The word “Burning” may just as well describe the smoldering resentment felt by the characters in the beguiling new drama from South Korean master Lee Chang-dong (“Secret Sunshine”) as it does the pyromaniacal acts they perpetrate, taking out their aggression on abandoned greenhouses for lack of a proper outlet for their rage. In contemporary Korea, as in many other first-world countries today, members of the current generation stand to be worse off than their parents at the same time the gap between those of privilege and the working poor seems more acute than ever.
A departure from Lee’s more conventionally plotted earlier work, “Burning” attempts to make sense of that frustration within a strikingly unconventional thriller format (the film premiered immediately after “Under the Silver Lake” in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, which can be no coincidence, as it offers a vastly different take on an obsessive young man’s search for a missing girl for whom he inexplicably feels responsible). The degree to which “Burning” succeeds will depend largely on one’s capacity to identify with the unspoken but strongly conveyed sense of jealousy and frustration its lower-class protagonist feels, coupled with a need to impose some sense of order on events beyond our control.
According to the opening credits, Lee and co-writer Oh Jung-mi “based” their screenplay on “Barn Burning” by Haruki Murakami, but “inspired by” would probably be more accurate. “Burning” isn’t an adaptation so much as a jumping-off from the prolific author’s haiku-like short story. They share in common little more than a couple of characters and a premise: a pantomime student who demonstrates her talent by peeling phantom tangerines over dinner one evening, and the boyfriend she brings back from Africa, a rich guy with a curious hobby for barn burning (which Lee switches to setting greenhouses on fire, since the transparent structures are more common in Korea — and more cinematic in general).
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Here, the narrator has been aged down to an unexceptional delivery boy named Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo), who dreams of being a writer, though the most he ever manages to compose over the course of the film is a petition on behalf of his father, who stands trial for assaulting a police officer (his mother walked out on the family years earlier). While out on his rounds, Jongsu is spotted by a sexy young dancer named Haemi, (Jong-seo Jun), who claims that they grew up together, although he doesn’t recognize her.
She could be lying, for all we know. Truth and meaning are virtual impossibilities in Lee’s oeuvre, and this entire film is meticulously calibrated in its ambiguity, encouraging certain assumptions that neither the characters nor the audience can ever fully verify, so it’s best to be on one’s toes. In any case, Haemi claims she has gotten plastic surgery since. Openly flirtatious from the get-go, she invites Jongsu back to her place, where she describes an incident back in junior high when he went out of his way to tell her she was ugly. As if to demonstrate that the contrary is now true, she seduces him, asking him to watch her cat while she flies off on a two-week mission to Africa.
A word about the cat, which didn’t exist in the story — and may not even exist here — but is the animal that recurs most throughout Murakami’s fiction (even going so far as to speak in “Kafka on the Shore”): During the two weeks that Haemi is away, Jongsu doesn’t once see her beloved pet, although its food disappears and litter materializes between visits. Later, the cat will become an important detail — and also the purest example of why the film is sure to frustrate audiences who expect something more concrete from their movies.
As a writer, Jongsu looks for sense in a world filled with mystery — a recurring theme in Lee’s work, and especially his two masterpieces, “Secret Sunshine” and “Poetry.” And yet, Jongsu may as well be cinema’s most apathetic detective, unable even to locate Haemi’s cat, much less prove anything conclusive about the later disappearance of its owner.
So cool and aloof in the opening scenes, Jongsu grows rapidly weaker in our eyes as the film progresses. When he first sees Haemi’s apartment (a tiny one-room hovel), he describes living in an even more cramped space, where the toilet was squeezed next to the kitchen sink. That’s a clue to his class, though his low social standing becomes even more evident when we see the dump where he grew up in the country.
After just one sexual encounter with Haemi (made special by a beam of sunlight he sees reflected on her closet wall), he’s hooked. When she calls to ask whether he’ll pick her up from the airport, he’s quick to agree, completely blindsided — and transparently hurt — that she failed to mention she’d be traveling with a rich Korean guy she met in Kenya. Almost literally the third wheel, Jongsu drives them to dinner and studies this new guy, Ben (Korean-American actor Steven Yeun, whose relative star status underlines the notion that his character is superior to Jongsu), with a mix of envy and admiration. Turns out Ben never needed the ride: A friend drops off his Porsche outside the restaurant, and without missing a beat, he offers to drive Haemi home from there, as if she belongs to him — the look she gives Jongsu in that moment, as Jongsu lets the richer man escort her away, is perhaps the last chance he has with her.
The next time Jongsu sees the couple, after Ben invites him over for dinner at his place — an elegant bachelor pad in a nice part of Seoul — Jongsu pulls Haemi aside and asks, “How does he live like this at his age?” If you have ever felt that burning sense of inferiority with which Jongsu seems to be wrestling, then the rest of the character’s arc ought to prove easily relatable — although I must confess feeling stuck outside Jongsu’s mind for most of the film, which keeps the character at arm’s length in DP Hong Kyung-pyo’s handheld widescreen frames. While not as challenging a protagonist to embrace as the mentally disabled ex-criminal Lee gave us in “Oasis,” Jongsu is hardly your conventional hero, nor the most likable character on screen.
That would be Ben, or else Haemi, who entices us as she does Jongsu one evening when she strips out of her shirt and dances topless in front of them (this is Jun’s first screen role, and the unpredictability of discovering a fresh starlet subliminally reinforces her appeal). Jongsu lashes out at her, calling her a whore, but Lee is sharp enough to acknowledge the gender double-standard, including dialogue that acknowledges the no-win situation facing women who dress or act provocatively (it’s the surest way to attract men, but also a recipe for being labeled promiscuous) even as he forces us to identify with this petty and small-minded character.
During this same scene, Ben confides in Jongsu his odd compulsion to burn greenhouses, promising to torch one “very near” to where Jongsu grew up. Jongsu becomes obsessed with this idea, so illicit and compelling that he very nearly burns one down himself. And yet, there’s no evidence that Ben follows through on his boast, or that he’s ever actually burned a greenhouse. It’s just one more facet of this rich guy’s enigmatic persona to fascinate and begrudge Jongsu.
And then Haemi goes missing, sending Jongsu into a deep spiral of confusion. He is clearly convinced that Ben is responsible — though the movie offers zero conclusive evidence to that effect (and a fair amount to the contrary) — which in turn inspires him to shadow Ben around the area. But even if Ben hasn’t murdered Haemi, he has done the equivalent, treating her as some kind of disposable plaything while killing off any chance that Jongsu might have at dating her again, and that’s enough to fuel the anger that ignites in the final act.
It’s an upsetting ending — a catharsis for one character that offers audiences no such release. Like Jongsu, we crave to understand why things happen the way they do, and Lee denies us this satisfaction. Consider the cat again for a moment: When Jongsu later calls a runaway by the name Haemi gave her own “invisible” cat, Lee invites us to assume that they are one and the same animal. But can we ever be sure?