In Burning, Lee Chang-dong’s highly anticipated follow-up to Poetry (2010), lots of things happen but few come across. Communication, feelings and even facts are constantly obfuscated and glossed over, and yet the counterintuitive result is that viewers are allowed to zero in on the nuances of the three lead characters in even greater depth. Lee Chang-dong is in fine form for one of his most complex films and displays total control of the material, with perfect pacing even at a lengthy runtime. It’s like watching words being spoken in slow motion – you’re going to miss some of them, sure, but have you ever stopped to think about how beautiful moving lips can be?
Nominally a mystery thriller based on a Murakami short story (though only tangentially so, and by way of Faulkner), Burning introduces its characters fluidly, like different liquids pouring onto each other. First, aspiring writer Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo) stumbles onto Haemi (Jong-seo Jun), a beautiful girl who remembers him from their childhood and appears interested in him even though – as she pointedly reminds him – the only time he ever spoke to her was to tell her how ugly she was. Their first encounter culminates in an impressively staged sex scene that is captivating in itself while actually and sneakily setting the stage for the rest of the story: the messy and cramped apartment, the naturalism of the handheld camera, the haunting reflection on a wall that Jongsu can’t stop staring at, and the general ominous feeling that this is too good to be true (or real) are all elements that will fold right back into the second and more silently abstract half of the film.
Soon after, Haemi comes back from a trip in the company of Ben (Steven Yeun), who is handsome (“perfect DNA”, he jokes), disarmingly cool, wealthy and – worst of all – friendly to Jongsu in a way that blends condescension and genuine interest. The ingredients for a thorny love triangle are all there, but this plays more like the deconstruction of one, with all parties getting out of each other’s way at the decisive moment. It could be because Koreans are “always conscious of other people” (unlike those pesky Chinese), or because this gap is exactly where Lee Chang-dong wants to put his finger to stir up a conflict that may or may not be there.
A pivotal meeting at Jongsu’s family farm, located near the North Korean border and abandoned following his father’s imprisonment, is one of the most exciting extended sequences at this Cannes Film Festival (which is saying something considering the competition). Secret desires finally come to the surface, while Hong Gyeong-Pyo’s cinematography falls in love with the sunset as if he resolved to never make it go away, and Haemi dances naked in open defiance of both men’s gender expectations. The tension is palpable but muffled, as if wrapped in one of Ben’s soft knits and left to lounge on his designer sofa. A remarkable score by Korean composer Mowg, with its haunting mix of string and drums, is the final touch on this tremendous example of impeccable psychological devastation. “You can make it disappear, as if it never existed,” and that’s the ultimate privilege, whether it be things or people.
Gatsby is often mentioned, courtesy of the film’s poignant allusions to class dynamics in contemporary South Korea, and you can see shades of that in the initial forays into Ben’s impossibly perfect life. He says he does “a bit of this, a bit of that”, he makes it clear he’s all about the fun, yet he’s bored by the very friends he surrounds himself with. Two mirror shots of Steven Yeun simultaneously smiling and yawning during a dinner party are the sum of a terrific performance by the Korean American actor, who has recently been leveraging his TV fame in funny – and now creepy – ways. However, the allusions are mostly superficial, like everything else in a film that you can only get to the heart of by peeling off layers of beautiful deception. This particular Nick Carraway grows increasingly obsessed with (rather than fascinated by) the wealthy enigma of a man in front of him, and that’s what drives Burning into its bold, final dive towards mutual destruction.