Lee Chang-dong's Burning begins like a meet-cute rom-com and morphs to a potboiler thriller, but there's something much more disturbing simmering underneath
It starts with a set-up that wouldn't be out of place in a romantic comedy: a young, broke wannabe writer starts a fling with an old school friend, a pretty sales girl who goes to mime class and wants to be an actress. She goes away, she comes back, and when he meets her at the airport, she’s got a new companion: a slick, well-to-do guy who drives a Porsche. Are they together? Is he gonna be humiliated? Is he gonna have to compete for her affection?
But humour, pratfalls and love triangles are not the interests of Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, a South Korean mystery with a nagging, haunted, poisoned air. Based on the suggestive, unresolved Haruki Murakami short story Barn Burning, the film is full of little details that set the mind to wander. Hae-mi, the girl, asks the writer, Jong-su, to feed her cat while she’s away – is the cat real, or imaginary? The tone is set for her own disappearance. Has she eccentrically wandered off on another adventure, or is there something sinister going on? Ben, the smooth mystery man, confesses that he likes to burn greenhouses, and has burned one near Jong-su’s family farm – but Jong-su can see no evidence of this, despite obsessional searching. Is this a metaphor for something darker?
Burning is a stark, tantalising thriller, planting seeds to frustrate our minds along with Jong-su. As he becomes obsessed with the idea that Ben has killed Hae-mi, we’re invited to observe the social dynamics at play: is Ben a reflection of psychotic affluenza, a murderous representative of predatory capitalism destroying ordinary life, or is Jong-su’s societal adriftness making him project his own bitter frustrations on to someone he really knows little about? By the end, actions have been taken and decisions made, but more questions raised than answered, and Burning takes the form of a potboiler with something more disturbing and lingering simmering underneath.
Burning is released 1 Feb by Thunderbird Releasing