Film Review: Burning

A stunted writer gets wrapped up in a mysterious romantic triangle in Lee Chang-dong’s yawningly meticulous Korean mumblecore Gatsby riff.
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Everything is on the surface in Burning and yet nothing is quite as it seems. That’s intentional for director Lee Chang-dong, returning to the screen for the first time since 2010’s Poetry. But unlike that quiet stunner of a movie, what’s here won’t necessarily entice you to dig beneath the surface.

The screenplay, adapted from the Haruki Murakami short story “Barn Burning” by Lee and Oh Jung-mi, drifts moodily around the marooned youth Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in). A recent college graduate with a degree in creative writing, he’s as unsure about what he’s going to do with his writing as everybody else in the brazenly mercantile and consumerist Seoul that he is meandering laconically through. Some tentative salvation appears in the form of Haemi (Jun Jong-seo), a onetime schoolmate from his rural village turned bright and cheery greeter who he meets on the street as she’s chivvying customers into a store.

Their relationship sets up a pattern for the rest of the movie. Jongsu’s almost preternatural passivity, visually enhanced by Yoo’s searching but often dead-seeming expressions, is set against Haemi’s manic-pixie-dream-girl performative energy. She invites him to her apartment, a tiny box of a thing she claims is inhabited by a cat he never sees or hears. He follows. She asks him to feed her cat while she goes on a trip to Africa. He agrees. She makes a move, they go to bed together. She comes back from Africa with rich new friend Ben (Steven Yeun of “The Walking Dead”) and insinuates this is her new guy, Jongsu tags along as third wheel without vocal complaint.

A slow drip of mystery enters the story with Ben. Until that point it had been primarily concerned with Jongsu’s confusion over Haemi’s intentions and his grudging caretaking of the old family farm after his father is sent to prison for hitting a government official and refusing to apologize. (We see them together only briefly in a courtroom. They look at each other. Nothing is said. Like father, like son.) From that point on, though, the movie drifts more into Ben’s world, a languid swirl of sports cars, luxurious apartments, and silently mocking privilege which is darkened around the fringe by Jongsu’s unease with how they seem to be treating Haemi as some kind of toy. And what’s with that drawer of secrets in Ben’s bathroom?

At first, Lee appears to be crafting some statement on the condition of modern South Korea. The movie is fixed between the poles of Haemi’s dreamy smartphone-era self-promotion, Ben’s blithe one-percenter self-confidence, and Jongsu’s sleepily seething resentments. The setup carries with it a whiff of The Great Gatsby, openly alluded to by Jongsu, who very occasionally on the rare moments when he speaks instead of just gawping reminds people that he’s a writer.

That contrasting vision of resentment, privilege and ambition may be what the lyrically shot but narratively reticent Burning is about in the end. This is a movie that ripples with sublimated fury well before the bloody and shocking long take that ends everything without much of an answer. But it is also a movie that leaves too much unsaid and takes too long to end up nowhere.