When acclaimed South Korean director Lee Chang-dong opened his new film ‘Burning’ last year at the Cannes Film Festival, the critical response was instantaneous and ecstatic. It was called a "masterpiece" and "the best film of the decade", and even though the Palme D’Or went to the wondrous ‘Shoplifters’, many named it the best film of the festival. ‘Burning’ then went on to be shortlisted for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, and even though it wasn’t ultimately nominated (to widespread bafflement), it was absurdly that it was the first South Korean film to make it that far in the shortlisting process. And yet, apart from screenings at MIFF, SFF and other festivals, it’s only now that wider Australian audiences are able to see ‘Burning’ for themselves, and discover whether its overwhelming praise was justified.
Based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, ‘Burning’ focuses on Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), a young aspiring writer who has been left with the responsibility of caring for the family farm after his father is arrested. One day, he reconnects with Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), an old classmate from his village. Before she goes on an overseas trip, they start to form a more intimate connection, but when she returns from her trip with a new friend Ben (Steven Yeun, ‘Sorry to Bother You’), a handsome and wealthy young socialite, that connection comes under threat, throwing Jong-su’s life into a state of chaos.
Unfolding with the care and density of a great novel, ‘Burning’ is one of those films that comes along very rarely, a staggering feat of storytelling and craft woven into a haunting emotional experience. Through meticulous plotting and rich characterisation, Lee Chang-dong presents a beguiling mystery around the nature of ownership, the need to possess and be possessed, and the terrible consequences of such behaviour. Both Jong-su and Hae-mi are lost souls adrift, desperate to belong to someone. The arrival of Ben, a man who can have anything he wants, offers the opportunity to find that belonging and threatens what is already there. Ownership and entitlement weaves through all facets of ‘Burning’. It exists in the microcosmic triangle between the three protagonists, in Jong-su’s selfish and self-destructive parents, even on a national level, North Korean propaganda blasted through speakers from across the border or societal expectations of the behaviours of young people. It also presents a foul portrait of class divide and the distribution of wealth, the grime of Jong-su’s farm and the restricting size of Hae-mi’s apartment in startling contrast to Ben’s easy luxury. This is a film of vast concerns, but the way in which it is able to balance them, entwine them within the arcs of its characters, and still manages to breathe freely with emotional ambiguity, is often breathtaking. Lee Chang-dong and cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo (‘Snowpiercer’) strike a hypnotic balance between immediate and considered, moments of dynamic realism mixed with sequences as if conceived in a dream, where the inner world of the characters bursts forth with devastating ferocity and shocking beauty.
In its third act though, the narrative takes an unexpected turn, diving into a quiet and insidious mystery, and in the process unearths a more unsettling subtext of ownership and male entitlement over women. Ownership becomes domination, privilege becomes power, and lack of status becomes both a fetish and a disease, and as the film carefully hurtles towards some kind of emotional reckoning for Jong-su, Lee Chang-dong carefully pulls the curtains back just enough, just enough to tease us with an answer but to make it clear - as all great mysteries do - that the solution isn’t as important as the questions surrounding it. Crafted with uncompromising confidence, the film moves like a piece of infernal clockwork, every element perfectly calibrated. Lee Chang-dong’s command of the narrative and tone is meticulous; not a single frame of this film is wasted, every moment perfectly shaped, and its cold precision only helps to amplify the impossible emotional depths within the characters and the narrative.
That level of controlled depth extends into the three remarkable central performances. As Ben, Steven Yeun demonstrates a level of detail and command we’ve never seen from him before, a man of perfect facades and dangerous secrets, where every move and every word has been considered and exists to serve him and him alone. His smile is a weapon, his eyes are a drug, his handsomeness there to intimidate and arouse and suppress all at once, and frankly, it’s fucking astounding. As Hae-mi, Jeon Jong-seo gives us a shimmering portrait of someone dancing on the edge of disaster, where her blind fear of her own existence threatens to overtake her at any moment. Hae-mi is such an emotionally-driven character, but at no point does Jeon Jong-seo ever relinquish control of that emotion, knowing exactly when and how to use it to devastating effect.
A staggering feat of storytelling and craft woven into a haunting emotional experience.
For me though, the heart and horror of the film lies in Yoo Ah-in’s performance as Jong-su, the ultimate portrait of the lost young man, the forgotten soul so desperate to belong to someone and to have purpose, and driven by quiet, panicked desperation at the thought it may never happen. His depiction of young masculinity, pulled between adult responsibility and parental figure expectation, romantic ideals and carnal desires and the need to prove oneself a man of worth, is full-bodied and complete, and as the centre pivot of the film, he personifies every drop of anger and hope and horror at its heart.
As it turns out, all that acclaim was justified - ‘Burning’ truly is a masterpiece, a remarkable work of modern cinema, a desperate and infernal poem on the deep terror of being a human being. This is a film that hypnotises you and never lets you go, even after you leave the cinema. The state that ‘Burning’ invokes, a state somewhere between asleep and awake, between hope and despair, between anger and horror, between violence and submission, is complete and unbroken, a work where everything that cinema is and cinema can be exists within it. It’s absurd how flawless, how perfect a film it is. For Australian audiences, this is easily the first truly great film of the year, and yes, one of the great films of this decade.