Director Chang-dong Lee's “Burning”; a scintillating masterwork of class warfare, contemporary existential pressures and an agonising pursuit for truth in the haze of manipulated perception; contains a single staggering scene. It’s a scene that feels like it's been waiting for his entire creative life to emerge and one that continues to reverberate in my mind since that viewing several months ago.
Writers Jungmi Oh & Chang-dong Lee adapt author Haruki Murakami's "Barn Burning" where Jongsu (the emotionally imperceptible Yoo Ah-in) runs into the beautiful Haemi (the vivacious and sincere Jong-Seo Jun) a forgotten childhood neighbour. In this whirlwind encounter, the two become lovers, and when Haemi asks Jongsu to feed her cat while she’s away on a trip to Africa, Jongsu believes that he’s stumbled into a relationship. But when Haemi returns from the trip with a handsome, wealthy companion, Ben (Steven Yeun dripping with affluent charm), Jongsu is left confused and heartbroken. When he attempts to find closure Haemi cannot be found, and Jongsu suspects Ben of foul play.
The pinnacle scene of the film takes place in the rural borderlands of North and South Korea when Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) returns from a bustling cosmopolitan Seoul life to his abandoned family home. With his father imprisoned, he slowly dismantles the modest family farm. Haemi (Jong-Seo Jun) and her new partner Ben (Steven Yeun) travel to the sticks to catch up. As they puff away on a joint and settle into some relaxing alcoholic beverages, and Ben flippantly admits to a pyromaniac habit, they look to the distant mountains. The air is thick with North Korean propaganda blasted through the demilitarised zone. Haemi stands, removes her shirt and begins to dance. The swelling score, the pure freedom of Jong-Seo Jun's enthralling physical performance has a hypnotic effect. As the cloud of birds course through the air; they are symbols of freedom. This living mass feels like a projection of her spirit. As they burst apart, as is natural, Haemi’s liberation seems to fracture too. She comes crashing back to Earth with the weight of Jongsu’s insecurity. Yoo Ah-in is never more callous than in the final seconds of this exchange; something about Haemi’s freedom breaks something internally for him too. This is the final scene featuring all three characters.
After Haemi goes missing, director Chang-dong Lee shifts formal modes entirely. The beginnings of the film feature a naturalistic, experiential framing of characters going about their errands and navigating through crowded streets. From that moment onward, “Burning” evolves into a gripping, glacial thriller. Yoo Ah-in’s Jongsu is in a state of crippling inaction that with each mounting clue echoed Jack Nicholson’s tremendous performance in “The Pledge.” Steven Yeun’s Ben incites such suspicion in the way that his life (and particularly interactions with friends) continues on such apathetic banality. In the brief time this awkward trio interact Ben’s wealth has him interacting with Haemi and Jongsu like novelty exchange students, suddenly allowed behind the velvet rope of Seoul’s affluent hemisphere. Haemi’s time with Jongsu makes a permanent impact. For Ben, she’s as disposable as single-serve cutlery. Haemi’s absence fans the flames building toward the film’s climax. This fire is both cleansing and destructive.
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