Burning, a film by Lee Chang-dong
A spoiler-light review of Burning
In the early 2000s, I heard a song in a Sarah Michelle Gellar film, Simply Irresistible, and this lead me on a wild chase across the internet to find that song. It turned out to be a remake of a jazz standard, “That Old Black Magic.” Chasing down the different iterations of it lead me to Ella Fitzgerald’s version, which remains my favorite to this date. It had the side-effect of kicking off my fascination with 1960s Bossa Nova, which a friend not-so-kindly once called elevator music.
My love for K-Dramas went pretty much the same way. I was flicking channels one evening and came across a Korean drama that caught my attention. I tuned in week after week, long after the story stopped being interesting and the characters annoyed me. Then, it was over and the very next week, a new drama began. Lather, rinse repeat for, say, oh, three solid years. I’ve since slowed down my K-Drama consumption, making exceptions here and there for exceptional series (like the phenomenal Mask.) But, on occasion, a film or TV show creeps into my line of vision and I can’t let go of it until I’ve seen it.
That brings us to director Lee Chang-dong’s film, Burning. The big draw for me was Steven Yeun, of course, who is best remembered as The Walking Dead’s doomed but heroic Glenn. Speaking Korean. Humina.
Burning begins with Lee Jong-su, who is a rather aimless young man working odd jobs while he pursues a writing career. While on a delivery, he runs into an old classmate, Shin Hae-mi. Hae-mi’s persistence turns what could have been a one-off “nice seeing you again!” into a date. While showing Jong-su what she’s learned taking a pantomime course, I noticed the actress’ big, lovely and expressive eyes. Thus, the viewer begins to fall for Hae-mi the same time Jong-su does. Hae-mi tells Jong-su about an upcoming trip to Africa, and that she’d love for him to check in on her shy cat, Boil. A trip back to Hae-mi’s place to introduce Boil to her future caretaker leads to a steamy, albeit awkward encounter. The comparison to a romantic K-Drama really kicks into high gear when Hae-mi returns from Africa with Yeun’s wordly (and wealthy!) Ben.
But, don’t get it twisted. You’d be tempted to look at the promotional material for Burning, a clueless Hae-mi sitting between smug Ben and shy Jong-su and dismiss it as an airy romantic film.
The first half of the film lets us believe that it is this until almost exactly halfway through, where a sincere, naïve Hae-mi performs for a group of Ben’s friends. For the first time, we are allowed to see Hae-mi through the eyes of someone other than Jong-su, who is clearly infatuated with her and thinks everything she does is magic. Ben’s wealthy friends watch Hae-mi with malicious glee and derision. Ben himself watches her with a yawning smirk. Jong-su, ever observant, picks up on the shifting energy of the room, and the viewer finally sees the film for what it is.
Knowing almost nothing about the film before pressing play, I realized that like Lee takes his time setting up shots, he has just given us the first clue that Burning is not a romantic drama, but a psychological one. You must see this film in its entirety to understand what I am about to say, but I promise you it is spoiler-free from here on out.
The great tragedy of this film is that nobody seems to care about what Hae-mi wants. A brief conversation with her co-worker hints the impossible situation Hae-mi and women like her are put in every day by men like Jong-su and Ben. Ben himself lets Jong-su in on something he had likely never stopped to consider in his blind pursuit of Hae-mi, but even then that conversation is marred in revelation about Ben himself. We are forced, then, to view Hae-mi through the lens of other characters’ desire, amusement, or contempt for her.
I found myself enjoying the first half of the film much more than the second, but upon second (and third) thought, that seems to be a deliberate choice by director Lee.
This does not dull my love for this film one bit, because the writing really shines. Listen to the way Ben describes the act of cooking for one’s self, Hae-mi recalls a traumatic childhood event, or Jong-su talks about his father’s anger. The characters’ truths are hidden deep underneath the things they don’t allow themselves to say, and I absolutely love the fact that screenwriter Oh and director Lee take their sweet, slow time teasing it out. The second half of the film is just as unhurried, but I feel that the story really picks up as it hurls itself towards the inevitable conclusion.
Like Jong-su, the viewer is left to piece together the clues of what happened and why. Ben’s cryptic smile reveals very little.
I don’t have a rating system for this or anything. I will say that few films have been so good that “just watch it for yourself” doesn’t do it justice, but…seriously. Watch for yourself. It’s streaming now on Netflix. Go!