By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 1, 2018)
The Great Gatsby meets The Talented Mr. Ripley at the corner of William Faulkner and Brett Easton Ellis in director Lee Chang-dong’s leisurely-paced mystery-thriller Burning. I’m telling you it’s “leisurely-paced” now, because with a time investment of 2 hours, 28 minutes, I’d hazard to guess it’s the type of news you’d prefer that I’d share right away.
The story centers on an insular, socially isolated young man named Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo) who has become sole caretaker of his father’s modest farm near the North Korean border while dad languishes in the court system (he’s on trial for some unspecified malfeasance).
One day, Jongsu is sleep-walking through his part-time delivery gig in nearby Seoul, when he is unexpectedly jostled by a vivacious and flirty young woman named Haemi (Jong-seo Joo) who claims to have been a childhood schoolmate. It’s clear the flustered Jongsu initially doesn’t remember her; it’s also painfully obvious he’s unaccustomed to having even a vague possibility of romantic involvement fall in his lap, so he plays along.
Before he knows it, Haemi has ingratiated herself into his life; Jongsu walks around with a half-dazed expression like he can’t quite believe his dumb luck, especially after one glorious (if initially fumbling and awkward) night of amour. But then, just as quickly, the flighty Haemi announces she is travelling to Africa for a soul-searching sabbatical (oh, and would he mind checking in on her apartment and feeding her cat while she is away?). Of course, he doesn’t mind; he’s one of those hapless pushover-types that anyone who’s been to two world’s fairs and a film festival will instantly recognize as a classic noir sap.
Cue an interlude reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion; wherein Jongsu falls into a listless torpor holding vigil in Haemi’s dark and claustrophobic apartment, dividing his time between feeding a cat that he can never find and masturbating joylessly to a photo of Haemi as he faces a small window that affords a smudged view of the tip of the Namsan Seoul Tower (insert Freudian subtext here). As days run into (weeks? Months?) Jongsu begins to question whether the cat even exists. Scratch that; was Haemi ever there? The viewer begins to wonder as well, especially since we’re told Jongsu is an aspiring writer.
Jongsu brightens when he gets a call from Haemi, back from her sojourn and wanting to meet up with him for lunch. However, his heart sinks when he sees she’s brought “a friend” she met in Africa, a fellow Korean traveler named Ben (Steven Yuen). Ben is a mysterious, urbane trustafarian. Haemi, ebullient as ever, is confident the trio will be thick as thieves in no time. Jongsu, not so much. Initially seeing Ben as a possible sexual rival, Jongsu eyes him suspiciously, but then inexorably succumbs to his inherent charm.
It’s difficult to further discuss the narrative without risking spoilers, so suffice it to say that many twists ensue. Unfortunately, the twists that ensue are nothing that haven’t previously ensued in scores of other mystery-thrillers (and presented with more brevity).
The director and Jung-mi Oh co-adapted their screenplay from a short story by Haruki Murakami called “Barn Burning” (also the name of a short story by William Faulkner; at one point in the film, Jongsu tells Ben that Faulkner is his favorite writer). Interestingly, in a transcribed interview with the director conducted by co-screenwriter Oh that was included in the press kit, Lee says “When you first recommended to me this short story, I was a bit taken aback. Because the story felt mysterious, but nothing really happens in it.”
Judging by that criteria, I’d have to say Lee’s film is, if nothing else, a faithful adaptation.