At the center of South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning is a missing woman. Yet even that fact is called into question, as is everything else in the film’s mysterious study of a muted loner trying to make sense of the weird love triangle he may be involved in, as well as his own excavation of friendship and family that seems to be coming apart at the seams.
Are the random silent phone calls he receives a hint of something sinister? Does his girlfriend’s cat, whom he’s tasked to feed while she’s away, really exist, even though he never sees it but comes home to empty food dishes? How does a story of a girl falling into a well fit into the broader picture of their current relationship?
That’s a lot of ‘maybes’ in a film that shows but rarely tells. In some cases, that can be a riveting experience. With Burning it almost becomes an indictment of a certain type of storytelling that wants to be greater than it really is. Too diffuse to be called a thriller and too vacant of a character study to be called compelling, Burning leaves a feeling of disappointment because Chang-Dong’s previous films, especially Peppermint Candy (1999) and Secret Sunshine (2007), have avoided these pratfalls so beautifully.
The ‘thriller’ aspect arrives not long after Lee Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo) meets Haemi (Jong-seo Jeon). Once friends from school who grew up in the same neighborhood, she seduces him rather quickly, with her unique idea of foreplay, telling him he once called her “ugly” in school. A free thinker searching for something more, Haemi soon tells Jongsu she’s going away on an African trip and convinces him to feed her cat. Rarely changing expression or showing what’s going on behind his long, sad face, Jongsu dutifully does his task, taking breaks only to masturbate in her apartment and reminisce about their sexual dalliances there.
Their relationship shifts several weeks later, when Haemi returns with handsome and rich Ben (Steven Yeun) in tow. There’s nary a hint of sex between them. In fact, Chang-Dong is careful to film Ben and Haemi rarely touching, which only confuses Jongsu more. They become a trio of friends, going out to dinner and meeting Ben’s just as successful, beautiful and rich friends. Often perched just at the corner of a conversation he doesn’t feel obliged to participate in, Jongsu observes as Haemi slides deeper into her philosophical rants about man and nature. He can feel her slipping away, which is an apt metaphor for the class division now introduced into the friendship.
Like Jongsu, Ben is just as oblique a character. He seems nice and genuine enough, despite his confession that his hobby is burning down greenhouses for fun. It’s this dark admission that only piques Jongsu’s worry once Haemi literally vanishes from the film, leaving him to hash over the stories she once told him and the fact that small hints continue to point to Ben’s involvement in her disappearance.
However, all these things are simply mirrors for a larger story about the crumbling facade of Jongsu. If he weren’t such a morose and sad-sack individual, perhaps Burning could have succeeded in its portrait of a young man questioning everything in his life. Instead, the film asks us to forget the complicated radiance established by the character of Haemi and focus on the staid inexpressiveness of Jongsu and his tortured inner gaze.
If the film had focused more on Haemi, Burning may have approached something transcendental. The moments he gives her, such as a topless dance against a crimson and orange setting sun (something she referenced earlier in the film), stops the film down to a painterly interlude that never quite recovers once she disappears from it. It’s unusual, but Chang-Dong’s most poignant characters are typically female.
Besides this, the most frustrating aspect of Burning — besides the lauded atmosphere it attained on the summer and fall festival circuit — is the failure of Lee Chang-Dong to craft a film whose powder-keg narrative ignites as it winds to a halt. Burning features a final scene worthy of that description, but it’s an act of violence that comes too late and is too unforgivable for a character looking to wake an audience up after two and a half hours of vacant soul searching. Even the greats like Chang-Dong are allowed one misfire, I suppose.
Burning opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, November 9 at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas and the Angelika Film Center in Plano.