Formerly of Cannes Film Festival esteem and presently South Korea’s submission for “Best Foreign Language Film” at the 2019 Oscars, Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning” is a scorching character drama that singes convention. It combines the internal paranoia of “Hamlet” and the elusive mysteriousness of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” with haunting ferocity. Grappling with class frustration, unrequited desire, and existentialism, Chang-dong’s slow-burn thriller has more on its mind than surface pretense suggests. In an already stacked foreign-language race, “Burning” still manages to cast intense illumination on its engrossing dark center.
Enter Jong-su Lee (Yoo Ah-in), a working-class man in his late twenties whose father recently passed. With dreams of someday rising to the same literary career heights as his favorite author, William Faulkner, Jong-su’s ambition is curtailed upon repossession of the family farm. Before leaving the vibrant city of Puja for an unfulfilled pastoral life, Jong-su runs into an old childhood friend he barely recognizes. This former classmate, Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-soo), is also wading through early adulthood at a slower pace. The two bond over their pining of life’s wealth of riches beyond the material. After platonic turns passionate, Hae-mi is whisked from Lee’s embrace for a life-altering trip to Africa. When Hae-mi finally returns, she brings back a new friend, Ben (Steven Yeun), an upper-class young socialite with Gatsby’s charm but none of his humanity.
Ben masterfully spurns Hae-mi into his social circle, politely allowing Lee to tag along but always as a fringe observer. Yoo Ah-in astounds at masking Lee’s climbing fear with a gaping stare that reads utterly complacent and devoid of challenge. Sensing a malevolent and wicked soul beneath Ben’s confident exterior, Lee attempts to avoid the flirtatious pair. However, Ben insists on throwing his aristocratic stature in Lee’s face whenever possible. Soon thereafter, Ben and Hae-mi make an unannounced visit to Lee’s farm (intentionally situated on the North/South Korean border). Ben’s presence is a subtle way of reminding Lee that he’s condemned to this “embarrassing” livelihood forever. As the sun begins to set, Hae-mi finds the grandeur of the land to be nostalgic bliss. Remembering her upbringing with warmth instead of typical reflective apathy, Hae-mi dances topless in front of her male onlookers, transcended by the natural surroundings.
It’s after this climactic and breathtaking sequence – courtesy of immensely talented cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo – that genre finally takes hold. Transforming from quiet character study to full-blown psychological thriller, “Burning” finally ignites the flame it long withheld. Without spoiling too much, suffice it to say that Ben and Lee’s rivalry grows to spine-tingling levels of contention. Veiled threats potentially carry lethal impact. There’s even a pissing contest over who’s more worthy of appreciating William Faulkner. The lesson imparted is that provoking those with nothing to lose always ends in a pool of mutual regret.
Lee Chang-dong coaxes sublime performances from his trio of actors. Steven Yeun, in particular, makes a giant case for himself in the “Supporting Actor” Oscar category. Second perhaps to Alessandro Nivola’s work in “Disobedience,” so much of what is expressed is done in the most understated yet powerful of ways. Yuen displays sophistication and extroverted dominance, though his sly smile and cunning gaze tell a different story underneath. Ben is a man who has everything and yet, something about his superficial world is lacking. He is drawn to free-spirited individuals without the pressures of social and financial upkeep. However, with that attraction comes a simmering jealousy, which Lee suspects might reveal itself in barbaric ways.
Jeon Jong-Soo, though impressive, is served weakest by the script, which takes a somewhat problematic “male gaze” perspective on her character contributions. Fewer histrionics and more interior unraveling from Hae-mi would have elevated “Burning” to a higher consummate achievement.
As it stands, Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning” is a pivotal look at the underlying war among a class that still persists. Pulsating with emotion and raging internal strife, this winner of the FIPRESCI prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Choice equivalent) leaves an ash-stricken trail of horror. The lengths taken to hurt the unfortunate and underprivileged are nothing short of an abomination. Humanity grows ever more fragile the further we damage each other. As depicted in staggering abundance in “Burning,” the evil manifested from within eventually lays waste to the Earth.
“Burning” is distributed by Well Go USA Entertainment and opens in New York on October 26th and Los Angeles on November 2nd.