September 13, 2018
‘Burning’ Review: A Simmering, Haunting Mystery That Lingers [TIFF]
Lee Chang-dong‘s Burning moves at a pace all its own, telling a tale of mystery and obsession with no easy answers. Hypnotic, haunting, and featuring an incredible performance from Steven Yuen, Burning is one of the year’s best movies.
“I like to burn down greenhouses.” So says Ben (Steven Yeun) midway through Lee Chang-dong’s simmering, disturbing Burning. Ben, a cultured, mysteriously wealthy young man, is confessing his pyromania to Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in), a would-be writer stuck doing odd jobs. “There are so many useless greenhouses waiting for me to burn them down,” Ben adds. It becomes apparent very quickly – to us, if not Jongsu – that Ben isn’t actually talking about greenhouses.
It’s a curious confession, and Jongsu is understandably perplexed. But it’s just the beginning of the mystery to come…a mystery that takes its time. The appropriately-titled Burning is a slow-burn – a film that is in no hurry to get to its central mystery, and is instead more content to drift. Yet the pacing never seems plodding – right from the start, from the way Lee moves and positions his camera, and the way he lets silence fill the spaces the characters inhabit, we’re hooked.
At the start of Burning, Jongsu runs into Haemi (Jong-seo Jun), a childhood friend he fails to recognize at first. The two share a cigarette, and then go to dinner. Jongsu falls for her fast – in lust, if not love. But to hear Haemi tell it, when they were kids, Jongsu ignored her, and even called her ugly. Jongsu has no memory of this, nor does he have memories of other childhood stories Haemi recounts. Right away, director Lee is planting a seed of doubt. What is true here?
After a few sexual trysts, Jong-su is fully enamored with Haemi, but their time together is short-lived. Haemi is going off to Africa for a few weeks, and asks if Jong-su can feed her cat while she’s away. He agrees, and yet every time he visits Haemi’s apartment, he fails to see the cat. Much later, after things in Burning have become even more alarming, Haemi’s landlady will tell Jong-su that Haemi never had a cat.
Haemi returns from Africa accompanied by Ben, a stranger she met in Kenya. Jongsu is crestfallen, as it’s clear Haemi is far more interested in the handsome, inscrutable Ben than she is him. At the same time, it’s also clear that Ben doesn’t think very fondly of Haemi. At one point, he invites her out to meet his friends, at which point it becomes clear very quickly that all of the friends are not-so-subtly mocking Haemi and her somewhat childish attitude. When Jongsu looks over at Ben as Haemi is telling a story, he catches Ben in a long, drawn-out yawn.
Then comes the confession. Ben and Haemi stop by Jongsu’s home – a small farm at the edge of South Korea that he’s taken over while his father is in jail – for a fun night of drinking and watching the sun set. It’s a peaceful, even romantic moment, and Haemi later drunkenly dances to a Miles Davis tune. While she swirls and twirls in the ever-approaching darkness, Ben tells Jongsu of his fiery habit.
And then Hae-mi disappears. After she and Ben depart Jongsu’s place, Hae-mi vanishes off the face of the earth. No one seems to know where she is, and, more disturbing than that, no one seems to care she’s gone. Something dark and unnamable awakens in Jongsu, and he begins sprinting across the countryside, checking on old greenhouses, seeing if Ben has burned any to the ground yet. Jong-su’s mad dashes are backed by a throbbing, imposing musical score by Mowg.
What’s happened to Haemi? And does Ben know more than he’s letting on? He’s not exactly being subtle – he smirks and drops hints that something terrible has happened to Haemi, and that he might be the cause of it. Yuen is remarkable here – throwing off vibes of sexy, charming menace coupled with an eerie indifference. “He thinks everything is meaningless,” the actor told Film Comment, regarding his character, “so he’s not in a rush to get anywhere. He’s just about being there.”
Yuen’s inhuman calm is perfectly contrasted with Yoo Ah-in’s frantic, sweaty panic. He spends almost the entire second hour of the film in a state of frenzy, unable to sit still for very long, suspicious of everything and everyone. Here, the film turns into a kind of Hitchcockian Great Gatsby, with Jongsu as an increasingly suspicious and curious Nick Carraway to Ben’s sinister Gatsby.
It’s remarkable how engrossing this film is. Watching Burning is like gazing into a flickering fire that’s slowly burning out. It hypnotizes us; stuns us. We cannot look away. And all the way, the narrative moves at a near-glacial pace – a pace that should, in theory, be frustrating, but instead works to the film’s favor. Thanks to this pacing, Burning builds and builds, and just when it seems like that fire is about to be snuffed out for good, it suddenly flares up again – raging, hot, and all-consuming. The end result is a film unlike anything else you’re likely to see this year.
/Film rating: 9.5 out of 10
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