One of the best movies of the year that adds to the current rage for studying young people in transition.
Director: Chang-dong Lee (Secret Sunshine)
Screenplay: Chang-dong, Jungmi-Oh, based on a story by Haruki Murakami
Cast: Ah-In Yoo (The Crown), Steven Yeun (Okja)
Runtime: 2 hr 28 min
By: John DeSando
“To me, the world is a mystery.” Jongsu (Ah-In Yoo))
The protagonist of Burning is a naïve young Korean, Jongsu, shuffling through a life that gets incrementally more interesting in each scene but not passionate until pushed by a lovely girl or a slippery enemy. Then it burns.
As the opening quote signifies, Jongsu is a naïve but romantic sort, inarticulate when he is in conversation but soulful through his eyes. Daily he can be seen either in Seoul or tending the family farm in the town of Paj. Director Chang-dong Lee slowly sets up the subtle class conflict with two other characters, the three of whom create a romantic triangle that provides the heat Lee incorporates into a central fire motif. His influence by Faulkner’s Barn Burning is alluded to in the film as both works emphasize the uncertainty of finding peace in a world that attacks his family while the family contributes to the lack of peace.
Meeting a childhood friend, attractive and aggressive Haemi (Jong-seo Jeon) after 16 years turns Jongsu more sociable but still introverted. The real mystery is what she wants in a relationship because her new friend, slick and manipulative upper-middle-class Ben (Steven Yeun), is interested in her as well ("He's the Great Gatsby," Jongsu says). It is confusing for introvert Jongsu to deal with his lust for her and to figure out Ben’s complex motives. Jongsu also envies the Ben’s carefree wealth. The three hander takes off when the three are jousting.
Director Chang-dong Lee keeps the slim plot going frame by frame until we have some idea many frames later that this film may turn out to be a thriller.
Jongsu is in an existential state of uncertainty, where he receives stimuli but gives little in return except to the cow and Haemi’s cat, Boil, which doesn’t materialize any time soon. The trial of his farmer dad in court provides insight into Jongsu’s troubled family life and the contrast to that of the rich, suave, carefree Ben.
Additionally, an unreality motif prevails where Haemi may be telling the truth or making it up, such as with the cat or her childhood trauma. At least in the first part of the story before we begin to see reality biting its way into inexperienced Jongsu’s life.
The importance of this Korean jewel of a mystery lies not in the plot but rather the psychological miasma of youthful fears and exploration, where life is a mystery because he is experiencing it now, as if he were creating his own identity minute by minute, and as if there was no history but family ties and the inchoate desires of a young man. Burning is an exemplary international film that should receive an Oscar nod.
John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.rr.com