BURNING Blazes on Blu-ray

Using an understated mystery and melodrama as a framing device, Burning, now on Blu-ray, is a haunting meditation on the slippery nature of truth and identity in the modern age, one that is sure to linger with you for days after the final credits roll. Working from a short story by Haruki Murakami (itself inspired by the writing of William Faulkner), writer-director Lee Chang-dong has crafted a film that speaks deeply to the way we build our own truths, and how those truths can outgrow their confines and come to swallow others.

Burning takes its time laying out the groundwork over which its strange narrative will play out. It begins with the chance meeting of Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) and Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), both aimless twentysomethings eking out a modest living with part-time jobs in Paju, South Korea. It’s Hae-mi who initiates their, well, calling it a courtship would be overstating things. She approaches Jong-su in a crowd and informs him that they were childhood acquaintances, though plastic surgery has changed her appearance almost completely. Their both drifting through life at this point, with no real prospects to look forward to besides the endless grind of part-time work, though Jong-su makes vague, unsupported claims about his ambition to be a writer. It’s not long after they meet that the relationship turns physical, but before Jong-su can determine exactly what this girl means to him, or wants from him, Hae-mi announces that she’s going on a trip to Africa, and would he be so kind as to feed her cat while she’s gone?

Jong-su dutifully goes to her apartment each day to feed the cat, though the cat itself never actually appears, only the errant turds in the litter box betraying that it might actually exist. Jong-su also uses this opportunity to re-live his sexual encounter(s) with Hae-mi, masturbating repeatedly in her bedroom (which…you know…rude). By the time he gets the phone call that she is coming home and would love a ride back from the airport, Jong-su has worked himself up into full-blown romantic obsession for this girl.

And so of course when she gets off the plane, she’s not alone. Nope. She brought Ben back with her.

As played by Walking Dead alum Steven Yeun, Ben is everything that Jong-su longs to be. Ben is handsome, soft-spoken, and endlessly charming. While Jong-su has to scramble for money, Ben appears to have no source of income yet has bottomless reserves of cash. While Jong-su lives in near-complete isolation, Ben has an inner circle of friends so easily accessible he seems to be utterly bored with their company. And while Jong-su is closed off and floats through the world like an unseen ghost, Ben’s unconcerned charisma bends the world and its inhabitants, including Hae-mi, to his whims.

The centerpiece of the film is a long, boozy evening the three spend at Jong-su’s family farm. Shot in the dim glow of the evening, the three…well, calling them friends would be overstating things. There’s something that binds these three. Call it attraction, call it fate, call it what you will, but it’s as undeniable as it is unspoken. It’s after Hae-mi has fallen asleep that Ben reveals to Jong-su his secret pastime, and the source of the movie’s title: Every few months, he likes to identify an abandoned greenhouse and set it on fire. Having earlier confessed to the other two that he does not experience emotions the way other people seem to, Ben describes the sensation of watching one of his fires blaze with an almost holy, erotic reverence.

Ben promises Jong-su that he has identified his next target, someplace that he teases is very close to Jong-su. Over the next few days and weeks, two things become clear to Jong-su: 1) No greenhouses near him have burned down, and 2) Hae-mi has vanished completely.

Jong-su’s obsessive quest to find out what, if anything, happened to Hae-mi and what, if any, role Ben played, forms the second half of the film, but anyone who signs up for Burning expecting a taut mystery-thriller is in for disappointment and frustration. Jong-su comes to a solution and acts on what he believes, but Director Lee is after a different bounty. The more Jong-su looks into Hae-mi’s past and present, and the more certain he becomes of what he believes, the less we can be certain of his conclusion. Burning does eventually come into focus, but it’s like assembling a jigsaw puzzle and discovering the picture is a Rorschach blot.

The genius of Yeun’s performance is that he exists entirely within that ambiguity, yet still feels like a fully realized character. There is no question that Ben is a hollow man, an empty vessel of consumption and destruction. But is he a monster? Is he truly a man of pure surface, or is that shallowness only a mask for a rancid core within? You could show Burning to ten different people and they’d probably come away with ten different responses. Yeun has more than amply demonstrated in the past that he has charm and charisma to spare, but as Ben he taps into something that is simultaneously attractive yet unnerving, seductive yet skin-crawling. You understand Jong-su’s obsession because you start to feel it yourself. You lean into Ben’s every word, wanting to make the scattered bits of information and inference fit together into a cohesive whole, but the script and Yeun’s performance stubbornly refuse to give you that easy out.

Yeun’s clearly the standout performance, and the most well-known performer here stateside, but Burning belongs to all three central actors. Hae-mi compares Ben to Jay Gatsby at one point, which makes Jong-su our Nick Carraway. More than one attempt to wrangle The Great Gatsby onscreen has imploded because no one could crack how to make that character work in a movie (looking at you, Tobey), but Yoo Ah-in is by terms endearing and repulsive, yet always engaging as a screen presence. He makes Jong-su’s simultaneous attraction and revulsion of Ben truly palpable, and it’s this quality which makes the final stretch almost unbearably tense.

As the woman haunting the edges of the film, it would be easy for Jeon Jong-seo to come across as little more than an object for the men to fetishize and chase. Instead, Jeon sears herself into the fabric of the film, her absence a character unto itself. She so lights up the screen when she appears, that you practically feel the cameras have to readjust every time she exits. It’s extremely crafty, careful work, and if it’s frustrating that character most left blank in the central triumvirate is the female portion, Burning so ably and so pointedly dissects its male characters worst traits that it feels more like a pointed choice than a bowing to the male gaze.

Speaking of The Great Gatsby, the great Robert Chinatown Towne once turned down the chance to adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic into a film. In explaining why, Towne declared that Gatsby’s power came from how so much of the book’s depth came from suggestions rather than anything stated in the text itself. “That whole book is a mirage,” he’s quoted as saying. And it’s true: the attempts to bring Gatsby to the screen have largely floundered in their efforts, due in no small part to having to actualize a story built on and around illusions.

I thought about this quote a lot while watching Burning. Lee has managed to make a film built on and around illusions. Not in a “What a twist!” way, but in the sense that, truly, what actually happens in Burning, and what it all means, is entirely up for the viewer to decide for themselves. Burning shows you the dots that Jong-su connects in a certain way to make his final choice and action seem palatable, necessary even, but does the film itself actually connect them? I’m not so sure.

Burning’s interest ultimately lies not in the doomed romantic triangle at its center, but with the generation represented by that trio. Early in the film, Hae-mi describes two types of hunger: “Small Hunger” and “Great Hunger.” Small hunger refers to immediate needs (food, water, companionship, etc.), while great hunger refers to the more existential needs that might trouble a person. Why are we here? What are we doing with our time? What’s it all for? As Burning cautions, this great hunger gets ignored as instead people chase their tails and consume each other and themselves as they get preoccupied with small hunger bullshit.

Burning is a precious thing, a film that speaks in a whisper yet levels you like a bellowing roar. It left me exhausted and spent but utterly satisfied, at once heartbroken and overwhelmed. It’s a film that has no desire to explain itself, and instead demands that you give something of yourself to complete the portrait it has so carefully constructed.

There’s a lot to unpack there. Once you start, you might never stop.

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