Director: Lee Chang-dong
Starring: Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun, Jeon Jong-seo
Is this a story about personal redemption, one about finding our place in the world, or is its true purpose as mysterious as its plot? There’s a lot unanswered in Lee Chang-dong’s latest film, and I have a sneaking suspicion that that’s the way he wants it. This doesn’t detract from the film’s remarkable sense of tension and character intrigue, a film wherein I was never once distracted by external occurrences, one where I spent every moment of its two-and-a-half-hour runtime fixated to the screen. Some may shrug off this film as deliberately elusive, but through this elusiveness and through its visual fixations, one could compare it that of Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev. Its not the lack of resolution that we should be paying attention to; it’s the experience in which the film grants us and what we take from it.
Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is a detached and uninspired loner who masquerades as an aspiring writer in his homeland of Paju, South Korea. In a twist of fate, he meets a long-lost childhood acquantince by the name of Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo). After agreeing to a favor and a quick sexual encounter with her, he finds himself longing for Hae-mi to return from her brief trip to Africa. So naturally he’s disappointed when she returns with her new friend Ben (Steven Yeun of The Walking Dead), a man who’s all smiles with a politeness that irks to be called out as a fallacy. But there’s no real evidence or supportive reasoning to denounce Ben, so the three of them resume an increasingly bizarre love triangle/friendship.
This film, at least at first, applies its concerns to that of its characters and the mundanity of their everyday lives, contrasting Jong-su’s borderline poverty with that of Ben’s luxurious lifestyle, complete with a spacious apartment and a Porsche. It studies all three of the characters, Jong-su through the eyes of the viewer and Ben and Hae-mi through the eyes of Jong-su. We never get hard answers about who they truly are, but we get subtle implications that may shape their individual personalities. Jong-su’s father has a history of anger, and feels he resentful towards both his parents. Hae-mi recalls being stuck in a well as small seven-year-old girl, only to be saved by Jong-su. And Ben, for no truly explained reason, fancies himself an arsonist of greenhouses. He speaks of this very matter-of-factly while talking to Jong-su. The performances are very natural and professional, with Yoo Ah-in reciting lines like a quiet drifter who doesn’t know he’s being filmed, and Jeon Jong-seo having the excited free spirit of any young girl. Steven Yeun flexes performance muscles I had yet to see from him; all business, yet without a care in the world.
I’ve seen Burning once, and it demands sequential viewings. There are miniscule character moments and imagery begging to be studied. Could Jong-su’s familial troubles explain his monotonous and perpetually sad nature? Hae-mi just collapses into slumber wherever she sits, much like a child. Is there an overarching reason for this? And in the only image of a greenhouse actually burning, we see a small child gaping in awe into the chaos. Was this a memory of one of the men, or a preceding crime of Ben’s?
There’s a great deal of beauty to be found in the articulately place ambiguity of films like this, reminiscent of Altman’s 3 Women or Villeneuve’s Enemy. In certain films, these aspects can cause a film to implode on itself and reek of pretentiousness. But when helmed by an experienced director’s distinct vision, it instead creates justifiable tension and intrigue.
As for the surface story, one could argue that the story is drawn out, and complain about its lack of resolution (but there is certainly a climax) although I think many will appreciate the build-up of our three leads. Lee Chang-dong utilizes both the land and cityscapes of South Korea to their full potential, and doesn’t bother to clean any of the dirt from the cars or the litter from the streets, or anything else to make this film artificially cinematic. Its small details like this that make the film in its own way, terrifying; as though a man like Ben could walk into your life tomorrow.