Burning ★★★★½

The foreign film of recent years that very much feels alive is Burning (South Korea, in English subtitles), even though it is about a young man named Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo) who doesn’t behave in ways that feel all that alive. But it’s the film itself that burns of real life authenticity. He is mopey, inward, and somewhat indolent. He runs into a childhood friend named Haemi (Jong-seo Jun) who he hasn’t seen in years. After something of a date they share, she initiates sex with him which is fairly explicit in its showing (sex scenes like this one can reveal human nature, and here, the reveal is it’s the guy who is the more nervous one). In the aftermath, Jong-su still comes off as something of a dolt, but the sex brings a little spark to him. We come to realize later how much it means to him. Haemi is off on a trip to Africa, and wishes Jong-su to feed her cat while she is away. Faithfully, Jong-su does. He never notices the cat when he does check-in to her apartment to do his feedings, but he sees the kitty litter. As for what’s going on inside him, we notice a longing in him while she is away.

We come to know a few things about Jong-su. He is a recent college grad. He wants to be a writer of novels. He has a father who is facing prosecution for assault. He is taking care of his father’s farmland while he is in jail. The mother left when he was very young.

The story congeals to another level at the airport. Jong-su’s face has glee that is half-restrained when he goes to pick up Haemi. In an instant, Jong-su realizes that she has met a guy, and his name is Ben (Steven Yeun) and Haemi clearly is enamored with him. Did Haemi have sex with Jong-su simply because she needed somebody to feed her cat while she was away? That’s something of a paranoid thought... but maybe.

The three of them go out for food, and it’s clear immediately that Ben has this rich boy Gatsby air about him. He might have no meaningful work in his life, he just plays, dabbles in hobbies and yawns freely when he is bored. He drives around in a Porsche. His collectible art signifies money and taste. Haemi is clearly seduced by Ben’s one-liners, his palm reading skills, his gadgets, his fast car, his cooking.

Jong-su is outmatched by Ben and he knows it. Yet continuously on, he either gets invited over so they are a trio, or Ben and Haemi invite themselves out to Jong-su’s farm. Are the two of them deliberately trying to play with Jong-su’s emotions?

Burning is another superb film from the world class filmmaker Lee Chang-dong, who makes long melodramas that contain violence but play out deeper notes on the mysteries of the heart and secret passions. He elicits beauty out of simple settings with his camera. “Poetry,” which came out eight years ago, is his greatest film. There is also remarkable drama in both “Oasis” and “Secret Sunshine.” Chang-dong knows how to tease his audience – he has been a gutsy writer on all his dramas. There will be a moment where Jong-su, or any of his previous film protagonists, that look as if they are about to explain their emotions or their outlook, and something else diverts the moment. Then there could be a key moment that explains everything, and such confessions are so out of the ordinary that it’s difficult for the listener to even process in a given moment.

Something strange like that happens in Burning. Haemi, a little burned out, passes out after smoking marijuana. The two men sit there on the porch and exchange chit-chat. Jong-su tells his life story which is good for us, but might be a case of over-sharing with the wrong person. Then Ben makes a confession of his own, and while you wouldn’t think to compare him to Ted Bundy, he’s clearly no sweetheart either. Ben has an arsonist fetish, for one, but is he speaking honestly on the level?

What comes after that are many wordless passages where Jong-su seems to muster an obsession for Haemi’s well-being. He also seems to want to protect the community greenhouses. He wants to follow Ben. He later encounters Ben, and doesn’t get the answers he’s looking for.

We don’t know what kind of writer Jong-su would make, but one could assume he would be better at creating incident rather than writing engaging dialogue.

He’s a lost young man, possibly on a lost crusade.

But something tells me with what drastic measures he takes at the end of the movie to get his payback feels kind of right. But if he ever gets questioned for it, he’s gonna to have a hard time explaining himself since he has a hard time explaining his feelings in the first place.

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