointed star visible on the blood red berries. The color red and the pentagram may have been symbolically comforting for the Pagan residents of yore, but perhaps less so for a man from the American South raised in a deeply (if conflicted) Christian milieu. And there is the matter of the rowan’s natural habitat—it favors cool, temperate climates not seen in Oxford, Mississippi or its surroundings. And of course one can scarcely escape the name’s similarity to Roanoke, the famed “Lost Colony” whose inhabitants disappeared to points and/or dimensions unknown—not exactly the picture of security and peace. The centuries have not dampened the speculation as to what happened to the residents of Roanoke, their fate’s unknowability the primary source of its fascination.

So it is with the naming of Rowan Oak, and with the destiny of those gone missing, and with human nature more generally. It is impossible to fully, truly, really know why anyone does anything, why anything really happens. But we cannot help but try....

Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is about many things: class divisions; South Korea’s place in the international order; the legacy of familial violence; dysfunctional masculinity; the value of a liberal arts education. But what sticks in the mind long after viewing is all the carefully calculated ambiguity, the answers that seem to be just within reach and yet remain persistently, troublingly elusive. Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is certain he knows what Ben (Steven Yeun) has done, and Lee’s privileging of Jong-su’s point-of-view builds a damning case, but it’s never quite airtight. The pat answer—whether “named after a symbol of security and peace” or “Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo) is a greenhouse”—feels right, and yet the nagging suspicion that there’s more to it won’t quite evaporate.

Evaporation proves hard without some source of heat, something Lee studiously withholds. Burning is persistently chilly, from the blues and greys and browns that form the film’s color palette to the sterility of Ben’s Gangnam high-rise apartment to the snow that falls over the final scene. Hae-mi points out that her north-facing apartment only gets one tiny shaft of sunlight each day (and that only reflected off of a nearby tower), which feels appropriate—her actions are often inscrutable, pantomiming nonexistent tangerines and telling stories about cats and wells that may never have existed. That the sunlight, when it arrives, falls in her closet also feels appropriate—a place where people conceal things, like the many knives tucked away in a bureau at Jong-su’s family farmhouse and the assortment of makeup and women’s accessories occupying Ben’s bathroom cabinets.

It is hard to resist the easy pun that Burning is a slow burn, but Lee never falls into the arthouse trap of using deliberate pacing or careful dissemination of information to obscure a lack of vitality or purpose. Adapting a Haruki Murakami short story, “Barn Burning” (itself a riff on a Faulkner short story of the same name), Lee synthesizes Murakami, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Antonioni, Hitchcock, and many more into something altogether itself. Lee takes what could be tired characters and clichés—the young man in love with (and feeling entitled to possession of) a woman; the love triangle among two competitive suitors and their seemingly oblivious target; the flighty, spritely Manic Pixie Dream Girl—and shuffles them in such a manner that, in our disorientation, they seem reinvented. It is a paragon of artistic control in service of the tale of a failed artist’s attempts to imbue life—inherently non-narrative and random—with a great novel’s deeper meaning.

Lee’s elegant sleight of hand distracts from this undertaking for quite some time. It is not until late in the film—not until Jong-su begins literally tailing Ben around the city like Scottie following Madeleine—that it becomes clear that Jong-su has effectively been our narrator, our informational filter. It is not just the story of Burning that we have been watching, it is Jong-su’s (an aspiring novelist’s) version of that story. (Lee underlines this by breaking from Jong-su’s point-of-view late and allowing us to witness Ben on his own, away from Jong-su’s probing gaze, and lets us see an alternate explanation for at least some of the information Jong-su has found.) And with that realization, everything plays very differently.

Although we never see Jong-su writing fiction until late in the film, we know he has a degree in creative writing—a degree that his father’s lawyer mocks directly and that Ben mocks more subtly. Jong-su is not shy about his love of Faulkner, whose stories make him feel like he’s reading about his own life (and woe to the man who feels this way), and he compares Ben (and South Korean youth culture more broadly) to Jay Gatsby, the self-obsessed rich boy whose wealth seems to come from no hard labor. But Jong-su is never able to say what he will write about—not his father, whose life is seemingly dramatic enough to support a novel and whose contribution (along with his mother) to the generational cycle of violence and aimlessness afflicting Jong-su could do Faulkner proud. Jong-su refuses to define a metaphor for Hae-mi when given the chance, nor is he able to summon the verbal grace that comes so easily to Ben (who refers to himself as a god to whom he is giving an offering and to the amoral and unstoppable flow of the rain). And Jong-su seems fundamentally to misunderstand Gatsby—whatever his shortcomings, Gatsby had genuine feelings for Daisy, while Ben (the man who has never cried and only once been jealous) seems to have few feelings of any sort for anyone but himself. It is true that Jong-su is young and has plenty of time to flower artistically, and it is true that still waters often run deep—but one scarcely gets the sense that Jong-su’s taciturn demeanor and perpetually half-open mouth hide a talented artistic mind.

