By Mónica Delgado
Eight years have passed from Poetry, and now Lee Chang-dong now recreates freely a brief tale from Japanese writer Haruki Murakami to trace two situations of action: the romantic drama (boy meets girl), with some motifs of adolescent love and a thriller whose climax acquires dostoyevskian dimensions.
In Burning, the Korean filmmaker not only shows friend and love relations as spaces for desire and sublimation, but also the importance of social and economic distances in a South Korea of breaches and trends, as part of a retaliation where poor people collect the debts of the vanity of the lucky ones. This proposal by Chang-dong is not a social fable or a critique on the psyche of the privileged classes, but the portrayal of a love triangle of clues and suspicions, but whose social differences mark the climate of situations and make some decisions to take a different meaning, something beyond the passion.
For Chang-dong the social strata of the characters gives the film a vertical social design, through the spaces and districts that the protagonist, Lee Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in), goes through, from the field to the city or vice versa. This marks a position beyond the new characters that appear in his life. First, the young Haemi (Jeon Jong Seo), who lives in a small room, in a middle class district building, and also Ben (Steven Yeun), a young millionaire with a Porshe car, who resides in Seoul’s most expensive neighborhood. There’s commentary in a particular scene, which makes this necessity of marking the geography explicit, and which allows us to better imagine the space of young Let Jongsu, who lives near the frontier of North Korea, regularly listening the official radio propaganda of his neighbor country. From this spatial element, Chang-dong also offers details from his three characters, escaping the model of the traditional passional thriller.
In its first hour, Chang-dong centers his mise in scene in the description of the emotional situation of young Jongsu and his brief details on his writing aspirations. And places Haemi in an ambivalent situation, since it seems that she might retaliate against a comment Jongsu made in school: her being an ugly girl. However, what could be a love story without many nuances becomes in its second hour in an uncomfortable situation with the appearance of the calculating Ben, a sort of Mr. Ripley, who will place Jongsu in the background.
Chang-dong adapts Murakami’s place as an inspiration or trace of these three characters which slowly fall in a climate of doubts and absences. The tale starts with the encounter of the characters and ends in an atmosphere of doubts with an open ending. However, the Korean filmmaker is more interesting in developing Jongsu’s character as a lonely young man, who’s affected by the judicial process of his father, who is taking care of a farm in the peripheries of Seoul. Thus, the film’s point of view achieves its focus, in its way of discovering, of constructing its idea of Haemi and the stimuli of her desire, aspects that are transformed with the arrival of Ben. This mise in scene of Jongsu’s gaze is Chang-dong’s greatest achievement, since he establishes a game of correspondences or analogies with Ben’s character, a kind of cursed stranger, who arrives to transform his world, and whom the filmmaker introduces and develops from exact and weird dialogues, and situations of repetition.
In an initial scene, Haemi, who wants to be an actress, plays a mime in a bar with Jongsu. She imagines eating a fruit and showing his partner that the fruit can be enjoyed as well in the imagination. The capacity of looking or making palpable the invisible (something we can’t see in Ben but know it exists) is one of the central keys, which Chang-dong illustrates in a suggestive manner, with a poetic of the space that does not allude to common places or euphemisms in this strange and memorable love triangle.
Directing: Lee Chang-dong
Producer: Ok Gwang-hee
Script: Oh Jung-mi y Lee Chang-dong
Cast: Yoo Ah-in, Steven Yeun, Jeon Jong-seo
Cinematography: Hong Kyung-pyo
Editing: Kim Hyeon, Kim Da-won
Production Companies: Pinehouse Film, Now Film, NHK
South Korea, 2018, 148 minutes