PYROMANIA AND CLEANSING FIRE play key roles in Burning, Lee Chang-dong’s sixth feature and his first since 2010’s Poetry, but for most of its runtime the film works at a slow smolder. At the heart of the movie is a glowing ember of resentment and suspicion, softly and steadily blown on and piled with kindling from scene to scene, until it has no choice but to ignite.
The screenplay, by Lee and Oh Jung-mi, was adapted from “Barn Burning,” a ten-page short story by Haruki Murakami, and while retaining key scenes and premises, it departs in many crucial ways from its stated model, which is to be expected when turning such a slender piece of prose into a nearly two-and-a-half-hour movie. Lee’s version also has its characters voice the name of one of Murakami’s inspirations, William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” a story concerned with rankling resentments among the denizens of Yoknapatawpha County. What do a short story published by a Mississippian in 1939, a namesake story published by a Japanese person in 1983, and a feature film released by a South Korean in 2018 have to do with one another? Only something as universal as sex and deaththe bitterness of the have-nots facing those who have so much, a bitterness that leads to a longing to take something irreplaceable from them.
Burning’s central character, Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), is the movie’s Faulkner fan. He’s a would-be writer living in the old family farm in the village of Paju, with little more to keep him company than a calf and the strident sounds of North Korean propaganda floating across the DMZ. (Presumably he sees some imitable model in Faulkner’s depiction of rural life for his own future fiction.) On a trip into Seoul, he bumps into a girl who says she knows him from back home, Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), whom he doesn’t recognizeshe suggests it’s merely a matter of the passage of years and plastic surgery. They reconnect and she invites him into her apartment and into her bed, an invitation to which he responds clumsily. Afterwards, Jong-su agrees to stop by and take care of her skittish cat during her absence on a safari trip in Africa. He fulfills his duty faithfully, even while never catching a glimpse of the cat, an afterthought as he wiles away the time masturbating in Hae-mi’s empty apartment while looking out her window at the Namsan Tower and anticipating her return and, hopefully, the resumption of their physical relationship. And then she does return. But she comes back with Ben.
Ben (Steven Yuen) is a handsome, serenely self-confident guy whom Hae-mi met on vacation. He doesn’t look to be much older than Jong-su, but he comes across as infinitely more worldlyand wealthy. Jong-su, dazed, drives them all out to dinner in his rusted pick-up truck, clearly wondering just what is going on here. He doesn’t have to wonder when one of Ben’s friends swings by with his car, and he leaves with Hae-mi. Ben’s car is a Porsche 911 Carrera.
Ben already has the car and the spacious apartment in fashionable Gangnam, and now he has Hae-mi. He even, at Jong-su’s recommendation, dips into Faulkner. Jong-su has no steady job and no prospects; there’s little to suggest that his novel is anything more than a figment. All he has is his hangdog perseverance. A deflated third wheel, Jong-su hosts Ben and Hae-mi at his humble, homely farm, where they drink in the gathering dusk and Ben lights a joint and impulsive Hae-mi takes her shirt off and sways in a kind of thrall to the feel of the evening air before she passes out and Ben says something cryptic about making a hobby of burning greenhouses and Jong-su sloppily confesses his love for Hae-mi and Ben is unmoved, for by his own confession he has never criedand isn’t that a little odd? His typical pose is one of mild diversion mixed with boredom, exemplified in the little yawn that cracks his enigmatic smile when Hae-mi starts acting the fool in front of a small gathering of his sophisticated friends, a yawn and a smile that Jong-su alone seems to catch and deem suspicious.
Jong-su is in every scene of the film, and much of what we see, like this mild grin, is filtered and invested with significance through his perspective. When his focus drifts to a sliver of sunlight reflected into Hae-mi’s room during their lovemaking, the camera focuses on that sliver. When he is visited by visions of fire in a disturbing dream, we feel the threat of the flames. And so when Hae-mi one day disappears from his life and, it seems, the face of the earth, we can watch as his conviction that something has happened to her growsperhaps even come share it, for there are pieces of evidence, aren’t there?
