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‘Burning’ Is One of the Best Films of the Year

Lee Chang-dong’s metaphysical mystery, starring Steven Yeun and based on a short-story by Haruki Murakami, is about a love triangle, a disappearance, and the cold war between haves and have-nots

CGV Arthouse/Ringer illustration

It’s no surprise that the most anticipated American political films of 2018 feature cameos by Donald Trump. There he is, being used for satirical target practice by Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 11/9—a film that takes its title from the day after 45’s election—or lurking on the margins of Errol Morris’s American Dharma, which profiles the president’s alt-right-hand man Steve Bannon in hopes of answering Moore’s not-so-rhetorical question at the outset of Fahrenheit: “How the fuck did this happen?”

If Ronald Reagan was the first movie-star president, Trump is the first cartoon commander in chief. Still, it’s a bit jarring to see him show up in a thriller set and produced in South Korea. Trump’s appearance in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning is more fleeting than even his cameo in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. But it feels like the secret heart of a movie that’s set in the trenches of a global class war whose combatants have rallied behind (or against) despotic figures of privilege.

What Trump is actually blathering about in his appearance in Burning doesn’t matter so much as the fact of his (disembodied) presence on a television set in a farmhouse in Paju, an isolated town close enough to the North Korean border that that country’s version of fake news can be heard drifting on the wind into its neighbor’s airspace. In this incongruous geographical context, Trump is unmistakably a symbol of something larger.

One of the highest compliments that I can pay to Burning—besides calling it one of the year’s flat-out best films, which it is—is that the nature of this symbolism is somewhat indeterminate. There is a difference between movies that refuse to fix their meanings for fear of exposing their essential vacuousness—that leave so much space for interpretation that they end up feeling legitimately empty, like a shell game without a marble—and movies that bristle with an ambiguity derived from the complex, irreconcilable nature of reality itself. Lee’s film, which has been freely adapted from a short story by the Japanese author Haruki Murakami, belongs in the second category, and near the top of the roll call as well. It’s a flawless exercise in suggestiveness, in which images, characters, and lines of dialogue are relentlessly, unmistakably doubled. The implication of this tactic is that every exchange and interaction is inherently a contest of sorts between its participants—that there are not only two sides to every story, but two possible solutions to every mystery. Which is to say: no solution at all.

Burning is a movie comprised of many mysteries, but its central enigma is the disappearance of a young woman, whose unexplained absence reconfigures an awkward young-adult love triangle into a game of cat and mouse. The cat in this setup is Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), an aspiring writer with a not-quite-unrequited crush on his former schoolmate Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo). Hae-mi is in turn in thrall to Seoul-based trust-fund kid Ben (Steven Yeun), whose almost preternatural air of wealth and privilege makes him nobody’s mouse, even as he acts like a rat toward both of the other parties. His affluence and handsomeness have the impulsive, gullible Hae-mi hypnotized, while Jong-su is warily resentful, especially once Hae-mi goes Gone Girl, at which point Ben—who has dangled the girl like a bauble in front of his poorer rival’s desirous eyes every time they hang out—seems to completely disavow her existence altogether. Jong-su already believes (with good cause) that Ben is a callous rich kid who uses people as status symbols. He seems to be dead inside. But is he a killer?

Burning runs 148 minutes, and every second of it is pressurized by suspense and dread. Its first half is methodically devoted to establishing three characters who bounce off of each other in loaded and unsettling ways. During one dinner, Hae-mi and Ben regale Jong-su with a story of their meet-cute in Kenya (the sort of trip that a farm hand couldn’t afford) and of a tribal dance that the bushmen use to express the philosophical concept of “hunger.” The “little hunger,” they explain, pertains to actual, earthbound necessities, while the “bigger hunger” represents more ephemeral, metaphysical appetites.

Besides his evident desire for Hae-mi (whose replication of the bushmen’s dance, performed twice, the second time shirtless, is very much an IRL thirst trap), Jong-su experiences the “little hunger” every day of his cash-strapped life. He’s struggling to maintain his family’s property while trying to kick-start a writing career and dealing with the fallout from his father’s physical attack against a government official—an ominous bit of backstory that strengthens the script’s subtext of haves-versus-have-nots while introducing the possibility of inherited anger issues. Hae-mi, whose manic-pixie act seems blissfully uncalculated (which might just mean that she’s a good actress) is, by her own admission, driven by her own version of the “bigger hunger”: She’s looking for excitement and fulfillment while she’s still young and idealistic. But Ben, who never misses a gourmet meal and doesn’t want for anything, is impossible to gauge in terms of appetites, and thus potentially capable of anything.

