Burning

Burning ★★★★½

I find myself more consistently surprised by Korean films than by any other national cinema. It’s not just their oft-cited proclivity for “genre-mixing” that accounts for this unpredictability; it’s the way in which the most influential Korean filmmakers of the past three decades have been seemingly unconcerned with maintaining any aesthetic separation whatsoever between “art films” and popular, genre-inflected entertainment. Burning is my first encounter with the work of Lee Chang-dong, but, like the films of his slightly younger generational cohort, he deftly uses the formal language of art cinema to deepen and humanize a set of familiar, and reliably gripping, genre conventions. 

Burning is divided into two distinct parts: a woozy, mumblecore-style “romance” and an anxiety-charged paranoid thriller. The first half establishes a loose love triangle among the three leads: Jong-su, a college-educated, but currently unemployed aspiring writer from the sticks, Hae-mi, a free-spirited, bohemian dancer, and Ben, an enigmatic, Tom Ripley type who literally lives in “Gangnam style” with no visible means of support. The first part of the diptych self-consciously inserts itself into a cinematic tradition of “lost youth” films, recalling at different times and in different ways, Taipei Story, Cruel Story of Youth, Jules et Jim, and even the indie anomie films of a Sofia Coppola or a Gus van Sant. Despite their differences in class and social status, all three characters seem completely detached from any social structure — familial or otherwise — which might provide some direction or meaning to their lives. 

The sequence shot that marks the transition into the film’s second half is worth describing in some detail because it encapsulates so much of what’s going on in the film as a whole. Ben and Hae-mi have dropped in on Jong-su at his father’s practically derelict farm. They’re watching the sunset and smoking weed, and Hae-mi spontaneously decides to take off her top and do an impromptu interpretive dance. 

The shot begins with a deep focus framing of Hae-min in the foreground and a South Korean flag flying next to the barn in the background. As she sways before the darkening sky, she makes a bird silhouette with her hands, and a mellow, improvisational jazz riff starts up on the soundtrack. The camera subtly pulls its focus from the background and follows Hae-mi’s dance as she begins to mime bird-like movements with her whole body. The music fades out, and her affect suddenly and unaccountably changes from euphoric liberation to disoriented sadness. As her gestures become faltering and uncertain, the camera pushes the focus back to the South Korean flag, still flapping forlornly in the breeze, and then it begins to laterally track away from Hae-mi entirely. In total silence, the camera slowly tracks right and tilts up, capturing the non-descript rural landscape and the traffic on a distant highway before coming to rest on a bare tree limb silhouetted against the now deep-purple sky. 

There are at least two ways to read this virtuosic long take. The first is to consider it allegorically — which is almost impossible to avoid when the director has literally planted the national flag so prominently in the scene. Given that Lee himself has declared that the film is about the “mystery” of Korea’s current position in an increasingly complex global economic and political system, interpreting Hae-mi’s exultant, liberatory dance as a barely-coded reflection of the freedoms that South Korea has enjoyed since the ousting of its military dictatorship in 1979 doesn’t seem like that much of a stretch. 

The second approach is a more formalist one. What’s so striking about the construction of this shot, beyond its high degree of cinematographic complexity, is the unexpected use of non-diegetic sound. The scene of a semi-nude, THC-inspired, free-form dance, set to a Miles Davis soundtrack, reads like a pretty familiar European art cinema trope of the late 60s and 70s. But when Hae-mi’s emotional state abruptly shifts just as the music drops out in the same moment, it becomes clear that Lee has been using those stylistic codes to weave the rug that he’s now just pulled out from under us. Just as Hae-mi’s performance of freedom comes to a disorienting and unsatisfying end, the camera pulls us out of that warm semiotic bath and deposits us into a cool, empty space of indifference and insignificance. 

What remains, after the removal of Hae-mi from the equation, is another iteration of the antagonistic homosocial doubling that seems to be a recurring motif in contemporary Korean cinema (I’m thinking of the partners in Memories of Murder, most obviously, but also I Saw the Devil, The Chaser, The Wailing, and even the two patriarchs of Parasite). The fact that Lee cast Steven Yeun, a Korean-American rising star, in the part of the louche, cosmopolitan Ben suggests that he wanted that character to literally embody — in voice, posture and mannerisms — a newly ascendant global “type.” And Yoo Ah-in, as the taciturn, socially awkward Jong-su, brings the same brand of self-conscious, countrified coarseness that Song Kang-ho has perfected in his films with Bong Joon-ho. 

If we wanted to return to the allegorical work this film seems to be engaged in, we might be tempted to read the fatal homoerotic dance which occurs in another virtuosic long take near the film’s end as the inevitable eruption of violence into a simmering conflict between the classes. But the fact that Jong-su’s paternal home is so close to the DMZ that he can hear the propaganda broadcasts from North Korea suggests another possibility. As with all the other cases of antagonistic doubling in recent Korean cinema, it’s not only the dimension of class conflict to which we need to be attuned, but it’s the political and historical reality of a country divided against itself — with one half reaping all the benefits of the global economy while the other languishes in a situation of backwardness and deprivation — which demands our attention as well.

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