Melancholy and opaque, Burning is a beautifully shot meander through modern-day South Korea that never resolves and depends heavily on the viewer’s acceptance of hazy ambiguity in place of plot and character development.
When permanently shell-shocked delivery boy Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) meets fey lonelygirl Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) he is immediately bewitched by her off-kilter behaviour and direct demands. Cajoled into looking after her cat while while she takes a solo trip to Africa, he enters an erotic dream-world, spending long hours in her empty apartment and masturbating on her bed. Lee has also been forced to take over his family livestock farm on the border with the North (where garbled propaganda ceaselessly plays from a hidden propaganda outpost) as his father has been arrested for assaulting a government official. This distraction leaves him unprepared for Shin’s return, bringing with her the rich and even more enigmatic Ben, a Korean playboy she meet during a terrorist attack on Nairobi airport. Lee is characteristically submissive in the face of this threat to his fantasy and allows Ben to dominate their relationship, only driven to action once Shin has disappeared.
The film is making a point about class, but what point exactly? Lee, dumbfounded and outmanoeuvred by Ben’s overwhelmingly tasteful wealth, is a frustratingly passive hero. Is this a result of his class background or of a script that isn’t interested in how he feels? Much of the emotional legwork is done by Mowg’s mesmeric score. But is this the sound of Lee’s inner world, or does it solely serve to romanticise and dramatise visual work of little depth for the audience’s benefit? By contrast Steven Yeun, as Ben, is able to make a stifled yawn a powerfully unsettling gesture. The intensity of his scenes, in contrast with long shots of Lee staring open-mouthed at a street or a patch of light, hints at who the director’s real sympathies lie with.
But what can the viewer take from a meditation on class in which a discussion of money is scrupulously avoided? Lee, Shin and Ben’s respective wealth is shown through their material possessions (Ben’s luxury car, Shin’s shoebox of a flat) but how they actually make money is never shown. Lee makes one delivery at the start of the film but then relocates to the farm, whose livestock bizarrely consists of one calf. Shin, similarly, is shown at her job as a sales promoter but never returns to work on her return from Africa. Ben is, of course, wryly mysterious about the source of his money: we simply assume it to be got by some vaguely nefarious means, though whether that is inheritance, money laundering, international poker championships or anything else is never explored. The scenario that the film wants to depict, the toxic encounter of precious millennials with their 1%er counterparts, is reduced to the haziest and most cartoonish terms.
Of course, the actors are very beautiful. Kyung-pyo Hong’s (The Wailing, Snowpiercer) camera-work is very beautiful. Perhaps this haziness is irrelevant. Some viewers will be able to accept a protagonist so passive that he never actually establishes whether his lover has been murdered or has simply drifted away – so passive, in fact, that when he first arrives at the farm he gets into the unmade sofa-bed his father has been sleeping in. The plot, however, in the rare moments it is forced to produce something definite, is depressingly familiar. The character of Shin Hae-mi manages to combine two of the most regressive tropes for female protagonists: the manic pixie dream girl and the ‘Beautiful Dead Girl’ whose disappearance provides the male protagonist’s motivation and emotional shading. To what end? Lee’s millennial everyman remains unknowing and unknowable – his final act of violence inorganic and isolated from what we have actually seen before on screen.
In Robert Kolker's Cinema of Loneliness, the critic warned that open-ended, vague films are not always empowering to the viewer; that ambiguity, “can mean nothing more than a freedom from concern about what is seen, for it is presented as indefinite, unrealisable, unknowable...affirming the viewer’s secure subjectivity by assuring her that meaning need not upset assumptions or endanger tranquillity”. For a film that wants to disturb and ask questions (“there is no right or wrong”, announces Ben, like he’s pronouncing a revelation, “only the morals of nature”,) Burning is strangely bland. Unchallenged, the audience drifts from the cinema, excitedly agreeing that none of them understand.
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