Both Jong-su and Ben are fighting for a place at the table, but to reduce Burning to a story of voracious, eat-the-rich revenge is reductive. Still, Lee does plenty to manipulate our sympathies in that direction, even as he’s simultaneously laying the groundwork for something more complex. It wasn’t until the two-hour mark that I realized that the film was being told fully from Jong-su’s point of view, meaning that Hae-mi and Ben are being seen through his eyes. Given the strength of Jong-su’s feelings toward both parties—and how inseparable his contempt and loathing for Ben is from his protective, desirous crush on Hae-mi—it’s fair to ask whether Lee is cultivating true audience solidarity or urging us to understand the story exclusively through the lens of his hero’s prejudices: to see Hae-mi and Ben as idealized and demonized figures, respectively. Throw in the fact Jong-su is a writer, and the idea that we’re watching a highly subjective, slanted version of events is in play.

The paradox of Lee’s structure is that while Jong-su becomes a sort of audience surrogate and Hae-mi serves as an obscure object of desire, the film’s most memorable presence is Ben, whom Yeun plays with a slippery brilliance that would, in a just world, earn him year-end award recognition. So, For Your Consideration: Ben is the best movie villain in a long time. (I saw Yeun in a hotel bar at TIFF this year and I couldn’t separate him from his glad-handing asshole character; it was all I could do not to walk over and throw my drink at him.) Early on, Jong-su pegs his rival as “The Great Gatsby,” a compliment that is also a dig, and Yeun ably reps both sides of that equation: He makes the character’s gentrified, Gangnam-style largesse signify as charming and narcissistic at the same time. He also plausibly sells the possibility that Ben is an actual sociopath, especially in a monologue during which he describes his hobby of setting fire to rural greenhouses. Farm boy Jong-su can’t help but take this as more than a metaphor: it’s either an open acknowledgment of hostility or a veiled confession of other, even more sinister serial crimes. If it’s a bit too literary that Ben’s fetish also triggers Jong-su’s own childhood memory of a burning greenhouse, the resulting imagery is so incendiary that it scarcely matters (and, in a weird coincidence, it rhymes with Morris’s signature image in American Dharma).

If all of this makes Burning sound a bit abstract, I should add that it’s an absolutely first-rate work of filmmaking. Lee is an acknowledged master of dramaturgy and character work (check out 2007’s Secret Sunshine, starring The Host and Snowpiercer’s Song Kang-ho as a man with an insatiable fixation on a damaged woman), but his visual aplomb here is something else. The film’s style is sophisticated and beautiful, making smart use of the setting’s endless horizon lines and using interior spaces that mirror the characters who inhabit them (Hae-mi’s cramped, adolescently-decorated apartment; Ben’s Patrick Bateman–esque penthouse) and that the script is filled with a wealth of tricky gimmicks—a misplaced watch; a lost cat; a terrifyingly abrupt cellphone call—that outshine any recent American genre effort. In fact, you’d have to go back to Michael Haneke’s Cache to find a movie that leverages suspense against substance as deftly as Lee does, except that Burning is essentially Cache turned inside-out, leaving its bad-and-bougie character’s true motivations a question mark (whereas Haneke plumbed the subconscious of his Parisian antihero).

Lee may lack Haneke’s knack for shock tactics, but he’s equally adept at conveying the threat of violence underneath everyday behavior. Without ever disrupting his rigorous use of point of view, he gradually builds in enough distance between us and Jong-su that we begin to question not only his understanding of events but his actions, which are perhaps not as righteous as we’ve been trained to accept in stories about underdog vigilantism.

That’s where the Trump footage comes in—a throwaway detail that actually matters a great deal. On the one hand, Trump is the face of the kind of detached, front-running status that has left Jong-su (and his father before him) seething at the unfairness of a socioeconomic spectrum that has placed them at the wrong end, and whose arbiters seek to keep them there. And, as a would-be F. Scott Fitzgerald (or William Faulkner, whom he idolizes) you’d think that Jong-su would despise Trump’s anti-intellectual agenda. But Trump is also a rallying point for a group of Americans (and worldwide fans) whose resentment at being labelled “deplorables” has fomented a form of loyalty-as-rage that is as much about lashing out at perceived “elites” as (hypocritically? Obliviously?) supporting a president who is of (and for) that same 1 percent.

The contradictions of Jong-su’s character—of his anger, his tenderness, his yearning, his self-hatred, and his hungers, big and little—are not “solved” by the shots of Trump but contextualized by them in a way that reaches out to an international audience even as the majority of Burning’s references are distinctly Korean. The old saying that the more specific an artwork is, the more universal it becomes, surely applies here, and there’s a contradiction in that, too, since the thing Burning is most specific about is that when it comes to human behavior—our own and that of others—the only real truism is that it’s impossible to know.

The script’s litany of specificities—what the characters read, what they eat, what they do, and where—ultimately yields an incomplete understanding, which extends all the way to the aftermath of Jong-su’s final actions, which are either viciously definitive or futilely inconclusive: take your pick.

Or, maybe, they’re both at once. It was, after all, F. Scott Fitzgerald who said that the sign of a fine mind was the ability to hold two competing ideas at the same time. Burning, which follows this advice in every single choice of writing, acting, and directing, is as smart as cinema gets.