' ' Cinema Romantico: Burning

Wednesday, December 19, 2018


I can’t shake facial expression of Ah-Inn Yoo in “Burning.” It’s not that his facial expression is terrifying; it isn’t. It’s this sort of slack jaw, mouth agape face one might make while staring up at a Times Square Billboard if it was showing one of those 3-D paintings and a person was not so much struggling to decode it as just sort of generally puzzled by it. This facial expression perfectly epitomizes Inn’s character, Lee Jong-su, one not so much belying the fact that he is slow on the take but perplexed with the surrounding world, like there is some code buried deep within the atmosphere that he struggles to see. He is a recent creative writing graduate, though one forced to take over the family farm in the wake of his father being jailed for an act of violence. And even if we never see him writing all that much despite claiming he’s working on a novel, it’s only because director Lee Chang-dong, working from a 1992 short story by Haruki Murakami, gradually lets us see that Jong-su is the character in the story of his life, one that his own blood seems to be writing.

The first time we see Jong-su we don’t even see him at first, just the trails of smoke from the cigarette he’s stealing around a corner. In the ensuing moments, he encounters Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon), a childhood classmate he doesn’t remember but who remembers him, dancing and handing out flyers for some discount store. They go out, wind up in bed soon after, though then she departs for a short trip to Africa, enlisting Jong-su to feed her cat, which may or may not be real, foreshadowing the film’s infinite enigmas. Indeed, when Hae-mi returns from the Africa it is in the company of Ben (Steven Yeun), a rich kid of means neither he nor the movie ever make clear. Jong-su dismisses him as a Gatsby, not that “Burning” has any interest in exactly approximating F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story. If Hae-mi occasionally references past events, the reality of these is placed in doubt by the recollections of other characters, and she claims to have gotten plastic surgery, as if suggesting the past is something from which we intently try to run.

If Hae-mi can sometimes feel underdeveloped, a la Daisy Buchanan, that is because Chang-dong views specifically through the prism of these two men. Jong-su looks at her longingly, even desperately, declaring his love for her. Ben might be dating her, but he comes across more disinterested than in love, never more so than when she demonstrates an African dance, what she calls The Dance of Great Hunger, evincing the timid accountant of “Shadows and Fog” saying that he couldn’t explain the meaning of life but might, if drunk, be able to dance it. As she sways, the camera catches Ben indifferently yawning, a heart-scorching smug dismissal of her soulful expression and a window into his entire worldview. This dance resurfaces in the movie’s most pivotal scene, positioned at the halfway point, where she performs it beneath the night sky, naked. It is a deliberate implementation of the Male Gaze, in so much as she remains purposely beyond it, demonstrated in how it is framed as if she is in communion with the cosmos above rather than with them.

If Hae-mi is communing with the natural world, the two men are beholden to their own respective nature, which Ben makes clear in a monologue, dismissing right and wrong as no match for “the morals of nature.” That’s a kind of hackneyed line, but it’s also the kind the kind of guy like Ben would probably say, and Chang-dong more stunningly breathes life into those words later, after Jong-su gets a phone call from Hae-mi in which they don’t speak but it is made clear she’s in trouble. When the line cuts out, the camera flips its focus from Jong-su to the trees behind him, the wind whistling through the crisp leaves, nature, in a sense, taking over, and leading directly into a slow-burning denouement. It centers on a mystery, the specifics of which I will not reveal, though the specifics are beside the point as this mystery gradually dovetails with “Burning’s” larger point. You see this everywhere, like Jong-su tailing Ben to try and get to the bottom of things, though Jong-su’s detective work is no less important than the striking disparity in their vehicles, his battered, muddy truck and Ben’s Porsche, delineating the class resentment revealing itself as crucial to the mystery as scorned love.

But then, that makes it sound all cut and dried when it’s the furthest thing from. I have not read Murakami’s short story, but I can imagine myriad interior monologues cluing us into Jong-su’s gradual break. Chang-dong has no monologues, forgoing voiceover, simply impressing upon us the character’s disintegrating mental state with moods, frames. When Jong-su takes a warehouse job during the long fall of the film’s back half, he stands in a line with his other new co-workers, that same expression stuck to his face. When the boss asks him a question, Jong-su doesn’t reply, he withdraws from the line and just sort of wanders out, without a word, turning away from the regular life this position might represent and going off to eventually burn it all down.

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