Director Lee Chang-dong
Director Lee Chang-dong with actress Jeon Jong-seo
BURNING (Beoning) A-
South Korea (148 mi) 2018 ‘Scope d: Lee Chang-dong
His first film in 8-years, after having two films make the year’s Top Ten, 2011 Top Ten Films of the Year #6 Poetry and 2011 Top Ten Films of the Year #8 Secret Sunshine, this is a curiously murky and enigmatic film that explores an ambiguous state between the living and illusory worlds, Lee Chang-dong’s moody and self-reflective film was the highest rated at Cannes this year, averaging 3.8 on the Screendaily jury grid, breaking the 3.7 record set earlier by 2017 Top Ten List #2 Toni Erdmann, but like that film, came away with no major jury awards, winning a FIPRESCI prize, where it is described as “A visually stunning film and an emotionally complex comment on contemporary society.” Extremely subtle and fatalistic, this is a fascinating character study about how money allows you to literally get away with murder, while low-end workers have a dim view of their own future, as if it’s literally been stolen from them, painting a picture of two distinctively different South Koreas. Based on Haruki Murakami’s short story Barn Burning, Barn Burning, by Haruki Murakami 13-page short story (pdf), Lee’s clever adaptation is transplanted from Tokyo to Paju, South Korea with a few other minor changes as well, where just about the entire film takes place under the surface, focused upon a central character of Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in), an aloof and aspiring young novelist living at his father’s farm on the outskirts of town after his father has been imprisoned for striking a government official. The location of the farm is so far north that it is near the DMZ where telephone poles have speakers continually broadcasting North Korean propaganda, which adds a curious aspect to this film, like an underlying layer of deceit. Walking through town, a victim of staggering youth unemployment (working a temp job as a delivery boy), he runs into a childhood neighbor that he doesn’t recognize at first, Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), who may have undergone plastic surgery to improve her appearance, as what she recalls when they were much younger was Jongsu crossing the street to tell her just how ugly she was. They seem to have polar opposite personalities, as Haemi is outgoing and socially gregarious, even theatrical in the way she expresses herself, which includes a mime performance over dinner that Jongsu finds utterly captivating, while he is more quietly introspective and keeps to himself most of the time, barely uttering a word. Yet the film is seen through his keenly observing eyes. When she invites him up to her one-roomed apartment, they have sex before offering the keys and telling him to feed her reclusive cat (that he never sees) while she’s away on a visit to Africa. He has to ask if the cat is real or illusory, like the mime show, but he dutifully feeds the cat, sight unseen, while usually masturbating on the premises. In this way the film resembles Wong Kar-wai’s marvelous CHUNGKING EXPRESS (1994), specifically Faye Wong’s wacky clean-up visits into Tony Leung’s apartment while he’s out of town, obviously taking a liking to what she sees, but she never lets on, refusing to speak about it. When her flight home from Nairobi is delayed a few days due to terrorist alerts, Haemi calls to have Jongsu pick her up at the airport, but she has a surprising friend with her, Ben (Korean-American actor Steven Yeun), who she met at the airport as they were the only Koreans. Exploring this CABARET (1972)-like threesome becomes the unraveling centerpiece of the film, with suggestions of a toxic masculinity. Beautifully shot by Hong Kyung-pyo, there is another quiet film with a deeply despairing take on a Murakami novel by the same name, Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung’s greatly overlooked and unappreciated Norwegian Wood (2010) that uses the dazzling impressionistic visual imagery of master cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin to examine the depths of grief. More renowned in Asia than the United States, where he’s acclaimed as the “voice of a generation,” Murakami’s work places an emphasis on the mundane aspects of everyday life, where you have to read between the lines to appreciate his artistry.
