The slow burn of Burning

The slow burn of Burning

Still from Korean film Burning by Chang-dong Lee featuring main cast Ah-in Yoo, Jong-seo Jun and Steven Yeun.

Based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, in Burning Chang-dong Lee has created an unsettling, creeping thriller. This is a film that works on multiple layers, with strong performances from all the main cast, but for me the stand-out was Ah-in Yoo as Jong-su. This is a character that goes through so many emotional turning points, which Ah-in Yoo embodied masterfully, with a quiet stillness that was utterly convincing for such an internal character. 

Jong-su starts off as a fairly ordinary young man, working as a courier just to make ends meet when he meets Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun), a bright, flirty young woman who, it turns out, grew up in the same village as him. They knew each other as children, although they weren’t friends. Things are going well, Jong-su and Hae-mi are becoming close and seem to be an item, until Hae-mi returns from a holiday in Kenya with the handsome, wealthy and enigmatic Ben (Steven Yeun). Nothing is said, but it seems Hae-mi and Ban are together now. 

This is a world where nothing is clear, little is said, but it is all under the surface. Truth in this story is like the greenhouse Ben, in what almost seems like it might be a threat, says he intends to burn down very near Jong-su’s house. Jong-su searches for the greenhouse, or evidence of it’s burning, and waits to see which one it will be. But he never finds it, and it seems if you don’t know where to look, it’s possible to miss a burning greenhouse, and then it’s gone like it never existed. Or maybe it never existed in the first place.

When Jong-su enters Hae-mi’s world, he doesn’t realise it, but things are not necessarily what they seem, or what they claim to be. He has entered a post-truth world. In fact at one point Donald Trump even appears on a TV, as if a reminder that the strange reality Jong-su seems to have entered is actually the reality for all of us now. Truth no longer matters. Or does it? Who’s to say.

The cinematography by Kyung-pyo Hong is so, like the story, so intricate and layered. He seems to only use natural light in the many outdoor scenes, and the results are rich, textured, shadowy images, playing with the multi-coloured tones of twilight, or the dense dim light of a foggy early morning, the exciting and frightening angry glow of fire against a dark night. Light plays a big part in this story, reflecting the subtlety the fragility, the complexity of the truth. The Burning is an exceptional film. It’s strange and haunting and beautiful and will leave you thinking about it for a while afterwards. 

Burning is playing in both the indie cinemas and multiplexes across the country right now.

Going deeper with spoilers….

There are a few things about Burning that, for me, make it even more unusual that it already is. Aside from Murakami’s mysterious story at its heart, Chang-dong Lee has added layers of narrative that work with the story but also bring it very much into this moment in history. We are living in an increasingly complex time. It has perhaps never been harder to distinguish fact from fiction. The internet has never made it easier to uncover hidden truths, but equally it has never been easier to disseminate lies, distortions and propaganda, and pretty much everyone is finding it hard to keep up. It is both the best of times, and it is the worst of times. I’ve already mentioned the pointed appearance of Trump on a television as the character’s pass through the scene. It serves to underline the problem with truth and lies in the story, but also another theme that keeps reappearing, that of a country physically and metaphorically split. The childhood village of Jong-su and Hae-mi is near the north-south border. It is a simple place of small-time farmers and simple people. In the city we see Hae-mi’s tiny, chaotic one-room apartment, big enough for a bed and not much else, although it’s crammed so full, it’s clear Hae-mi doesn’t have much time for the Marie Kondo approach to life. 

A world divided

This world, the natural environments of Hae-mi and Jong-su contrast dramatically with Ben’s stylish, sleek, ordered existence. The world of the elite, of the wealthy and powerful, is completely separate from the world of the everyday people and Jong-su’s battered rusty pick-up truck stands out like a neon sign in the middle of the wealthy suburbs. 

The character of Ben, so creepily played by Steven Yeun, who is so handsome, so casual, so detached. He seems to enjoy observing ordinary people, collecting them like amusing pets until he tires of them. But is he a murderer? Like Jong-su, we don’t know what to believe. It’s equally as believable that murdering the common folk is a regular fun pastime for Ben, as it is that he’s just a smugly rich self-important arsehole who treats everyone else in the world like an amusing zoo. We don’t know, not really, and neither does Jong-su, although he seems to convince himself it’s the former. But does Jong-su ultimately kill Ben as revenge for killing Hae-mi, or because he seems to have everything Jong-su doesn’t, and yet doesn’t really care about it. 

“Nothing matters”, Ben says, and for him nothing does because it all comes and goes so easily. He seems to have no past, no ties, nothing except his wealth to make his way through the world. For Jong-su, however, he only has ties from which he can’t escape. His violent father, his history with Hae-mi in the village, stuck in the old world and seems fated to stay there, repeating the patterns from his past.

The problem of the femme fatale

Burning plays with old and new, the past and present in so many complex ways, not least in the character of Hae-mi. At first glance Hae-mi is a classic femme fatale, one of the oldest tropes in the cinematic book. She is seductive, mysterious and worldly in a way Jong-su isn’t. Her world view is wide, physically extending to Africa in the course of the film, although she’s from the same small village as Jong-su. Throughout there are little nods to the rapidly evolving world of gender politics, although the commentary is not overt. It appears through moments like when Jong-su, having just confessed his love for Hae-mi to Ben, and soon after Hae-mi says what a perfect day they had all had together, Jong-su effectively tells her she’s a whore as she and Ben drive off. A nasty little jealous jab, designed to put her in her place, and which is the last they will ever speak.

After an outburst like that, it’s entirely believable she would keep her distance from him, but Jong-su is from the old world where nothing much has changed, and so he can’t imagine saying such a thing to a woman would be enough to make her disappear from his life. In the world of femme fatales, people say those kinds of things all the time, after all. It’s so normal in this sort of narrative, in fact, that you could read it simply as a passing flash of jealousy soon forgotten, if it wasn’t for the speech that comes a little later from a co-worker of Hae-mi’s as Jong-su tries to find her. “It’s harder for women”, she says. Women have to be so many things, tread a fine path in life, be attractive but not too unattainable, available, but not slutty, you have to be what everyone else wants. This speech makes it clear, the character of Hae-mi is more than a femme fatale, she is a complex character. A woman with a complicated past, who has broken with her family, changed her looks to be more pleasing, and yet travels to Kenya in search of something meaningful. She returns with Ben, but it is unclear who is the seducer and who the seduced in this couple, but they don’t seem to be equals either. It’s complicated, and yet maybe it’s not. Hae-mi is an interesting character because she appears to be one thing, but is actually a lot more than that, both within the story, and from a wider narrative perspective.

A world of conspiracies

I really enjoyed this film. I like complex layered stories like this one. I have my theories about what happened, but which theory I thought most likely kept switching through the film, one moment I was utterly convinced Ben had done away with Hae-mi, just as Jong-su becomes. The next I thought, maybe she just left, and then I’d switch back again. Having thought about it some more after the fact, I’m now sure that Jong-su was seeing shadows where there was nothing. That he, like so many, particularly in this era, struggling to understand complexity and the arbitrariness of the world around them have clung onto wild ideas and have then collected evidence to support those ideas. I think Mae-mi, a woman with an already complicated past, could see things were not well with Jong-su, and her romance was coming to an end with Ben, so she just left. But we’ll never know for sure, and that’s what makes this a good story well told. It is both satisfying, while leaving you not knowing what really happened, letting you think about it and explore the layers long after you’ve left the cinema, noticing more and more as you think about it. To me that’s clever story-telling.