Burning: Lee Chang-dong’s Romantic Mystery Thriller

South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is a visually stunning romantic mystery thriller.

The mystery drama was co-written, co-produced, and directed by Lee Chang-dong, based on the short story “Barn Burning” from The Elephant Vanishes by author Haruki Murakami.

Lee’s first film in eight years, Burning premiered on May 16 at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, where it competed for the Palme d’Or.  It received the FIPRESCI International Critics’ Prize at the festival.

The movie received almost universal critical acclaim for its sense of unease and ambiguous narrative and performances.

Burning was selected as the South Korean entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Oscars, and made the semi-final list but was not among the ultimately selected five nominees.

Slow-burning, the film takes its time in building personal, sexual, and social tensions, which define the complex triangle at the center of the deliberately elusive narrative.

Two rival men are vying for the time, attention and affection of a charming young woman (femme fatale type). The men are an aspiring writer and a rich business guy whose sexual jealousies are used by the director to reflect on broader factors, such as family background, social class, justice, and ultimately revenge.

 

An aspiring young novelist, Lee Jong-su performs odd jobs in Paju. One day he runs into Shin Hae-mi, a childhood neighbor and classmate, at a promotion at which he is making a delivery. Jong-su initially does not remember her, but Shin Hae-mi tells him she had plastic surgery. Jong-su then remembers and gives her a pink watch that he won at the promotion. Later, she tells him about her upcoming trip to Africa, and asks him to feed her cat, Boiler, while she is away. Before Hae-mi’s departure, Jong-su’s father, a cattle farmer, got tangled in disagreeable legal affairs, and Jong-su had to return to the farm. Jong-su passes by Hae-mi’s apartment, where he receives instructions about feeding the cat. Later, they have sex in Hae-mi’s apartment.

 

 

After Hae-mi departs, Jong-su feeds her cat, although he never sees it. He does, however, know that a cat is there because he finds feces in the cat’s litter box. He also begins habitually masturbating in her apartment. One day Hae-mi calls, saying she had become stranded at Nairobi Airport for three days after a bombing nearby. When Jong-su comes to pick her up, she arrives with Ben, whom she met and bonded with during the crisis. The three go out for dinner, where Hae-mi recalls a sunset she witnessed during her travels. Moved by the memory, she cries and confesses that she wanted to disappear. Ben is well-off and confident, though it is never entirely clear what he does for a living. Jong-su, struggling to get by and taking care of his family farm while his father is in prison, envies Ben and his relationship with Hae-mi from afar.

Hanging out at Jong-su’s farm, Hae-mi recalls a childhood memory wherein Jong-su rescued her after she fell into a well near her home, which he does not remember.

The trio smoke cannabis and Hae-mi dances topless. After Hae-mi has fallen asleep on the sofa, Ben confesses a strange hobby, how every two months, he burns an abandoned greenhouse. He notes that Jong-su’s rural neighborhood is full of greenhouses. Asked when his next burning will be, Ben claims it will be very soon and close to Jong-su’s house.

Jong-su tells Ben that he loves Hae-mi, but later berates Hae-mi for disrobing in front of other men. Hae-mi gets into Ben’s car and as they leave, Jong-su tells Ben he will keep an eye on the greenhouses in his area.

Jong-su watches around the neighborhood to see if any greenhouses burn down, but none do. One afternoon, at a greenhouse he’s inspecting he receives a call from Hae-mi, which cuts off after a few seconds of ambiguous noises.

Jong-su becomes worried as she does not answer his calls afterwards, and her phone number becomes disconnected.  He convinces the landlady to let him into Hae-mi’s apartment in order to feed her cat. Hae-mi’s apartment is unnaturally clean; her pink suitcase remains; and all signs of the cat are gone.

Jong-su begins stalking Ben, staking out his apartment and following him. When he sees Ben’s Porsche parked outside a restaurant he goes inside and confronts him. A young woman suddenly approaches the table, apologizing to Ben for being late. As the three of them leave the restaurant, Jong-su asks Ben if he has heard from Hae-mi. Ben has not heard from her, and he doubts she had gone on a trip because she could not afford it. Talking about Hae-mi in the past tense, Ben says Jong-su was the only man she trusted and that it made him jealous for the first time in his life.

Jong-su’s suspicions are raised when on a visit to the toilet he finds a pink watch, similar to the one he had given Hae-mi, hidden in a drawer containing women’s jewelry. Shortly afterwards, Ben’s cat runs out of the apartment and Jong-su finds that it answers to “Boil,” the name of Hae-mi’s cat.

Spoiler Alert:

Jong-su asks to meet Ben in the countryside, claiming he is with Hae-mi. He then stabs Ben, kills him and douses Ben’s car and body in gasoline, setting it aflame.  The film’s last image depicts Jon-su stumbling naked to his truck and driving off.

But depicting the tale in thematic or characterization terms does not begin to describe the dreamlike, almost surreal tone of a picture that’s meticulously crafted in every department.