Directed by: Lee Chang-dong
Written by: Oh Jung-mi & Lee Chang-dong
Starring: Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun, Jeon Jong-seo, Kim Soo-Kyung, Choi Seung-ho
Jealousy derives from the feeling of possession that can drive someone to do outlandish things to reign in what they believe to be theirs. We’ve all felt it whether in an interpersonal relationship or when looking upon others who own more material possessions and perhaps a better life because of it. As with many emotions, the way we react dictates who we are as a person and we learn plenty about the manipulative and shifty characters in the mysterious and visually stunning Burning.
While trying to take care of his hometown house, Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) meets up with Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), who used to live in the same town. Hae-mi and Jong-su strike a relationship that faces complications when the former arrives from a trip to Africa with a new wealthy and successful friend named Ben (Steven Yeun).
Languid with its pacing, but exhilarating with its themes, Burning demonstrates excellence in storytelling. The concepts its tackles have universal footing, but the execution of it raises it to a completely different level. Part of what makes the story alluring is the complete mystery about it, starting with the people. We follow the story through the eyes of Jong-su, who’s unbecoming and goes about his days without anything exceptional occurring. Dressed in a normal way and driving a beaten-down truck he assumedly got from his father, his life never conjured up much excitement until he meets up again with Hae-mi. Her introduction to the story arrives in a swift manner and leaves the biggest impact on what Jong-su’s life will become.
Hae-mi acknowledges they grew up together in the same hometown but she looks different since having cosmetic surgery. She makes it no secret she had these procedures because of her insecurities partly aided by something Jong-su said to her when they were both younger. One small comment opens a pathway to understanding this character, but we never get as much information as we want because Hae-mi refuses to budge. She only reveals what she wishes and leaves Jong-su, as well as the audience guessing about her intentions. The mystery truly kicks off with the introduction of Ben. Jong-su arrives at the airport looking forward to picking up Hae-mi, but then he sees her walking towards him next to another man. Ben has incredible confidence in his demeanor and in the way he speaks, which automatically begins to rub Jong-su the right way. All of this occurs before seeing the contrast of their cars where Jong-su drives a beat-up truck, and Ben owns a luxurious sports car.
The jealousy brewing within Jong-su towards Ben begins immediately and refuses to subside no matter how much Ben seems to be harmless. The sexual relationship held by Jong-su and Hae-mi appears to have had no labels meaning there would be a strong possibility the latter may also be involved with Ben during their trip to Africa. Burning allows these implications to stay in the air and leaves much of it to interpretation because we cannot fully get a read on these characters. Ben treats Jong-su with nothing but respect in all of their altercations, but the latter has a strong unquenchable jealousy towards the former. Ben has everything Jong-su wants, which complicates the already-fragile relationship Jong-su has with Hae-mi.
Do not mistake Burning as a story about a potential love triangle, but rather an ambiguous mystery pulling towards the obsessive nature we all possess. Love never enters the equation with any of these characters and the only true perspective we see is of Jong-su. Both Hae-mi and Ben progress through this story in their own manner and the motivations behind their actions hide behind this wall we can never look past. In that way, we’re on this journey with Jong-su, as we enter this incredibly hypnotic ride.
Visually this film uses colors in an exceptional manner, as we look at urban Seoul and the Korean countryside. Certain shots left me holding my breath from the tension set up and the implications it could have in the story. Each early morning run Jong-su partakes utilized the frost in the air in accordance with the sky thus creating a tapestry for our protagonist to express himself through his face. The expressions made on the faces say plenty about Jong-su and Ben as their reactions to everything cannot be deciphered through what they say. They can control the words coming out of their mouths but their faces say it all. Utilizing this idea allowed for Steven Yeun to shine.
Known here in the United States for his role in The Walking Dead, Yeun demonstrates he has plenty more to offer in the role of Ben. He’s soft-spoken and radiates this sense of accomplishment. Nothing really stresses him because he has everything in life, which conflicts with Jong-su. What Yeun accomplishes with his facial reactions says more than most boisterous Academy Award-winning performances. It comes with the context of each scene and how one of his smiles can feel incredibly devastating. He speaks with nothing but compassion that even his layered threats feel like a warm invitation to friendship. The combination of Yeun and the character of Ben exemplifies incredible casting and the actor made sure to show the world of his incredible talent.
Burning serves as my first experience with a film by Lee Chang-dong and he completely blew me away with this effort. He manages the pacing of the story, which has a large runtime, but it feels incredibly accomplished. Every minuscule moment reaches an effective and worthwhile payoff. Creating this disorienting environment allows for some of the shocking events occurring later in the film to feel haunting and very distressing. Lee manages to balance out these characters and help us connect with the very guarded Hae-mi and Ben. The less we know about them, the more we need to learn.
A true achievement in storytelling, Burning works on multiple levels as it sought to expose the harmful ideas of jealousy. It drives Jong-su through an epic journey where he attempts to figure everything happening with these two mysterious figures. This review can obviously only reveal so much, as this story provides a spellbinding experience one must see on their own. Certain scenes will make you grip your seat from the tension and several moments of realization had me with a pit in my stomach, as reality and paranoia began to merge together. Such an incredible feature film and one worthy of all of its acclaim.