By Violet Lucca
Dir. Lee Chang-dong, South Korea, Well Go USA
A young woman animatedly talks about her pantomime classes over dinner with a young man. She’s been miming the entire time, which parodies both mime itself and the type of person who would study miming at all. They’ve had some beers and soju, like all the other young people in the restaurant, but it’s obvious this cheerful momentum is a part of her, something that doesn’t need to be unlocked by alcohol. He’s polite and intently focused, looking at her the way a mark does a snake oil salesman before handing over some hard-earned cash. “Don’t think that there is a tangerine here,” she says, “but forget that there isn’t one . . . The important thing is that you really want one.” Later, in this scene, after explaining the Kalahari bushmen’s concept of “little” vs. “great” hunger (literal vs. existential), she falls asleep sitting up.
What is missing—or if anything’s missing at all—is a question central to Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, a film that is concerned with characters who appear to be relatable but are fundamentally unknowable. All evidence given is circumstantial, and for that reason it’s easy to get caught up in “solving” the case, to believe that you’ve located the unreliable narrator. Whereas the tragedies in Lee’s previous films Poetry (2010) and Secret Sunshine (2007) felt destined, this one, a magnificently expanded version of Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning,” is much closer to life itself, where nothing is certain but death and taxes, and everyone’s motives are clearly rooted in their material conditions rather than their stick-to-it-iveness or the hand of God. And just like the world we live in, where the inequalities between rich and poor and male and female only grow crueler and less escapable, the rage that undergirds Burning is instantly familiar.
The majority, if not all, of the young people in the aforementioned restaurant scene are just as fucked, or fucked in similar ways, as the couple—they’ve grown up in the post-9/11, post-crash Internet-of-things era on an irreversibly damaged plant, and have no real recourse against the previous generations who continue us down this path. There are few moments in Burning where this isn’t painfully implied. The young woman is Haemi (the alternately carefree and beatific Jeon Jong-seo), a freelance booth babe who was once called ugly by her former neighbor and current companion, Jongsoo (the reserved, broad-faced Yoo Ah-in), who can’t remember saying that or rescuing her from a well, as she claims he did. South Korea has the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world, which makes Haemi’s decision to surgically “solve” her beauty issues not as significant as it might be in the U.S. (even though we’re certainly heading in that direction), but it has left her with a significant amount of debt. This hasn’t gotten her down, or stopped her from purchasing a trip to Kenya to see the bushmen. Jongsoo, our narrator of sorts, has a creative writing degree and an unreliable family: his father awaits trial for punching a government official, his mother left when he was eight because she couldn’t put up with her husband’s anger issues and never returned, and his sister seems to have distanced herself from everyone after getting married. He earns money by driving and unloading trucks, and has taken over his jailed dad’s farm in Paju City near the North Korean border; the only piece of writing he is praised for is a petition in support of his father’s character. These two are reunited after he happens to be dropping off merchandise at a store where she’s co-managing a raffle in a mini-skirt and tube top. She passes him a winning ball, which earns him a ladies’ watch that he immediately gifts back to her.
This flirtatious sleight of hand precipitates Jongsoo’s intense crush on Haemi, who doesn’t have to push too hard in order to get him to follow through on whatever she asks. Her half-quirky, half-sad attempts to satisfy her great hunger (even as she’s haunted by her “little” hunger of crushing debt) are barely impositions to Jongsoo. But he becomes aggrieved when she returns from a trip to Kenya with Ben (the ethereally beguiling Steven Yeun), a young, rich man who’s had the good fortune of not being born to parents like theirs. (Prior to Ben’s appearance, Jongsoo’s father laments his anger and stubbornness to his son during a court break, noting that he could’ve bought property in Gangnam, where Ben lives, back when it was really cheap.) Exuding the bemused hollowness television and movies have trained us to expect of one-percenters and/or serial killers, Ben is immediately pegged as “The Great Gatsby” by Jongsoo, who bitterly tells Haemi while on a smoke break on Ben’s balcony, “There are so many Gatsbys in Korea.”
Ben isn’t a Gatsby, though, for his wealth is clearly inherited rather than self-made in the hopes of winning over a Daisy. Pleasant but vacant, he’s just some jaded asshole who drives his Porsche fast, casually smokes marijuana (a drug that’s extremely difficult to obtain in South Korea), and describes his profession as “playing” (just as the architects of the 2008 financial crisis did) and his hobby as “burning down greenhouses.” This final trait grows increasingly ominous in retrospect after Haemi abruptly disappears and Ben soon picks a new manic pixie dreamgirl to hang around with him.
Like a conspiracy theorist, the previously wide-eyed, sensible Jongsoo begins searching for the connections between the disordered facts he does have, and suspects that Ben’s “hobby” is actually a euphemism for murdering lonely, irresponsible young women. Everything Ben says and does—such as yawning while Haemi’s “sequel” yammers about a trivial detail about her trip to China, just as he did while Haemi talked about the bushmen’s dance—becomes evidence to support this. He takes up jogging, following a self-made path that allows him to check on all the greenhouses near his home, where Ben said that his latest target lay; he reaches out to Haemi’s family and former co-workers, who suggest that she’s left because of her debt; finally, he starts following Ben around all day, every day, in his father’s old truck. The slide into full-time sleuthing would be more drastic with someone else, but it gives Jongsoo a valorous purpose in a world that otherwise has no use for a young man with a creative writing degree. Were he to disappear as Haemi did, no one would go looking for him.
Despite the grimness of what he’s looking to prove, Jongsoo’s investigations simultaneously broaden and close off his world, exposing him to moments of beauty he’d never have sought out otherwise: the fields of Paju City, home to many decrepit greenhouses, are lovingly captured in the blue light of daybreak during his frantic morning jogs. It’s a stark contrast to the job interview he walks out on, where the other applicants (all roughly the same age as he) are referred to by number. The disease of conspiracy, just as it is in real life, is much more rewarding than what he’s been taught to do. Still, Jongsoo’s dedication to proving Ben has done something to Haemi also establishes him as the rich man’s foil. Like the U.S., Korean society puts a great deal of value on hard work—it’s a positive trait that’s supposedly rewarded with money and security—which makes Ben’s aloofness and “playing” worthy of punishment on some level. It’s the same sense of a natural social order that should allow Jongsoo and Haemi to be more successful than their own parents, as their parents were more successful than theirs. Instead, the little and great hungers eat away at them, pushing them toward even greater extremes: more debt, more doubt, more malice.
Jongsoo’s detachment and fear of Ben eventually manifest in violence, as this kind of resentment often does. After this sudden explosion of rage, Ben’s final gesture is to hug him, just like Madeline hugs Scotty, out of Christian forgiveness, repressed homosexual desire, or to simply feel something one last time—something so simple yet completely unreadable, just like everything else preceding it. Reduced to an animalistic state, Jongsoo drives off into the soft mist of Paju City. Shooting through the windshield of his father’s truck, his expression is obscured, as it always has been, even if we haven’t realized it.