My personal favorite way to see a movie is to check what is playing at the independent theaters (your Kendal Squares or Coolidge Corners), take note of all the films I haven’t heard of, and, after reading brief descriptions, buy a ticket for the one I feel I have the least clear idea about. That’s how I wandered into director Chang-dong Lee’s Korean-language picture “Burning.” Now, if you are, in this respect, like me—and considering that you’re reading some sophomore’s review of a Korean art film in the University of Massachusetts Boston’s student paper, there’s a decent chance you are—I highly recommend that you stop reading this article at the end of this sentence, and you go see “Burning” at your earliest convenience. This is a good one to go into blind. But if you’re not like me—if you’re one of those people who likes to be fairly sure about a movie before giving it your money—please allow me to make my case that this one is worth the price of a ticket.
Set in modern-day Seoul, “Burning” tells the story of Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo), a young, would-be writer struggling to enter society at a time when unemployment rates are soaring for the new generation. Life gets exciting for Jong-su with his aberrational meeting with Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon), a woman who grew up in the same town as Jong-su. The young man quickly develops a romantic affection for Hae-mi, which at first appears to be reciprocated, but when Jong-su is introduced to Hae-mi’s new friend Ben (Steven Yeun), the whole affair becomes quite complicated.
There’s just something creepy about Ben. His mysterious wealth reminds Jong-su of “The Great Gatsby,” and, like Nick Carraway, Jong-su is skeptical of the world such rich folk inhabit. As tension builds throughout this slow-paced story, it becomes increasingly evident that there is something sinister afoot with Ben, and Jong-su takes it upon himself to solve this riddle and save Hae-mi from whichever cruel fate Ben has in store for her. The plot itself is very subtly gripping as it unfolds, slithering toward a sudden and explosive climax, wherein the true duplicity is revealed to immense satisfaction.
But Ben’s wealth isn’t the only thing mysterious in “Burning.” Through a series of engaging directorial choices, Lee has constructed a highly subjective narrative, where every aspect of the world not in Jong-su’s direct line of vision is obscured; and, at points, it feels as though even the things we should know for certain are being presented through the eyes of an unreliable narrator. There is, on occasion, direct contradiction in the information presented by different characters, and we, like Jong-su, aren’t always able to figure out who is telling the truth.
Hae-mi, being as she is the object of Jong-su’s desire, is particularly vulnerable to this type of subjective embellishment. Though the film is never overtly fantastical, there is a faerie-like quality to Hae-mi’s personality and mannerisms, that, at points, gives this fairly grounded film an air of surrealism. How much of this is really Hae-mi, vs. Hae-mi as Jong-su sees her—as Lee wants us to see her—is a question that will doubtless cross your mind at least once throughout the film’s run.
The fact that Lee has made a film in which you may feel as though Lee himself is lying to you about the story he is telling is a testament to the excellent craft at work in “Burning.” It’s one of those movies that challenges you to watch it as you watch it, and then sort of sits with you afterwards, as you ruminate, wondering if you were indeed up to the challenge. Not that the movie is difficult to watch in a visceral sense; it is a film that requires very active participation on the part of the viewer to interpret the story. This is not a piece of entertainment. “Burning” is a work of true art, and my God is it beautiful.