Directed by Chang-dong Lee
Starring Ah-In Yoo, Jong-seo Jeon, Steven Yeun
Running time: 2 hours 28 minutes
MPAA rating: Not rated
by Jaime Davis, The Fixer
How does it feel to watch everything you want, or think you want, get swept up, absorbed by someone or something else? Does it eat at you, slowly, like the consistent gnawing by a small animal? Does it pick you apart, deliberately, piece by piece, like the unmasking of a tangerine? Does it hurt you? A pulsating swell that spreads throughout you with the slow deliberation of poured honey? Or does it burn?
In Chang-dong Lee’s glowing Burning, Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo) watches another man get and give up something he wants very badly - enigmatic Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon, in her first film role, amazing), a long forgotten former schoolmate. The two grew up in the rural area of Paju, outside of Seoul, now both reside in the city working menial jobs because there just isn’t much available - Jong-su as a part-time delivery person, Hae-mi as a promotional dancer at a store and a pantomime student (a fascinating early scene has her demonstrating how to deflower a tangerine; it seems it is Hae-mi deliberately picking apart Jong-su). He becomes infatuated immediately, despite not remembering her right away, which she attributes to recent plastic surgery. They begin to circle each other, she more aggressively - his timidity and lack of experience shows all over his slack-jawed face. The two go on a half-hearted date where she falls asleep at the table; their second hang leads to quick sex in her one-room flat. Her apartment would be considered meager by most (living outside of NYC) but Jong-su proclaims it much nicer than his old place, and is enamored by Hae-mi’s view of the Seoul Tower. What the two share is more than just a common hometown - they both sit very squarely outside the comforts and caché that new Seoul holds for its select, golden few, and both want in. Jong-su wants to be a novelist - he studied creative writing at university; Hae-mi relies on her beauty and surface talents to achieve more. Her actions actually hint at a despair deeper than Jong-su is perhaps prepared to navigate, but he cares for her nonetheless. And after these two short interludes together, Hae-mi asks a favor of Jong-su - can he watch her (mysteriously unseen) cat, Boil, while she goes on a two-week trip to Africa?
Because he’s already buying everything Hae-mi is selling, Jong-su is so, totally, in. He visits her apartment multiple times but isn’t able to lure the reclusive Boil out of hiding. Food gets eaten and litter gets dirtied, yet we see no other visual traces of the pet. Meanwhile, Jong-su is back at the family farm in Paju, commuting back and forth to feed Boil while dealing with his father’s recent legal troubles. A bit of a hot-head, Jong-su’s father has been charged with assaulting a town official and is in jail awaiting sentencing. There hasn’t been much in the way of a vibrant home life for Jong-su - his mother left when he was young because she couldn’t handle her husband’s anger issues and his sister has recently married. Jong-su, already isolated by his inability to connect with those around him, with a countenance hinting at simmering anger issues just below the surface (like father, like son), lives in relative quiet. He attempts to rectify his father’s situation by creating a petition in his town that will help soften his judgement - however many of the townspeople are hesitant to sign. You can feel his loneliness seeping through the screen - it envelops him like a thick, grey cloud.
Things get even darker with the return of Hae-mi from Africa. She asks Jong-su to pick her up from the airport, which he does dutifully. But with Hae-mi’s return comes the appearance of Ben (Steven Yeun, who I want the world to cast in everything), a suave sophisticate from Seoul who she met in her travels abroad. In an economy with a high youth unemployment rate, Ben doesn’t work (“I play,” he tells an envious Jong-su) because he doesn’t have to. He’s an incredibly chill, elegant antidote to Jong-su’s local yokel lonely island - Ben knows all the best bars, restaurants, coffee shops; he cooks Italian food effortlessly; he tools around in a Porsche (ew); goes clubbing regularly; is incredibly, disgustingly handsome and sure; and has a seemingly endless supply of friends to while away the hours with. Because she’s already buying everything Ben’s selling, Hae-mi is so, totally, in. You can imagine the depths of Jong-su’s despair.
The trio inexplicably spend a little time together, and after getting high one late afternoon, Hae-mi passed out inside Jong-su’s family home, the two men share a tête-à-tête. Jong-su, in a rather human, unguarded moment, admits his problems with his father and his love for Hae-mi. Ben, being Ben, isn’t really much of a sympathetic ear - that’s just not his deal. But he does share a little secret of his own - he travels around the area setting fire to greenhouses. Now he doesn’t hurt anybody or anything, he just likes to watch something burn to the ground. Destroyed. Interesting.
And this is where the story takes off in a more sinister, less-satisfying-for-all-involved direction. Jong-su wants something far beyond anything he can ever have, not just because he is so removed from the vaulted orbit Ben inhabits, but because, at least in the moments we get to see, he lacks the inner capabilities to form the connections he wants, most notably with the seemingly free-spirited Hae-mi. Jong-su’s ability to truly see the world around him is greatly impaired until near the film’s end, when his hidden depths hinting at a boiling rage finally begin to surface.
Based on the short story “Barn Burning” by Haruki Murakami, Burning sweeps our three main characters (four if you count Boil, who returns to the story later), transporting them to Korea for a modern take on their intersected, highly complicated relationship. Their connection is so fraught that for the back half of the film I basically picked at my nails until my thumb and ring finger bled a little (a terrible anxious habit of mine). While the film is long, two and a half excruciating hours long, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I found Chang-dong Lee’s slow burn pacing near masterful, the muted cinematography a beautiful contrast to Jong-su’s all-consuming distress. The acting throughout is raw and real and pulls you into this world so fully - at the end, while I was ready to get the hell out, I was somewhat sad to say goodbye to these characters. Jong-seo Jeon is a rare talent - her confident abilities color her scenes with so much energy; I was shocked when I read this was her first role. But, you guys, can we talk about Steven Yeun again? Cause Steven Yeun OWNS THIS SHIT. His performance had me riveted from the moment he appeared to the brutal final seconds. As a former The Walking Dead (tv show) watcher, Yeun’s Glenn was one of my few reasons for watching (the other reasons being Danai Gurira and Norman Reedus), and I can’t tell you how excited I am for what’s in store from him. To follow up his show departure with such an interesting, uncharacteristic, beautiful move really has me speaking the Gospel according to Yeun these days. And while the ending feels a bit stunted and leaves a bit to be desired emotionally, Burning sure has me burning for more Yeun.