Suspicions are high in Korean horror film Burning, directed by Lee Chang-dong. The film celebrated its Texas Premiere at the 2018 Fantastic Festival in Austin, and it was one not to be missed. I caught it on Friday, and I’m still unpacking my thoughts.
A beautifully poetic mystery based on the short story by Haruki Murakami, Burning follows Lee (Yoo Ah-in), a young layabout and wannabe writer who’s taking care of his father’s farm after he faces impending incarceration. He soon bumps into Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), a former school chum who invites him to share in her work break. This casual date soon becomes post-work drinks.
Haemi is charming and carefree in a way that few are able to pull off. Still, their first night re-kindling of what might not have even been a friendship to begin with (at one point Haemi reveals Lee may not have been very nice to her in school, calling her “fat”), Haemi asks Lee to feed her cat while she is off having the adventure of a lifetime in Africa.
The cat, unseen for the duration of her two-week vacation (apart from a used litterbox), serves as almost a metaphor for the mystery that doesn’t materialize until well into the second act. There is nothing suspicious yet – the cat is eating his food, drinking his water – but then again, why haven’t we seen him? And too, when looking at the larger picture – we know we’re heading toward a mystery. So we continue to collect the puzzle pieces, make assumptions about our characters, all the while waiting for that darn cat.
It is while petsitting Haemi’s cat that Lee’s affection for her grows. Her tiny apartment scattered in dissaray, mementos, photographs.. There’s also the sheer intimacy of Haemi’s request. In adulthood, Lee is a stranger. Her life, her possessions are vulnerably displayed and accessible to him. Something about this smells off.
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When Haemi returns, she makes the flippant, borderline arrogant request that Lee pick her up from the airport. Lee has quickly slid into the role of an errand boy, and he’ll struggle most of the film to feel like an equal. This request goes from borderline to all-the-way arrogant when we discover she has instead brought the dashingly handsome Ben (Steven Yeun, The Walking Dead) along for the ride.
This is very evidently intimidating to Lee. Ben is cool, confident, smooth, and clearly wealthy. It gets worse after the trio share an awkward meal and go to part ways – with Ben opting to drive himself and Haemi the rest of the way home in his silver Porsche. Lee climbs into his sad farm truck, forlorn. Why didn’t Haemi call and cancel after meeting Ben? Why didn’t she at least have the decency to ride home with him?
The litter box is filling with poop again. But still, no cat. (Yes, I just made a cat poop metaphor. There’s a time and place for everything.. I guess?)
While the pre-mystery continues to build with third-wheel scene after third-wheel scene, a very poetic sadness seeps out of Haemi during vulnerable moments. We become Lee, and fall hopelessly in love with her. We are sorrowful at every glimpse of the darkness that creeps from deep inside of her. We want to hear her. To cry with her. To sway with her, and call out that we feel the same. It’s these moments we almost forgive her for cruelly friend-zoning Lee, for enviably breezing through life. She isn’t as carefree as she seems.
Burning is filled with beautiful glimpses of human emotion. While we exist within this extended reality of this universe for – some would argue – too long, our characters all have something to share, and walls must wear down in order to achieve that. The setup is altogether mysterious, but there are so many beautifully symbolic expressions of the human condition, life, death and yearning – that I found myself absolutely enthralled. Mystery or not. Cat or none.
“The enigma at Burning’s core culminates with a Hitchcockian level of mystery.”
Once Ben finally reveals his true intentions, our suspicions have been simmering so long that we boil over. We are Lee again, confused and erratic. Rash and desperate. Picking up the pieces of the clues that have been driving us wild all along, trying to configure them in a way that spells out just who Ben is, and what he’s capable of. We will always be chasing him, two steps behind. The enigma at Burning’s core culminates with a Hitchcockian level of mystery, and I won’t divulge it here. Know that every moment will be questioned, and it pays to be patient. Feed the cat.
Ultimately, Burning’s slow pace and extended runtime may be a turn-off for some, but those who exercise that itty bitty skill so lost on a modern, plugged-in society will be greatly rewarded. Do it, and you might just see the cat.
Burning celebrated its Texas premiere at the 2018 Fantastic Festival. Check out all of Nightmare on Film Street’s Fantastic Fest coverage here!