Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) never sees the cat he feeds at the apartment of his recently rediscovered childhood acquaintance Haime (Jun Jong-seo). The only light which enters it is an occasional reflection off the Seoul Tower. Haime has travelled to Africa to witness the ‘Great Hunger,’ the grand desire for life’s true meaning. Jong-su seeks a similar thing, being an amateur author who cannot find a story. “To me, the world is a mystery” he confesses. When Haime returns from Africa with Ben (Steven Yeun), a handsome, rich and enigmatic socialite, the mystery deepens. A peculiar confession by Ben sends Jong-su on an obsessive spiral, where all his knowledge seems to unravel. Like the light off Seoul Tower, all evidence found is indirect. Like Schrödinger’s Cat, existence and meaning cannot be proven.
Being built upon elusiveness, detailed descriptions of Burning are difficult. This subdued thriller relies upon culminations of tiny moments, which themselves are ambiguous. It possesses traces of Vertigo (1958), given the gradual obsession of Jong-su, but is more comparable to No Country for Old Men (2008), hypnotically conveying the mesmerising dread of being unable to comprehend the world around you. While primarily existential, writer-director Lee Chang-Dong subtly weaves sly political commentary into his adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story. Alongside the obvious class differences between Jongsu and Ben, the North Korean propaganda broadcasts and Trump’s political campaign illustrate the important distinction between what you know, and what you are told. Left at the mercy of others’ stories, Jong-su becomes suspended within futile searches for truths that cannot be proven, or disproven.
Yoo Ah-in conveys this desperation with incredible precision, his confusion steadily intensifying until it overwhelms him. Jong-seo is also great as Haime, conveying her intoxicating charm, and also a deep sadness that neither man seems to consider. But Steven Yeun is an utter revelation, so effortlessly charming it carries an uncomfortable menace, the audience unable to stop surveying this Korean ‘Great Gatsby’ whenever he’s on screen. Ben’s slight smiles and yawns hold potential multitudes, or perhaps conceal a hollowness that we, like Jong-su, fall into while trying to uncover.
Burning is not for everybody. Some will be completely justified in their frustration at its slow pacing and evasive story. It requires tremendous patience, but for those that can pierce its opaque exterior, it is immensely rewarding, exposing multiple threads that yield a rich complexity. If you can let it, Lee Chang-dong’s meticulous masterpiece pulls you into a chilling mystery, which leaves you obsessively scavenging for meaning long after its fire has ended, like trying to grasp onto wisps of smoke.
Image: Thunderbird Releasing.