‘Literary’ can sometimes be a contentious term in the world of film criticism. Too often, films that are described as literary carry certain negative connotations: they are overlong, underwritten, and too dependent on performance to deliver the filmic elements that audiences seek out. But make no mistake: while there may not be a single scene in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning that is not allowed the maximum allotment of space, the tensions contained within this film are indeed paid off in the end.
Jong-su (Yoo Ah-In) is a writer without a story. Having graduated from college and finished a stint in the military, Jong-su has made his home in Paju, a city a short drive from his parent’s farm on the North Korean border. One day, Jong-su has a chance encounter with Hae-mi (newcomer Jeon Jong-seo), a childhood acquaintance who invites him into her life with an affection that catches Jong-su by surprise. The two seem on the verge of romance until Hae-mi returns from a trip abroad with Ben (Steven Yeun), a wealthy businessman who took a shine to Hae-mi during their shared layover. As Ben begins to take his place alongside Hae-mi, Jong-su’s jealousy causes him to slowly withdraw from her life, leaving her exposed to the dark secrets held by his rival.
South Korea has long been known for its revenge stories, and rest assured, there is an element of revenge in the film’s methodical narrative. But Burning has no interest in seedy underworlds or maniacal serial killers; much of the film is focused on the central love triangle, with an uncertain Jong-su feeling slowly diminished in the presence of Ben’s wealth and power. Burning takes time to explore the economic divide between Ben and Jong-su, making it clear that both men have been conditioned to believe that Ben matters more than Jong-su in the eyes of society. Surely, they assume, Hae-mi will feel the same.
In exploring this divide, Lee, the film’s 64-year-old writer and director, effectively captures the unrest of a generation that is not his own. Burning presents Jong-su and Hae-mi of South Korean youth underemployed and feeling caught between their urban lifestyle and their rural upbringing. In Paju, people disappear frequently, fleeing family debt or financial obligations that they cannot hope to repay. Similarly, Yeun — raised in the United States and spending the first part of his career as an American television icon — brings his own outsider perspective to the narrative. His character always feels at a remove from the world around him, and Yeun’s immediate recognizability adds an element of extratextuality that serves the film well.
It’s more than just his international persona, though. Yuen is absolutely fascinating as Ben, a man holding secrets his new friends cannot hope to comprehend. Jong-su describes his rival as a Korean ‘Gatsby,’ one of a number of wealthy young men whose origins and income are shrouded in mystery, but there are moments scattered throughout the film where Ben allows his veneer to slip. What we see underneath is not anger or jealousy but emptiness, a human void buried beneath a polite layer of charm. This is what makes his relationship with Jong-su so fascinating. The younger man represents a clear departure from Ben’s routine, but Jong-su’s inability to connect with Hae-mi offers Ben a chance— maybe his first ever — to share a part of himself with another human being.
The film is also peppered with cinematic bits that reinforce these character divides. Jong-su’s family farm is close enough to the North Korean border that he can hear propaganda being broadcast across the line at all hours of the day. Ben’s careful confession that he likes to burn greenhouses as a form of stress release — an acknowledgement of a darker side that also positions him far beyond the reach of the law — also points to the disconnect between the consumed and the consumer. The film explores a great deal of Jong-su and Hae-mi’s shared hometown as Jong-su takes Ben at his word and inventories the greenhouses within his reach. Some are still in production, but others seem to have outlived their purpose: wild, overrun with foliage, and effortlessly flammable.
The delicacy of Burning’s story — how thoroughly it lives in its stolen moments between characters — means that the full tragedy of Burning cannot be felt without a little distance. Memory is the film’s greatest weapon; hours after the film is finished, patterns emerge in the narrative and our mind begins to condense the relationships between these characters until the truth of their intentions is revealed. Burning may move deliberately, but the destruction of lives is no less powerful for its literary qualities. Prepare to be haunted by this one for days, even weeks, after it is done.