Let’s talk about platform distribution. In theory movies on this track are supposed to open in New York and L.A. for about a week, and then expand outwards into the other large markets until hopefully you’ve opened wide. It usually works out pretty well for me because I’m in a large enough market that I pretty reliably get most independent/foreign movies a couple weeks after they debut or at least know when they are coming out. However some sort of monkey wrench got thrown in the gears when it came to acclaimed new South Korea drama Burning, which got picked up by some strange company called Well-Go-USA which usually focuses on Asian cinema of the martial arts variety and seems to have some bad ideas about how to release art house movies because from where I sit they’ve really botched this one. When the film first expanded they skipped over the Twin Cities entirely and opened in places like Dallas, then the next week in places like Albuquerque. My city wasn’t entirely alone in this suspense. The damn thing opened Columbus Ohio before it opened in Seattle, it opened in Omaha before it opened in Denver, and in Salt Lake City before it opened in Detroit. And to this date it still hasn’t opened in Minneapolis and there’s no indication as to when or if it will. Color me pissed. Fortunately I was still able to catch a screening of the movie while on a trip to Chicago, or else I may have missed out on one of the year’s most acclaimed movies, and if that had happened I may well boycotted the damn company for life.
Burning is set in modern South Korea and focuses on Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), an aspiring writer who lives on his father’s run-down old farm in the town of Paju, which is located a little bit outside of Seoul. One day while visiting Seoul he runs into a woman named Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) who was a neighbor of his back in Paju while they were kids. The two form something of a friendship, one that Jong-su is never quite sure is venturing towards the romantic, and Hae-mi recruits him to feed her cat for her while she takes a sort of “spirit journey” to Africa. When she returns from this trip she’s accompanied by a guy named Ben (Steven Yeun) who was the only other Korean where she was, causing the two to form a bond that Jong-su is never quite sure was or is romantic. From there Jong-su has to navigate whether or not he’s been put into the “friend-zone” by Hae-mi and whether or not he should be jealous of whatever bond she has with Ben and how that makes him feel, at least before things start to take a different and altogether more sinister turn in the film’s second half.
Burning is the work of Lee Chang-dong, an important but not overly prolific Korean auteur who has largely eschewed the more extreme genre tendencies of some of his most famous countryman to instead make realist dramas, usually about ordinary people at crossroads in life trying to cope with where they find themselves in life. His signature film, Secret Sunshine, remains one of the finest examinations of the concept of forgiveness in all its complexity and his follow-up Poetry is an excellent meditation on justice and legacy but it’s been a long eight year wait for his latest film. Burning is a little more playful than his previous films in that it doesn’t burden the audience with super heavy themes right away and generally operates on a more cinematic logic than strict realism. That said, “playful” is a bit of a relative term given that this is a film that still very clearly addressing its themes seriously and the film does end up going to some pretty dark places in its second half.
There’s a scene in the film where the protagonist casually watching a news report of Donald Trump giving a speech. Jong-su doesn’t seem terribly enamored by what he’s watching and the scene feels superfluous but it isn’t. Lee Chang-dong isn’t trying to suggest that Jong-su would have any particular affinity for Trump himself or his xenophobic nonsense but he is trying to sort of establish him as something of the Korean equivalent of the prototypical “Trump voter” that outlets like the New York Times can’t help but profile. He’s a rural guy who’s been given the short end of the wealth inequality stick and has kind of been left behind by the modern world and that this outlook does not lead him to make the healthiest choices in life. He also seems to be in way over his head in dealing with Hae-mi, who may have come from his village but who has become quite the free spirit in Seoul and Jong-su spends a lot of the film’s second act trying to determine whether or not their single hook-up was something that was more casual to her than it was to him and trying to play cool around her. His jealousy toward Ben is readily apparent and it certainly has at least a little bit to do with class resentment. This is all helped quite a bit by the fact that Jeon Jong-seo manages to create a character who is in fact quite captivating and seems to be worthy of all the investment that Jong-su makes in her.
Of course there’s also the sinking suspicion in the back of both his mind and the audiences’ mind that he’s being played from the very beginning either by Ben or by Hae-mi or both of them. That third act is very much about obsession and paranoia and it keeps the audience guessing throughout. As a whole this is a film that doesn’t really follow the usual formulas you expect movies to follow, but it also isn’t trying to be radically strange or avant-garde either. That is in part what sets it apart from Lee Chang-dong’s earlier movies, which certainly weren’t formulaic but they were less noticeably meta and were generally heavier exercises. Does this then mark a new chapter in his auteur style? We’ll have to see, though I must hope his next movie comes a bit faster than this one, because Chang-dong is too fascinating a filmmaker to keep operating on a “two movie per decade” pace.
****1/2 out of Five