Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Eight

#8 — Burning (Lee Chang-dong, 2018)

Burning, directed be Lee Chang-dong, has the pulse of a thriller and the aura of an aching, soulful meditation on life. Like the best thrillers — or at least the most honest ones — it hinges on the constant threat of wounded, damaged males lashing out, sometimes against each other but more often against the women who have the misfortune to drift innocently into their orbits. One of the sly tricks of Lee’s film is the way he plays to the common expectations of protagonist and antagonist while leaving room to upend the scheme altogether.

The film begins with a young man name Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo). His usual trek through the South Korean city of Paju unexpectedly reunites him with Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun), a friend from childhood who’s become a lovely woman, in part, she says, because she underwent plastic surgery. Smitten and awkward, Jong-su responds to Hae-mi’s overtures of revived friendship, which eventually escalate into a night of intimacy right before she departs for a lengthy trip to Africa. Jong-su believes the romance will continue when Hae-mi returns. Instead, she gets off the plan with Ben (Steve Yuen), a handsome, charming man of comfortable means. In spending time with the new couple, Jong-su begins to suspect that Ben has a dark history and the moment he grows tired of Hae-mi will result in a fate far more dire than a breakup.

Lee moves along the narrative with the gear-clicking certainty and attention to detail that been a base requirement of such cinematic tales since Alfred Hitchcock drew a steady paycheck in the Hollywood studio system. But Burning is built less to jolt and more to insinuate itself. That’s partially accomplished by the mood and tone of the film, which can almost slip into a dreamlike state. The tender, lush cinematography, by Hong Kyung-pyo, is a key component of that quality. It’s the screenplay, though, that does the most to set the film apart. In adapting a Haruki Murakami‎ story, Lee and his co-writer, Oh Jung-mi, delve deeply into the characters while somehow still suggesting that they, like anyone, can’t ever fully be known. Motivations and intentions can only be shakily interpreted from the outside — guessed at, really — leading to a constant sense of unsettlement.

In crafting these specific ciphers, Lee has tremendous collaborators in his actors. All of them do sharp, intricate work, none more impressively than Yuen. Without pressing, Yuen conveys the nonchalant menace that comes with unchecked privilege, including the thin, poisonous layer of misogyny that is often a part of it. He surveys all that’s before him, gauging its worthiness and ready to slip away the instant his attention flags. He’s a villain, but Yuen doesn’t play him villainously. And that’s what makes him feel that much more dangerous, even when Lee starts to shift expectations like moving tiles. Burning demonstrates a truth neglected by many films meant to quicken the pulse. Nothing is more riveting, nor more thrilling, than complexity.

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