Burning ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Burning is seared into my mind. Lee Chang-dong has crafted an absolutely stunning slow-burn psychological drama that respects the audience’s intelligence and rewards their patience. On paper, the premise is simple: a quiet, unassuming man loses his girlfriend to a charismatic psychopath. But the film is lush with psychological complexity and by employing a non-traditional structure and hypnotic pacing, Lee keeps his audience in a tight grasp.

Lee Chang-dong has always toyed with narrative structure. His second film Peppermint Candy employed a reverse-storytelling structure that predates Memento; Oasis’ central love story only begins to emerge after 40 (agonizing) minutes; and Secret Sunshine similarly doesn’t show its hand until at least a half-hour in. Like his last one, Burning also delays the inciting incident beyond the length of a typical first act and when Ben is finally introduced, we assume what will follow will be a relatively straightforward story about a guy desperate not to lose his lover. And for a while it is.

Taken as a whole, the first half of the film plays like an extended backstory to the real heart of the narrative. We learn so much about these three characters through their interactions. Initially, Hae-mi’s free-spirited, outgoing personality brings Jong-su out of his timid, introverted shell. She represents purity and functions as a relic from Jong-su’s past that offers the kindness his life desperately needs. She remarks about the time she fell in a well and was scared she would die, “Jong-su found me and I was rescued.” At the beginning of the film, she seems to be returning the favor.

But that comes to a halt when Ben enters. Lee conveys so much in that first scene at the airport through body language, camera placement, and framing. In a move that could be misconstrued as heavy-handed, Lee will often frame one character in between the other two; sometimes placing Ben between Hae-mi and Jong-su to visually signify this intrusion in their emotional relationship, sometimes framing Ben and Hae-mi on either side of Jong-su in the foreground, as a figurative devil and angel on his shoulders. It’s a simple and effective visual representation the character dynamics. We immediately understand Jong-su’s emotional growth is going to be disrupted; his inadequacies and insecurities are only underlined by the arrival of this new, suave alpha male. The reveal that Ben and Hae-mi have already shared a few days together only fuels the fire, and it’s the first of many small, offhanded moments that cut like a dagger.

Hae-mi is drawn to Ben’s effortless charm like a magnet. She feels rewarded for being herself and mistakes his boredom and disinterest as passive approval. Her naiveté makes her oblivious to the judgmental looks from Ben’s friends at her dance in the restaurant and Lee smartly doesn’t have him directly participate in the humiliation, but we gather through his exasperated yawn that he has no emotional interest in her; he finds her spiritual self-expression dull. Jong-su’s passive witnessing of this sequence is one of the most heartbreaking moments of the film. He feels sorry for her and his embarrassment of her comes back later when, after dancing at the sunset, he chides her for taking off her clothes. He’s too preoccupied with how others see her. His inability to accept her for who she is only pushes her further towards Ben, and ultimately to her death.

Lee uses her disappearance, which looms over the rest of the film, as well as other notable absences and red herrings to punctuate the mystery at the core of the film. Early on, he alludes to objects we never see: the invisible orange Hae-mi peels at the beginning, the cat in her apartment that Jong-su doesn’t see until later, the well that Hae-mi claims to have fallen in, and the burned down greenhouse Jong-su desperately searches for, hoping that finding one will mean Ben was speaking literally about his hobby, instead of the grim alternative. These peculiarities in the first half only strengthen the narrative when her mysterious disappearance takes centerstage.

Lee, avoiding spoon-feeding and explicit statements, allows the audience to come to the grave realization at their own pace. As more and more evidence piles on, the sinking feeling that Hae-mi is gone forever grows deeper and becomes more real. The unanswered calls, the “puff of smoke” line, the disappeared cat, the souvenir case; our hearts drop as the chances for our suspicions to be incorrect continue to wane, and Lee has calculated these moments for maximum impact. We already know what Ben did long before we get the scene with the cat in the parking garage, but that doesn’t make the reveal of the cat’s name hit any less hard. Lee creates this claustrophobic atmosphere where the walls are closing in on Jong-su and he’s entirely powerless to the events enveloping him and the guilt weighing on him.

Throughout the film, Ben has takes delight in watching Jong-su suffer: According to Hae-mi Ben was the one who wanted Jong-su to meet them at the café initially, he laughs when Jong-su confesses his love for Hae-mi, and he’s gleeful at Jong-su’s ignorance when he says he’s been searching for the burned greenhouse which Ben knows doesn’t exist. He toys with Jong-su every chance he gets and this is what makes the final confrontation so cathartic. Jong-su sheds his trepidation (along with his clothing) and through a kind of emotional rebirth, he’s finally able to break the endless cycle of hopelessness and kill this monstrous force that’s taken the only glimmer of hope he had. By shooting this final sequence in one long take, Lee makes the tension more palpable and the violence more visceral. Jong-su may never be free from guilt, but he can at least take solace in knowing Ben’s sadistic hobby won’t claim more victims.

In addition to crafting this narratively and structurally intricate work, Lee also gets distinct and incredible performances out of his actors. Yeun is a standout and easily one of the year’s best. He perfectly embodies Ben, who needs to be charming and enigmatic, but also coldly human. Through a measured performance, Yeun makes Ben sinister without ever feeling cartoonishly evil. His sharp laughs at Jong-su’s profession of love for Hae-mi feel authentic; they’re more subtly menacing than overly maniacal. Lee imbues these three characters with a realism that grounds the mysterious narrative and the actors bring their characters to life, strengthening the emotional core.

What sets Burning apart, though, is that it’s neither obvious nor needlessly obfuscated. Lee has no interest in condescension, and by acknowledging his audience’s intellect, he rewards them with a fascinating story. It’s layered and thematically rich, but unpretentious. Lee gives us plenty to dissect and discuss, especially on the characters’ psychological states and relationships to one another, but never gets bogged down in forced allegory or needless abstraction. Burning is his most complex and ambitious work to date and it’s an immensely powerful film from one of the best modern filmmakers.

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