Existential dread is a burden to the fearful, timid and powerless, doubly so when thrown in with the frustrating, tense circumstances that we find ourselves in or may even create as proxy of consequences, by interactions made by our own volition. This ambiguity of our dark cloud is the crux of ‘Burning’’s comprehensive exploration of our generation’s looming angst. By seeing the whole story through Jong-su’s eyes (our protagonist) we get to feel the trappings of solipsism, the single perspective. On top of this, we experience these characters through the steady pace crafted by director Lee Chang-Dong’s patient, tangible sense of time and place.
Burning is more like an amalgamated neo-noir through a contemporary South Korean drama. Pretty much Haruki Murikami’s shtick, the Kafka-esque stuff comes in the endgame. What struck me was that this was so infused with noir that I wondered how that defined the story. Is the story of our three central characters only worth telling if they’re molded to fit the appeal of a genre? But I had it the wrong way around. Murikami and director Lee did what great artists do, they developed the story’s tone, mood and style as an extension of the themes surrounding our characters. Stylistically you can feel the film make subtle shifts from feeling like another street-level drama from South Korea to becoming a silhouetted noir, brewed in jazz, with inflections of a mystery.
The mystery being that as we come to know more about someone, you can also be surprised to realize in a rude awaken that you know nothing about them at all. As ‘Burning’ moves along, you’ll come to learn quite intimately about Hae-Mi’s overwhelming fears and loneliness and pretty much everything else that spills out from her mind – she’s typically intoxicated at her most revealing moments. Pretty existential stuff.
What makes this so perfect for a noir is the inclusion of Ben. Because Ben is where ‘Burning’ begins to also showcase its literary roots – wearing them proudly on its sleeve. The original short story by Haruki Murakami is quite succinct in its characterization and divulging of plot. There’s little to savor there. Whereas Lee Chang-Dong has you soaking in the minutiae of everything in these characters, their insignificance, their lack of presence in the world and their struggles with the invisible dark cloud in their lives. A look at contemporary consciousness, for sure. Except for Ben, the enigmatic Gatsby.
Though I feel I’m wrong to describe him so caricaturely, his problem is that he’s a closed book and offers no clue to what his text reads. Neither secretive nor shy, but perhaps both are still true, it’s just that he doesn’t let it be know what void he has to fill, not like the other characters do. This feeds leads me into ‘Burning’’s pivotal scene, the one where we realize that we were never secure knowing what Ben is capable of. Innocent by perception but in a single scene, I shuffled in my seat, watching a well mannered introvert suddenly pull out marijuana and confess of his need to burn other people’s greenhouses – while I get the feeling that he’s talking sub-textually to a practicing writer (one which Ben is adamant that his is a writer if he writes).
I’ll leave you with that because I don’t want to point you in any directions, but I’ll say with certainty that a conversation on metaphor can never be taken lightly in something inspired by Murakami, which leans into Faulkner, and constructs ambiguity to be such an influence over whether we join Jong-su in feeling suspicious about Ben or not.
Ben appears to have resolve, he’s peaceful with his philosophy – a luxury afforded by his wealth. It’s that wealth which affords whatever price he pays for spiritual satisfaction, a privilege not offered to the everyday work grinders like Jong-su and Hae-Mi (and perhaps yourself, and definitely I). It’s this kind of layered character work and insight that gives ‘Burning’ its gradual, finely shaded conflict.
Look at him when he’s sat in his gatherings. Tell me you don’t see a stranger, burned out and tired with sadness. Maybe look again. When he looks at Jong-su he’s threatening him to keep his distance, or is he resisting Jong-su’s floundering antagonization? Look again at his sadness, his quietness, his presence, his sincerity to be there, wherever he is, the way he responds openly to people – but then again at how blasé he is at pivotal plot developments for certain characters. There’s so much that Ben understands that we just don’t know. And we’re dying in not knowing.
The feeling of Ben’s inwardness is a work of true finesse. Between Steven Yeun’s superb performance and director Lee Chang-Dong’s skilled practice of balancing the slow revelations of his nuanced character, they have truly made silk for the spider’s web. An immaculate outcome of two amazing collaborators. This is the show-stealer next to the exquisite, polished jewel of a script and an inspired vision.
That’s why ‘Burning’ isn’t painted like other noir, it has brushes of jazz and silhouettes, indeed, but it’s not putting noir on the canvas. To be short about a long conversation, most noir is melodrama. Every inch of a dissected noir is plot beats and interesting places with mood as a veil. Like a detective, it cares about Who, What, Where, When, Why and How – thrown in a scrabble bag and arranged to wrangle maximum suspense, whereas ‘Burning’ wants to take these elements to explore the soul of contemporary Korea, its civilians trapped in class struggles and the generational despair. See ‘Burning’, go into it with the mindset that you’re ready to see something tonally closer to ‘The Long Kiss Goodnight’, maybe with a hint of ‘Gone Girl’, and you’ll be on the right wavelength.
Written by Joseph McFarlane
Rating – 10/10
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