The mind’s ability to connect dots and analyze information is formidable indeed, but it doesn’t always lead in the right directions. We see things, perceive events, and all of it comes with the baggage of personal experience and personal perception that can make us come to all sorts of conclusions. But those conclusions can sometimes lead us down dark paths, creating paranoiac fantasies that may have nothing to do with the truth. You’re left to search for answers, but so often that search is a farce, designed to reinforce the points of view we’ve convinced ourselves is the truth.
There are precious few answers to be found in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, a story about a man, Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) with perhaps too much time on his hands for that to be a good thing. He works odd jobs in and around the town of Paju, where by chance he runs into Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), an old primary school acquaintance who had a crush on him during their school days. They reconnect, physically and mentally, and she tasks him with watching her cat while she’s on a trip to Africa. Upon her return, she’s befriended Ben (Steven Yeun), a charismatic gentleman who bonded with her while they were stranded in Nairobi due to a terror warning. Jong-su seems immediately suspicious of Ben, who carries an air of confidence and maybe more than a tinge of sociopathy in his dealings with Hae-mi, and that belief doesn’t abet when she disappears under unusual circumstances. Jong-su takes it upon himself to try to find answers.
As can often be the case with films like this, Burning is entirely comfortable with taking all the time it needs to tell its story. Clocking in right around two and a half hours, Lee gives his characters plenty of space to breathe and grow and evolve. And it’s a rather fascinating trio to hang a story on, the listless main character flitting through his life without much direction only to fall headfirst into the various situations that form the plot, the alluring woman from his past and her mysterious new confidant. That sets up the mystery nicely, slotting it into a bit of a Rear Window lane that finds Jong-su making all sorts of assumptions about what he sees and what it means. That’s the meat of the tale, but there’s quite a bit more going on under the hood. Where Burning is at its most interesting is the way it uses its shifting environments to reinforce the distance, and by extension the distrust, between Jong-su and Ben. Ben is clearly monied, living a comfortable and borderline lavish existence in Seoul while Jong-su struggles to live, let alone thrive.
That anxiety infects everything he does, causing him to exist in a state of numbness. He doesn’t have the bandwidth to enjoy life. There’s a sex scene early on, and he’s barely more than a passenger. But his detached view on life is in its own way completely different from Ben’s, one that seems rooted in the innate comfort of never really having to worry about anything. He’s pretty and he’s genial and he’s surrounded by women and lives in a nice apartment, but he’s also a self-confessed greenhouse arsonist, the sort of thing he does just because he can and it gives him a thrill. So when Hae-mi disappears under questionable circumstances, how much of Jong-su’s decision to immediately believe Ben is behind it has to do with their opposed socioeconomic backgrounds? It’s clear Lee has no interest giving us direct answers, but he’s more than happy to show us how quickly Jong-su fixates on that idea. It’s not a conclusion without merit, but it’s also not the sort of accusation that would hold up in court.
It’s a testament to Lee’s delicate character study that Burning is such an engrossing and captivating film despite having so few moments of what would classically be considered consequence. As the lead, Yoo is often astonishing in what he can convey with so little, forging a multi-faceted performance that buoys the film during its quietest moments. Yeun, who’s having a nice little film renaissance this year between Burning and Sorry to Bother You, is clearly having a blast playing the cocky, entitled and eminently comfortable rich person, but he does the work to build up the mystery that lurks on the edges of his personality. And Jeon paints a wonderful picture of a woman defined by her insecurities, pining for a school friend who ignored her and delving into promiscuity to make some sort of connection. Even her cat, the one being that she seems to have the greatest bond with, is visually absent. She is an enigma, the perfect sort of maelstrom to draw Jong-su and Ben into. The result is a wonderfully acted, beautifully shot and engaging mystery drama that promises to linger in the mind long after the credits roll.