All three have uniquely different personalities, where the viewer is always kept off-guard as to the specifics of the relationship, as is Jongsu, oftentimes feeling like the odd man out, immediately feeling jealous and threatened, especially when he discovers Ben comes from an upper class of what is likely inherited wealth, driving a Porsche sports car, having his own upscale apartment in Seoul’s wealthiest district, living a carefree lifestyle where he can do pretty much whatever he wants, which is the exact opposite of the more cash-strapped Haemi and Jongsu who are up to their ears in debt. Ben has a very cavalier manner about himself, where he’s used to getting what he wants, but is equally charmed by Haemi, whose vivacious personality excites them both, where they politely put up with the other guy just to be close to her, sort of pretending to have a friendship, though Jongsu likely loathes Ben from the outset. Driving his father’s old, barely functioning Kia truck, dressed in a worn out track suit, Jongsu is such a soft-spoken guy, never stepping out of bounds, knowing deep down the feelings he has for Haemi, but he keeps them secret as they visit various restaurants and multi-colored dance clubs, including an extremely laid-back café where the muted music in the background is Miles Davis playing the original score for Louis Malle’s film ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS (Ascenseur Pour L’Échafaud), aka FRANTIC from 1958, Miles Davis - Ascenseur pour l'échafaud - Lift to the Gallows (Full Album) (26:15). This ultra-cool and extremely melancholy music is just dripping with film noir atmosphere, described as “The loneliest trumpet sound you will ever hear,” which only accentuates the distances between characters, as none of them reveal anything personal about themselves, yet there’s a continuing struggle under the surface that never reveals itself, with motives remaining hidden, out of sight, where they pretend to be best of friends, but they’re anything but that, carefully concealed behind social custom and polite manner, exhibiting no signs of suspicion, yet there’s not an ounce of trust anywhere to be found. This strange game plays out onscreen, where hidden in the deep recesses there may be some strange and mysterious hope for a calamitous event knocking out their competition, opening up a pathway to Haemi’s heart, but some key evidence is missing, something they can’t put their finger on or explain, but we sense there is an underlying problem that will soon loom larger as time goes on. This is a minimalist film with original electronic music by Mowg that grows increasingly ominous, where nothing is as it seems, challenging the audience to see through the waves of deception, offering an accurate portrait of modern day life where truth is hidden underneath layers of class and deceitful messaging, all targeting secret aims and agendas, but media is engulfed in mixed messaging, sending so many different signals that it’s hard to sift through all the bullshit, but what’s clear is young people today aren’t getting the same opportunities as previous generations, stuck in an unending cycle of lower-end jobs with no way to pull themselves up, leaving them angry and hopelessly demoralized. What’s clear is that the youth of the nation exists in a kind of existential void where they can either fade away in insignificance, largely forgotten, or live a casual life of wealth and excess. As Jongsu tells Ben, “To me, the world is a mystery.” This is truly a film for the times with an alienated lower class who haven’t a clue how to unravel the mystery of it all.
This gulf between knowledge and the unknown, real and illusory, only grows as the film progresses, with one miraculous scene setting the stage. Ben drives Haemi to Jongsu’s farm, with the three of them drinking expensive French wine on the porch and watching the sunset over the fields. Ben offers the allure of smoking some pot, then playing the Miles Davis music from his car, adding a surreal layer of hypnotic bliss, with Haemi capturing the ancient spirit, emboldened by being high, ripping her shirt and sweater off, offering a silhouette dancing topless against a setting sun at dusk, an elusive time between day and night, suddenly free and liberated, completely in tune with her body, like a fertility ritual, with both guys glued to their seats, refusing to move a muscle. Falling asleep on the couch afterwards, these two guys continue a weird discussion, with Jongsu acknowledging a hatred for his abusive father, who drove his mother away at an early age, forcing him to burn her belongings, while also out of the blue pledging his love for Haemi, but doesn’t tell her, instead telling Ben, who finds this kind of personal confession amusing, as if he now has the upper hand, deciding to add some of his own hidden secrets, telling Jongsu that he has a penchant for arson, specifically burning greenhouses, perhaps one every two or three months, not really providing a motive, just revealing a peculiar habit, like an uncontrolled pyromaniac who likes to watch the fires they set. In this case, it’s hard to distinguish whether this is a metaphor for something else or an actual criminal habit, but it shows just how different the worlds are where these two men come from, one still traumatized since childhood, the other oblivious to consequences, as if wealth allows him to remain outside the law. Ben goes so far as to telegraph his intentions, saying he plans to burn another one down very soon, choosing a site very close to where Jongsu lives, so close he may miss it. In his misplaced anger at Ben, Jongsu lashes out against Haemi, inexplicably offering another cruel comment, exactly like he did much earlier in their lives, which shows how distanced he is from his true feelings, as he has nothing but affection for her. By the next day Jongsu takes up jogging, obsessively visiting all the greenhouses in the vicinity, checking on each one of them individually, yet notices nothing new. Instead he receives a strange call from Haemi that is quickly interrupted, sounding like footsteps followed by a deafening silence when her phone quickly goes dead, mysteriously disappearing afterwards, never heard from again. He stops by her apartment, but it’s been all tidied up, looking clean as a whistle, not at all lived in, with her suitcase still there, and no sign of the cat. With no other clues, he decides to stalk Ben, who he silently blames and has derogatorily labeled a Gatsby, claiming there are many of them in Korea these days, monetarily above the fray, answering to their own laws, as if society’s morals don’t apply to them, another comment on the extreme class differentiation in present-day South Korea. Following in his car, learning what he can, hoping to make some sense out of this, Jongsu’s efforts lead to confusion and themes of loneliness, but also anger and helplessness, a sense that something is terribly wrong with the world that he can’t quite realize or comprehend, all engulfed in blurred lines of reality, where there are suggestions that he may never know the truth, that there will always be a missing piece to contend with, that life will always be an unsolved mystery, yet he pursues his quest anyway out of love and a steadfast allegiance to Haemi, who has been reduced to a living ghost, still fresh in his mind, so close that he can almost touch her, yet he can’t. While the finale is different in the film than the story, more definitive, yet the beauty of the film is the development of a mysterious undertone, a focus on meticulous detail, and the idea of an all-consuming broken relationship where the sorrow never ends, with the young novelist writing Haemi’s story perhaps to purge his soul of a crime he never committed, forced to live with the eternal sadness that comes with the full knowledge that he failed to ever once tell her how he felt.