Lee Chang-dong's Burning captures the conspiracy-laden paranoia and free-floating resentments that defined the last decade.
emonstrating the art of pantomime in a restaurant, aspiring performer Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) throws, catches, and peels an imaginary orange. It's about convincing yourself that what isn't there actually is, she explains to aspiring writer Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a hometown friend she hasn't seen since they were both children. That nonexistent fruit is the first significant absence in a thriller built atop a whole series of them: an unseen cat; phone calls from an unseen caller; a well that may or may not exist; a greenhouse that may or may not have burned down; and finally, perplexingly, a missing person who vanished without a trace. In Burning (2018), there's always some blank begging to be filled in with meaning. The danger lies, per Haemi's innocent words, in confusing nothing for something.
Is there a deeper dimension to that warning? Five years later, it's become impossible to miss the ways that a hauntingly ambiguous movie from South Korea speaks to the climate of simmering grievance that's shaped American life this past decade—the way class divisions and unchecked male rage have hardened into paranoid conspiracy. Not for nothing does Donald Trump make a brief cameo, stoking the fire from a television set, 30 seconds of bilious background noise reverberating across the full 148 minutes.
Part of the genius of Lee Chang-dong's film, a psychodramatic slow burn par excellence, is that it looks at this 21st-century epidemic of anger from the inside, and not from a comforting, righteous remove. Burning hooks us right into the circuitry of a time bomb, even syncing our sympathies to the metronome of its relentless ticking. Can we help but feel some kinship with Jong-su, a working-class twentysomething whose perspective we might only gradually realize the movie has staunchly adopted? A country kid chasing literary dreams across the uncertain sprawl of post-college life, he's returned to tend to the family farm while his father stands trial for assaulting a civil servant. Has Jong-su inherited his dad's resentments? He is haunted by visions of inferno—a fire from his memories that comes to look, by the shocking ending, like a premonition of predestined violence.
The match lighting the fuse is a love triangle of sorts, though perhaps it’s more of a one-sided romantic rivalry. After falling into an unclarified friends-with-benefits relationship with Haemi, Jong-su soon finds himself competing for her attention with Ben (Steven Yeun), the handsome, damnably comfortable rich boy she meets while on vacation in Africa. "Nowadays, there is no distinction between working and playing," muses Ben, though his new, much poorer companions might beg to differ while they're shoveling horse shit or trying to attract customers to a Seoul electronics shop. Jong-su disparagingly dubs the cosmopolitan millennial “the Great Gatsby.”
"I wish I could disappear as if I never existed," Haemi confesses during one meal with the two men, revealing the desperation concealed by her free-spiritedness. A few days later, she gets her wish. It's with a brilliant deliberation that Burning transforms from a drama of passive-aggressive class conflict to something like a mystery—an ominous modern noir of slowly dawning awareness that may, in reality, be closer to wild delusion. Lee, who brings the slippery psychological shifts of his earlier Secret Sunshine (2007) and Poetry (2010) to a particularly stripped-bare detective story, taps right into the true-crime obsession of our modern era, while slyly suggesting the way that confirmation bias often shapes such investigations.
The conclusions inevitably drawn in Burning hinge on Jong-su's—and by extension, the audience's—attitude towards Ben, a question mark of motivation whose condescending, privileged nonchalance ends up looking menacing in the wrong dusk light. All three of the central performances are perfectly measured, but it's Yeun—instantly setting ablaze the nice-guy image he cultivated over several seasons of The Walking Dead—who has the trickiest task here. Is Ben a sociopath hiding his dark habits behind the shield of wealth or is that just class resentment rearing its ugly head again? Yeun's air of smug, amused detachment becomes a Rorschach test for characters and viewers alike: he makes it all too easy to project any assumptions about the leisure class on his perpetually smiling face.
Lee filters Burning's chilling ambiguity through an ingenious pastiche. It flips the class POV of Michelangelo Antonioni's classic anti-drama L'Avventura (1960)—pointedly replacing the blasé indifference to a woman's disappearance with a suffocating, obsessive need to solve it—and reconfigures Hitchcockian suspense around what you could call anti-MacGuffins, those aforementioned absences. With its wealth of symbols and Chekhovian foreshadowing, the film freely mines its literary source materials as well. Lee expanded Burning from a short story, "Barn Burning," by Haruki Murakami, and, in a sly act of loose dual adaptation, from elements in the William Faulkner story of the same name. His main debt to Murakami is not the skeleton of a plot he fleshes out but the Japanese author's general affinity for unreliable narrators. We're deep into the movie before the essential subjectivity of its perspective starts to shift into focus, like the foliage Lee racks to in one mysterious shot. Here and there, Burning's naturalism splinters into dream logic, while the rare scenes not featuring Jong-su can't help but look like the character's feverish conjecture.
It's notable that Jung-su, the amateur gumshoe, is a writer. His theory about what happened to Haemi stems from his perhaps innate need to look for symbolism in the world, and to find it quite specifically in Ben's creepy extracurricular property damage—a professed arsonist streak that Jung-su, diligent student of fiction, chooses to read as a veiled confession. One remarkable late shot shows the young man crouched over his laptop, the city stretching out around him like a world of his own invention. Is he writing the apocalyptic climax to come, merely putting his ideal ending on paper, or is he preparing to make it real? The distinction may be unimportant: by the end, he's made himself the hero of the story, and committed to his personal truth about what happened to Haemi—bleaker but perhaps more comforting than the alternative, likelier explanation of a run-of-the-mill ghosting.
Staring into the flames of Burning's upshot, it's difficult not to see the embers of recent tragedy, the violence committed by young men, tortured by sexual frustration, enraged by real inequities and merely perceived slights. The film provocatively implicates its audience through immersion, turning the investigative thrill of detective fiction into a clever trap. To follow the persuasive logic of Jong-su's "discoveries" is to be drawn into his paranoia, to be seduced by his contempt, to jump to conclusions based on the way the "clues" support his grudges. Burning recognizes the validity of our class rage, that thirst for revenge against the elites… and then ruthlessly manipulates it. Sound like any politicians you know?
Burning is available to stream on Peacock, Tubi, Plex, and Freevee.
A.A. Dowd is a writer and editor based in Chicago. His work has appeared in such publications as The A.V. Club, Vulture, and Rolling Stone. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.