Slow “Burning” Suspense from South Korea

Slow “Burning” Suspense from South Korea December 16, 2018
Ah-in Yoo, as Jong-su, in “Burning”

For admirers of the fiction of Japanese contemporary author Haruki Murakami, you’re in for a treat with Chang-dong Lee’s Burning.  This Korean film adaptation of one of Murakami’s short stories offers the most fidelity to the atmosphere, themes, and character types of Murakami’s oeuvre that I’ve yet to see on the screen.

For those unfamiliar with Murakami, Burning will feel like strange territory.  Despite being firmly grounded in South Korea of the imminent future, the characters here are wispy clouds, our grasp on reality uncertain.

Like a typical Murakami protagonist, Jong-su is an unformed, drifting young man.  A college graduate and aspiring novelist, he does piecemeal work in Seoul, while tending to his father’s farm in nearby Paju City.  His father is described as having an “anger disorder” and is in jail yet again for assault.  (Jong-su’s mother abandoned her family many years prior.)

As the film opens, Jong-su is working part-time at a clothing warehouse when a former classmate recognizes him.  Hae-mi is similarly rootless: an attractive woman, she dresses in skimpy outfits outside different shops to lure customers inside.

Unlike Jong-su, Hae-mi is consciously aware of her existential emptiness and is about to embark on a trip to Africa to try and find herself.  Jong-su agrees to care for the cat (there’s always one in a Murakami tale) in her tiny Seoul apartment while she’s gone.

All of Burning is seen through Jong-su’s eyes, so we follow him through his routine during Hae-mi’s absence.  He makes half-hearted attempts at writing and attends his father’s sentencing hearing.  Having fallen in lust, if not love, for Hae-mi, he habitually masturbates in her apartment after emptying her cat’s litterbox.

Any chance for an uncluttered romance between these two is ruptured upon her return.  During a layover in Nairobi, Hae-mi meets Ben, a slightly older fellow who resides in Seoul’s wealthy Gangnam district.  The economically and geographically connected pair of Jong-su and Hae-mi becomes an off-balance trio with the addition of Ben.

Adding to the inevitable “three’s a crowd” tension is the growing sense that Ben is an amoral predator.  He brushes off inquiries about how he earns a living (“this and that”), while stating that he considers himself above questions of morality.  He often has a small herd of young people around him at restaurants and in his vast apartment, yet surreptitiously yawns as their chatter engulfs him.  Meanwhile, there’s a disparate, mysterious collection of women’s belongings (rings, necklaces, and other cheap jewelry) in a drawer in his bathroom.

Director Chang-dong Lee allows the tension to slowly accumulate, until a decisive event about 90 minutes into the film compels Jong-su to act.  However, it stays unclear what actually happened.  And in true Murakami fashion, the line between reality and imagination is also blurred:  despite repeat visits to Hae-mi’s apartment, Jong-su never actually sees her cat.  It’s even legitimate to ask if Ben is his alter ego, and if Jong-su is the one with the moral void.

The acting by all three leads perfectly fits the atmosphere of Burning.  Ben is played by Steven Yeun, best known for portraying Glenn in The Walking Dead.  Even more than young Carl in that series, Glenn personified the possibility of staying virtuous in a defiled world.  What a contrast in Burning, where Ben carries himself with a godlike, smug detachment.

Ah-in Yoo, Jong-seo Jun, and Steven Yeun, in “Burning”

The other two leads are unfamiliar to me, understandable in the case of Jong-seo Jun, as this is her first film role, playing Hae-mi.  She’s quite good at conveying her character’s assertiveness and longing for existential liberation, to the point of unselfconsciously performing the “Great Hunger” dance that she witnessed in her travels to the Kalahari, for an uncomfortable audience in a Seoul restaurant.

Ah-in Yoo, on the other hand, has been a fixture in South Korean cinema and TV for many years.  As Jong-su, he succeeds in providing the counter-ballast to Yeun’s Ben.  Contrary to Ben’s straight posture and poised assuredness, Jong-su’s shoulders slump as he stays nearly mute when in a room with more than one other person.  Playing Jong-su, Yoo almost always has his lips parted and mouth half-open, sometimes appearing vacuous, sometimes in wonder, as if a child still absorbing the world around him.

The director, his location scouts, and set designers have done a splendid job immersing us in their character’s world.  The run-down countryside on the border with North Korea, the cramped quarters of the working poor, and the swanky Gangnam life all possess a lived-in feel.

The cinematographer occasionally places Jong-su out of focus, at other times emphasizes the avian life and sunsets that more often than not go unnoticed.  And the subtle musical score by Mowg – a soft jazzy percussion and bass guitar, with a little trumpet thrown in for good measure – enhances Burning’s strangeness and suspense.

The whole effect of these components, as in all excellent cinema, is greater than the sum of the individual parts.  Burning, though not in a hurry to take the viewer anywhere and eluding easy summary, is a film that burrows into the memory and subconscious.

4 out of 5 stars

 

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