Thanks to Lee’s ceremonious presentation of even the most banal details, everything laid out before us in the film comes to seem like evidence, an augury of something. Burning is strewn with all sorts of information whose exact meaning and validity is impossible to determine. Hae-mi claims that Jong-su rescued her after falling down a well when she was young, but there’s some question as to if there ever was a well on the property in question. Jong-su takes things on trust, believes what she tells him about their shared history, just as he believes in the cat he’s supposedly taking care of yet whose only trace are the leavings in the litter box. That nothing is exactly what it seems with this young woman is attested to in a moment where, discussing her pantomime training with Jong-su, she adeptly peels an invisible tangerine in front of him. It’s a key scene in the Murakami story, whose dialogue is lifted almost directly: “You forget that the tangerines are not there,” she explains. “That’s all.”
Maybe Hae-mi is acting all along, playing head games with the credulous Jong-su, and maybe her disappearance is one of them. But in her absence, Jong-su goes looking for answers and winds up focusing his attention on Ben and that little smile of his. Yuen, best known as a longtime member of the cast of The Walking Dead, performs the part with a controlled ambivalence, projecting in his every scene a mild, impenetrable affability that stays just on the right side of contemptuous condescensionbut just on the right sideand Jong-su is gradually gripped by an abiding obsession in proving that something wicked lies beneath that calm surface. Where Jong-su is clumsy, rash, and emotional, at one point lashing out at Hae-mi to call her a “whore,” Ben is always placid, poised, perfecttoo good to be true, and as such supremely hateable.
Jong-su joins the ranks of a long lineage of sex-starved, solitary, nervously compulsive men in cinema, the sort of men who have been spoken about a great deal recently, since the words “incel” and “Chad” and “manosphere” entered the lingua franca and an underclass of sexual rejects, left behind in the modern economy, have begun to bemoan the absence of and demand the mates they feel would be theirs in a more traditional society. Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle is a particularly famous example of the same typethough Lee’s treatment is far more reserved than that of Martin Scorsese’s immersively expressionistic film, and after Hae-mi’s stoned topless idyll, there isn’t another moment where the film really swoons. In absence of a grandiloquent journal entry voiceover, we can only guess at what is going on behind Jong-su’s wary eyes and permanently daunted demeanor, and what he might be thinking as he visits his father in jail or reconnects with the mother who abandoned him as a child, or goes about his rounds trying to accumulate information as to what happened to Hae-mi, though one senses his mind is made up on this point almost from the get-go.
The evidence he eventually collects is enough, in his eyes, to call for a conviction, though any two close-watching viewers may come to their own, perhaps very different, conclusions. Burning, like Ben, allows itself no flagrant false move that might give its game away, and this control is one definition of excellencethe film gained enough proselytizers at Cannes to earn it a Fipresci prize and abundant praise. And yes, it is intricately detailed, scrupulous in construction, studied in its careful balance of intimacy and distance, attractively timely, and altogether “adequately excellent,” to borrow a piece of faint praise coined in very different circumstances by H.P. Lovecraft’s ex-wife. But a film with such a diffident, often passive protagonist must generate its tensions and attractions elsewherememorable supporting players, a tactile atmosphere, a complex sense of the social sphere, an emphatic emotionalismand Burning, for all its accretion of portentous minutiae, manages this only sporadically. Withholding for a big finish, Lee blunts the edges of his buildup scenes, contributing to a desultory narrative progression that’s only drawn taut by the abruptness of its final, decisive, clarifying violent acta long-whisper-to-an-abrupt-shout gambit that Michael Haneke, a far lesser talent than Lee, practically trademarked. The ending is unsatisfying by design, but unsatisfying on another level, toofor here is a wonderfully well-wrought movie that lacks nothing but the essential, nothing but the scorch of flame.
Burning opens in theaters on October 26.