****Very Mild Spoilers Ahead (none outside of what’s in the trailer, really)****
“There are so many useless greenhouses, waiting for me to burn them down”
When this line is delivered with psychopathic calm by Ben (Steven Yeun, additional charm added by Steven Yeun’s cheekbones) to protagonist Jong-su (Yoo Ah-In) there is a certain dark comedy to it all. It comes in a series of gradually elevating declarative statements that shock the lovesick and newly stoned Jong-su, as untethered as they are to any moment in the scene or the film prior. The juxtaposition of Jong-su, the little lost child, with his pastoral every-man worries, and his drive to explore the mystery of man; alongside the rich, playful and enigmatic Ben who only continues to shroud himself and Jong-su in more mystery even as he speaks as plainly as possible. Its a shock that the audience laughs along with, however it is tethered strongly to themes that run throughout the film, and it will later be reflected in the words of Jong-su himself.
We are introduced to Lee Jong-su by way of his cigarette smoke emanating from the side of his delivery truck. The camera will then follow him down a bustling Korean city street, to deliver a package to a store in front of the eyes of Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo). Hae-mi is ostensibly attracting patrons in to the store by dancing in a skimpy outfit, but as is characteristic of her in much of the film, her attention is also on the next thing; the next mark, the next performance, the next piece of excitement. Her attention is always strongly fixed on the source of her fascination at any given time, but the source is ever shifting and irresolute. She finds a way to get Jong-su’s attention. They grew up in the same village together. They end up bonding again, though – as Hae-mi points out – really for the first time, over a cigarette and away from the bustle. Later on Hae-mi will ask Jong-su to look after her cat while she flies to Africa, setting the larger events of the plot in motion.
When Jong-su picks Hae-mi up from the airport she is with Ben, who is all charisma and mystery from the outset. Yeun is cast perfectly here. His Americanness, and the aforementioned unique cheekbones, create an outsiderness, a difference, that renders him separate. Yeun uses it to his advantage throughout. He is both resoundingly charismatic and stunningly singular. At home anywhere and ever apart. From the airport onwards, Hae-mi and Ben appear to be together, though the film, like the short story it loosely adapts (Haruki Murakami’s Barn Burning – from his collection The Elephant Vanishes) treats the central relationships as somewhat adaptive and ambiguous. These relatively formless relationships reflect aspects of the characters and the greater themes of the work. There is a protean nature to everything that speaks to ideas of play, performance and projection.
“There are so many Gatsbys in Korea.”
Jong-su makes this remark to Hae-mi at Ben’s house, in reference to Ben and his friends. There is no attempt to make you feel empathy for Ben or Ben’s circle, though. As a reflection of Ben’s greenhouses line, Jong-su goes on to state how they are rich with no clear source of richness or useful addition to society. They are many and useless and lie in wait. He also asks Hae-mi why she thinks Ben sees her. The implication being that she is an accessory to his lifestyle, a thing that speaks to his image and the image he projects, and she seems to be of a different quality or substance to everything else he surrounds himself with. There’s no clear indication Ben feels any different. When Jong-su asks him what he does for a living Ben states that he “plays”, that there is less and less clear a distinction between play and work, to his weltanschaaung. A deep class consciousness and anxiety pervades the script and the screen.
Perhaps the most viscerally real moments come whenever Ben’s cadre of ironic and uncaring Gatsbys watch the more performative moments of poor farm-girl types, including Hae-mi, as they get lost in their passionate descriptions of life events, and find it all so hilariously dull. The poor at play for the facile and futile fun of the rich. These are the moments Hae-mi misses, too busy at focus on her very real and felt passions. In the moment, at those times. But Jong-su, vigilant, world-weary, untrusting and uncomfortable, is always watching. Ben knows and makes it known, in unsubtle signals, that he doesn’t much care.
However, its not entirely obvious that Jong-su and Hae-mi are searching for anything drastically different out of life. Their drives appear to be similar, its just that they don’t have the access to the same options as Ben and his friends. Jong-su himself is nominally a writer, though he doesn’t spend anytime writing and is not entirely sure what he wishes to write about (to be fair, this is a common link between most writers). He does odd jobs because he has to, and looks after the family farm in his father’s absence (something foist upon him because his father was more interested in prideful self-representation than openness and responsibility). Hae-mi learns the performance arts and drifts between options that can do the most for her with minimal effort on her part. Both characters are filled with a directionless longing, that finds its short term direction in each other. This longing… sexual, societal, and of other forms… also pervades the film, providing a melancholic atmosphere throughout.
Much of the rest of the film proceeds on the basis of what kind of man Ben truly is and what he is capable of. Lee Chang-Dong controls the tension and the pacing well throughout; leaving some jarring moments for when they are most necessary and impactful. For an adaptation of one of Murakami’s most literal and realistic works it does a good job of pulling moods, feelings and themes from the rest of his works. Burning is an elegiac work, with a sometimes skeptical or cold outlook on the human condition, but with a rhythmically beating heart at its core. It threads common themes in Japanese (or Japanese-American) literature and Korean cinema; identity and its loss, alienation and difference, the interplay of modernity and the eternal things of humanity, self inquiry and self-deprecation (its quite a funny film at times); and it threads them masterfully.
Burning Opens In Select North American Cinemas This Friday