Which may explain why Jong-su’s interpretations tend toward the floridly mundane, the banally overblown. Hae-mi claims to have a cat named Boil, but he never sees the cat; thus, he surmises that the cat does not exist but is instead the product of Hae-mi’s playful imagination (a product that, not coincidentally, serves to keep Jong-su around and signal Hae-mi’s interest in him). Yet the food Jong-su puts out disappears, and the litter box is replenished with feces—if Hae-mi is playing him, it is an awfully long and complicated con. (Not to mention the fact that, as any cat owner can tell you, the absence of a cat is no evidence of the cat’s absence. Cat owners love Zen koans, which are the linguistic equivalent of a cat’s personality.) No matter, though—when Ben later adopts a stray cat and the cat approaches Jong-su after he calls it Boil, he surmises that the cat must be Hae-mi’s, stolen from her by Ben as a sentimental token of his crime. Yet, unless Boil is Schrödinger’s cat, it cannot be both spectral and extant. (Not to mention the fact that, as any cat owner can tell you, cats name themselves and respond to human communication in whatever manner most suits them at the moment, if at all.) No matter, though—Boil need only serve whatever Jong-su desires as the current narrative thrust of his story. His writing may be blocked, but his creative impulses manifest in other ways.

These impulses reverberate throughout the story. A watch in a bathroom cabinet is either a portentous clue or utterly meaningless, but from Jong-su’s perspective only the most outré explanation will do. Hae-mi’s changing of her apartment’s passcode and the disconnection of her cell phone speak to dire ends or to the whims of a marginally employed young woman who studies pantomime and travels to Africa to fulfill a sense of longing, but for Jong-su the messy and unsatisfying nature of the latter possibility is no match for the tidy and dramatic nature of the former. Jong-su, it turns out, may have been an unreliable narrator all along. Maybe Ben had a makeup case in his bathroom because he likes to primp and preen as foreplay; maybe Ben would never accept an offer to meet Jong-su and Hae-mi if he knew conclusively that Hae-mi was incapable of attending; maybe Jong-su—when he finally got down to writing while facing that grey, lightless window—put together all the wrong explanations in order to engineer the entirely wrong ending.

Or maybe not. While Jong-su’s interpretive abilities may be skewed or self-serving, it is hard to deny that Hae-mi’s stories of plastic surgery and youthful encounters not otherwise remembered are odd. Maybe Jong-su doesn’t recall rescuing Hae-mi from a well because it never happened, or maybe it simply wasn’t as important to him as it was to her. Maybe Jong-su doesn’t recall crossing the street to tell Hae-mi she was ugly because he never did so, or maybe that bit of youthful callousness had far more impact on the listener than the speaker. And while Jong-su may have reason to dislike the rich and handsome young man serving as his romantic rival, it is hard to deny that Ben’s coldness leans toward the sociopathic. (Profound credit goes to Yeun for a remarkable performance, icily creepy and detached without ever slipping into caricature.) There is little evidence that Ben cares for Hae-mi or anyone else or that his contributions to society are especially useful. Does that mean that his lack of concern over Hae-mi’s disappearance is proof of his knowledge of what became of her—or has he just moved on to the next flavor because he views people as essentially disposable? Should his story of burning greenhouses be read as a confession of deeper wrongdoing—or is it perhaps a tale told by a pathological liar whose kicks come from deceiving the nearest rube? On the scale of human goodness, Ben certainly plots somewhere far south of Mister Rogers. But does that make him a villain? More specifically, does that make him this story’s villain?

Therein lies the fascinating murkiness of Burning. Ben is clearly a bad person, and Hae-mi has undeniably ghosted in one way or another—for Jong-su, the math is clear. But that is only because Jong-su seeks to impose narrative formulae on his life, which lends itself to no such neatness. It is hard to blame Jong-su too much for this—after all, the human brain is wired to discern order within chaos, to categorize and quantify and explain. The ugliness and randomness and sheer inexplicability of the world is terrifying—which is why we seldom think about it and instead think about A leading to B which caused C. Jong-su is so focused on imagining that the tangerine is there—that the causal links and satisfying resolutions exist—that he cannot simply let himself forget that the tangerine is not there—that the answers, no matter how hard you look, may never be found, or even findable.

Not that that stops us. We strain to understand why the phone rings with no one on the other end. We wonder about that filled-in well and whether the conflicting accounts of its existence can be definitively reconciled. We keep searching for the reason the Roanoke colonists vanished, conjuring possibilities while secretly hoping not to confirm any of them. Or we invent ghost stories, like Faulkner did about Judith Sheegog, Robert Sheegog’s daughter who killed herself on the balcony of Rowan Oak. Never mind that no evidence of any death at the house, or even of a Judith Sheegog’s existence, has ever been found. Never mind the name paying tribute to security and peace. If there is no trouble, from what are we securing our peace? If there is no dramatic event, from where will we derive meaning? The house needed a ghost. We all need a ghost.

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