Lee Chang-dong’s last film Poetry was a sad, slow-burning character study of an old woman who is constantly taken advantage of, while struggling to find a creative, productive voice somewhere to let out her anguish. Burning returns to this feeling of being stuck, swamped by the failures of your blood relatives. Based on ‘Barn Burning’, a short story by Haruki Murakami, Lee focuses in on the latter part of that title - the seductiveness of the act of destroying something.
The protagonist is Lee Jongsu, a young and lonely writer fending for himself on a farm that has been left to him as his father is tried for assault. Performing odd jobs around Gangnam and the area of Paju near the Korean DMZ, Lee is lost, a writer who (rather relatably) doesn’t spend much time writing, played with endearing, slack-jawed formlessness by Yoo Ah-In. With all his meandering, he becomes easily fixated on people - first, by a figure from his childhood, Hae-mi, who he quickly falls in love with. He’s bewildered by their fast moving courtship, which centres around a fumbling, awkward sex scene that also works in a playful joke around a pan to the window, playing up Jongsu’s absentmindedness and bewilderment.
Soon after, Hae-mi leaves for Africa, in search of what she describes as people with ‘Great Hunger’, a hunger for understanding the universe, as opposed to the literal kind. She finds that person in Ben (an excellent, creepy Steven Yeun), who fosters feelings of inadequacy in Jongsu. Ben is a rich, handsome and confident man who is extremely friendly towards Jongsu and often invites his company alongside Hae-mi. He is intense and weird right off the bat - and Yeun turns in a performance that should be star-making, intimidating and charming with a constant, unnerving glint in his eyes. As a man who, by Jongsu’s description, spends his time “traveling around, driving a Porsche, listening to music while cooking pasta!”, Ben’s worldliness and sophistication threatens him. Jongsu’s jealousy is clearly there, but it ebbs low for a lot of the film - he’s too passive to actually express feelings in a strong manner. In fact, the only time he’s expressive or loud, is when he’s singing to his cow.
Ben soon also becomes a point of obsession, an obsession stoked further when Ben reveals a peculiar, destructive habit he likes to indulge in - burning down greenhouses. He claims that he does it every couple of months, and has burned one down very close to where Jongsu lives. The lack of evidence of Ben’s habit becomes a fixation, and an extremely poisonous one at that. Jongsu dreams of watching a barn burn, while spending his waking hours frantically searching for clues that are nowhere to be found. Lee obscures what Jongsu actually means to do with whatever information he may find - whether he wants to stop this, or join in, or find a similar outlet for his anger.
Despite Lee filming things at a strange remove, Burning never feels overly ponderous or stone-faced. In fact it’s very funny - in both Jongsu’s interactions with Boil the cat (who may or may not exist) and in his fumbling dialogue in general, as well as Lee’s observations of the absurdity of consumerism in South Korea. Lee also adds in sly interactions with the West. Jongsu loves American authors, citing William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald (the latter comes up when Jongsu describes Ben as being “The Great Gatsby”). The film wears its influences on its sleeve, winking as it shows them. As he does with Korea, Lee makes pointed commentary on the excess of the West and where it leads, with a quick, typically self-centered speech from Trump appearing in the background at one point, his appearance fostering the same ominousness as the proximity of North Korea to Jongsu’s farm.
Despite a slow pace and challenging running time, Burning feels utterly hypnotic throughout. The score by Mowg is similarly mesmerising - sparse yet urgent, all low guitar notes and frenetic, lopsided percussion. Lee Chang-dong’s latest is among his greatest work, a smouldering study of jealously, anger as well as indulgence. Burning is masterful.