- major major major spoilers -
Has this ever happened to you before? You eat bite after bite of a baked sweet potato. It’s too hot and steaming for you to really taste the real flavor of the potato. But then, after you’ve finished, you realize you have no water near you. So you’re just left there, parched from the starchiness and dying of thirst. More than anything, you’re left feeling frustrated. This is how my mom would describe Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning, and frankly, I think I took a bite out of the same sweet potato. Oops?
Burning is… such a weird movie. Weird enough that it warranted a second viewing out of me, but I still left feeling just as unquenched as before. Based off the short story “Barn Burning” by Haruki Murakami, Burning follows Lee Jong-Su (Yoo Ah In), a young working-class man, as he reunites with a childhood friend Shin Hae-Mi (Jeon Jong-Seo) who brings back a mysterious new man from a recent trip to Africa. That man turns out to be an extremely wealthy, very handsome, and oddly cryptic Ben (Steven Yeun). After Ben confides to Jong-Su that he loves “burning greenhouses”, Hae-Mi mysteriously disappears. What results is exactly what you would imagine with this premise: Ben turns out to be some sort of serial women killer, and Jong-Su brings Hae-Mi to justice by nakedly murdering Ben. The End.
There’s a lot to unpack here. There are stark class differences between our two male characters as they vie for Hae-Mi’s attention. Jong-Su is from Paju, the same small town bordering North Korea that Hae-Mi comes from. That casual backdrop of North Korean propaganda being heard through the town sets the film up for an already odd sort of tension; the so-called “threat” of North Korea is ever so ingrained in South Korean existence that the daily sounding off of government speakers hardly budges our central characters… but it’s still a little weird. Hae-Mi and Jong-Su, though, are still just two earnest and naive country bumpkins that navigate Seoul’s bustling city life as struggling adults. But a third of the way into the film enters Ben, who is such an enigma of wealth that even the air around him drips money and detachment. But what Burning isn’t is just a rich guy vs. poor guy man-duel. That dynamic merely tints the real interactions between Jong-Su and Ben, which get cloudier as Jong-Su (and, in extension, the audience) grows more and more skeptical of this new stranger.
Steven Yeun has gotten tremendous (and well-deserved) praise for his performance here in Burning, and mostly international recognition. His meticulous grasp of the vocal Korean language is something that has garnered lots of interest throughout the year specifically because Yeun’s Korean American identity colors his performance, and actually plays a significant and incriminating role in Ben’s characterization as a mysterious figure. That difference between how a Korean national speaks Korean and how a Korean American may speak Korean is meant to be what carries Ben’s weirdness over the edge to a Korean audience. But, as someone who is Korean American just like Ben and Steven Yeun, I don’t know how well I jive with this particular set up… If a Korean American accent is meant to be the level of weirdness that pushes someone into serial murder territory, what does that set up for me as someone with that same Korean American accent?*
At the end of the way, Burning really is just like a slow burn. Like watching a candle flame flicker through the night. It flares every once in a while, but it remains largely uneventful. The climax of the candle burning comes at the end when you blow the fire out, leaving a simmering wave of smoke in the air, and that’s exactly how Burning ended for me. There is a certain artistic merit that I guess can’t be denied here, but to me, it was also confusing, ineffectual, and almost offensive? Lee Chang-Dong, a widely heralded director in South Korea and beyond, is also the director of one of the worst, most ablest, and misogynistic films I’ve ever seen back from 2002, called Oasis. And that particular bit of filmography somehow validates all of my uncomfortable feelings after seeing Burning. Retroactively speaking then, it comes to no surprise that Burning also managed to include a bizarre and very blatant scene that basically epitomized the male gaze.
This film was something that had been on my docket for so so long, and starring some of my favorite actors, so you can imagine my disappointment and general what the fuck feelings at finally seeing what turned out to be a weird and just mostly boring kind of movie. Burning stands to be the first Korean film to make it onto the Academy Awards December Shortlist, setting it up to potentially compete against other international films like Mexico’s Roma and Japan’s Shoplifters. (Am I a total Korean backstabber if I think Shoplifters should win? ¯\ _(ツ)_/¯)
*But then again, I’m the fool here expecting any more nuance out of this director. Also not a big deal because I still stan Steven Yeun.