“I have a hobby of burning greenhouses,” begins Ben, a Porsche-driving rich kid so smug he makes Piers Morgan look like the Dalai Lama. Smoking weed with romantic-rival Jong-su at the farm belonging to the latter’s father, he adds: “As I watch them burn to the ground, I feel ecstatic.”
Steven Yeun’s character has been in Burning for just over half an hour at this point and we do not like him one bit. Up to now Ben has been merely an irritant but there is something about him that suggests a more sinister side, too. No one sane gets worked up enough about abandoned greenhouses to call them “useless, filthy [and] unpleasant-looking” and you quickly realise – as he warms to his subject – that he isn’t talking about greenhouses at all. Ben is merely using them as a metaphor for… something else.
That “something else” is perhaps the only part of this South Korean film that isn’t entirely ambiguous. At least it shouldn’t be to the audience – the penny takes a little while longer to drop for poor, lovelorn Jong-su.
It’s an unsettling, reptilian performance from Yeun, who you’ll recognise from interminable zombie soap-opera The Walking Dead, as well as last year's Sorry To Bother You. Nihilism and toxic masculinity – and the ways in which they go hand in hand – seem to be popular themes in the current cinema, with Ben reminiscent of Nietzsche-obsessed Philippe (Niels Schneider), from Catherine Corsini’s An Impossible Love. As if to bold-up and underline one of Burning’s main preoccupations, Donald Trump – the free world’s nihilist in chief – even appears here in news footage. It isn't the first time writer/director Lee Chang-dong has tackled such themes, with morally-reprehensible male behaviour front and centre in the likes of Poetry (2010) and Peppermint Candy (1999) too.
Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is a wannabe writer drifting along after completing his military service. He runs into an old school friend, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), when he sees her scantily-clad and dancing to entice customers (i.e. men) to buy raffle tickets. They sleep together and Jong-su agrees to look after her cat (“Boil”) while she’s visiting Kenya. But Hae-mi returns from her African adventure with Ben in tow and Jong-su is bereft, having been seemingly usurped in her affections by this smooth interloper.
However, when Hae-mi goes missing, he soon becomes convinced Ben (“I’ve never shed a tear before in my life”) has something to do with her disappearance and, turning detective, starts following him. He even scours the local area for greenhouses that have been burned down but finds none (it was a metaphor, so why would he?).
Lee is not known for his brevity and, at two-and-a-half hours, Burning certainly takes its sweet time to get to the meat of the story – but it’s time well spent. Deliberate, hazy and helped by a low-key Mowg score soaked in bass and percussion, it keeps the viewer on the backfoot throughout, inviting you to question everything you see. Early on, that ambiguity centres on the nature of Hae-mi and Jong-su’s past relationship. At times, I wondered if Jong-su was to be the dupe in an elaborate scam or revenge plot, or if Hae-mi was even who she claimed to be. A student of mime, she peels an imaginary tangerine, underlining the way the film plays with notions of what is real, what isn’t, and what might be.
Burning transitions from romantic puzzle to full-blown thriller in its final hour, but answers to its mysteries remain just as elusive. Despite what we think we know about Ben, the circumstances of Hae-mi’s disappearance are far from straightforward because we’ve already heard her talk of “vanishing just like that sunset”. It’s clear she’s seeking a more spiritual life, talking several times about her experiences with Kalahari bushmen and their “Great Hunger” for higher meaning. Lee expertly sows just enough doubt so, even at the end, you half-expect her to show up again as if nothing has happened.
Although it would be easy to dismiss the character as a South Korean version of US cinema’s “manic pixie dream girl” trope, a plot device to stoke conflict between her two lovers, there’s rather more to Hae-mi than that. She is more interesting than shifty Ben and jealous Jong-su put together, has a genuine curiosity about the world and a thirst for self-knowledge. Jong-seo – in her acting debut – brings skittish energy and palpable restlessness to the role, the stoned topless dance she performs to Miles Davis typical of a young woman it is impossible to predict and difficult to read.
Barn Burning, the Haruki Murakami short story the film is based upon, doesn’t labour its central metaphor quite as much as Lee does here. However, while it might lack the Japanese writer’s sharply-honed sleight of hand, the film version more than makes up for it with a keenness to take on some very big themes. The marginalisation of women in South Korean society is something the director hit head on in his previous film – the elegant, novelistic Poetry – and does so again here, while also skewering the rapacious nature of the feral rich as embodied by Ben and his equally ghastly circle of friends.
It is also about absence – both temporary and permanent. Jong-su’s life so far illustrates that. His mum walked out on his family when he was young; his father, who suffers with a “rage disorder”, is sent to prison for assault; he can’t find Hae-mi’s cat despite her apartment being tiny and then, of course, there’s the object of his affection herself. The fact his mum reappears after 16 years means you hold out hope Hae-mi might do the same, although there are an equal number of portents during Burning’s final act suggesting quite the opposite. We even get a kind of Schrödinger's cat motif – Hae-mi is simultaneously both alive and dead, her housebound pet imaginary and real.
The jaw-dropping ending might appear to come out of nowhere, but really doesn’t – Lee has peppered clues throughout which point to its grim inevitability. Burning’s final moments still hit you like an express train though.