Burning: A Grin without a Cat

(South Korea, 148 min.)
Dir. Lee Chang-dong, Writ. Lee Chang-dong, Jungmi Oh
Starring: Ah-In Yoo, Steven Yeun, Jong-seo Jeon
Ah-In Yoo, Jong-Seo Jeon and Steven Yeun star in Burning
Burning is a slow and difficult film. South Korea's Oscar bid is lethargic even by the standard with which one approaches a film by auteur Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine, Poetry). Lee has mastered the art of slow cinema, rarely making a movie that clocks in under two hours and twenty minutes, so what Burning lacks in immediate payoff it enjoys in long-term gain. See it in a theatre and leave your phone behind—or, if watching Burning at home, turn the phone off, remove the battery, and leave both parts in different rooms. This is the kind of movie from which one can easily be distracted, since the action happens almost imperceptibly in Lee’s carefully measured frames. Miss not a beat, lest ye be lost forever. The film is a slow burn with a sting that creeps up a day later.

The loose semblance of Burning’s plot follows young Lee Jong-su, played by Ah-In Yoo, who encounters a friend from his past while on a delivery. His old neighbour, Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon), has grown up to become a flirtatious knockout (with some help from plastic surgery), and Jong-su is instantly smitten. An awkward boy, Jong-su doesn’t seem to have much experience with girls, but a few drinks and a quick fuck later, he’s hooked.

Hae-mi is more of a free spirit, though, and she goes on a trip to Africa shortly after their friendship (with benefits) begins. Jong-su, quickly whipped, dutifully agrees to visit her apartment and feed her cat, Boil, while she’s away. Here’s the thing, though: Hae-mi’s apartment is smaller and more cramped than a dorm room. Lee offers a grin without a cat in his playful game of showing and telling, of which he tends to do neither, and Jong-su sees everything in the apartment except the little kitty. Boil seems to eat his food, leaves a poop, and vanish into thin air.

The absence of the cat is significant, especially since Jong-su spends a lot of time in Hae-mi’s apartment while she’s away. He basks in the brief flicker of sunshine that emerges through her porthole of a window and fondly enjoys the view while masturbating in her room. He leaves his scent all over Hae-mi’s abode in her absence.

Lee kicks things up a notch in the second act when Hae-mi returns from Africa and introduces Jong-su to a friend she met during her travels. The new stranger is Ben (Steven Yeun) and he is everything that Jong-su is not: hot, confident, rich, and adventurous. Jong-su becomes instantly jealous of his cosmopolitan rival for Hae-mi’s affection. Tension mounts as Lee cuts back and forth between Ah-In’s blank, innocent face and Yeun’s darker, edgier charm. Battle lines are drawn in an unspoken feud of toxic masculinity.

The centrepiece of the film comes quickly as Hae-mi and Ben make a surprise visit to Jong-su’s family farm. (The young man looks after the property while his father stands trial for assaulting a police officer, but we’ll get to that later.) The threesome splits some wine and passes around a reefer as they await the sunset. Sex is in the air, as is often the case with young inebriated adults (especially in the movies), and the setting sunlight hits Hae-mi just right. She performs a seductive dance, not for the boys, but more for herself, although one can appreciate that some viewers might fault Lee for falling into a male gaze fantasy trope in the film’s strongest moment.

As Hae-mi waves her hands in the air, flowing with the wind to the tune of Miles Davis’s jazzy trumpet on “Générique,” Burning offers the best of Lee’s art for slow cinema. This pensive moment of ecstasy and longing offers a hypnotic interlude as the warm sunset ballet provides a brief respite from the simmering tension. All the cards are still in play, however, as Ben drunkenly confesses to Jong-su his ulterior motive for the visit: he loves to set greenhouses on fire and hopes to find his next victim in Jong-su’s vicinity.

A dark turn leads to the film’s third act and Lee calls upon the audience to play detective. Jong-su propels himself into the role of saviour, inquisitor, and, eventually hunter as he searches for Hae-mi. His friend seems to have pulled off a vanishing act worthy of her cat boil, although there are random shards of evidence—a phone call here, a suitcase there—that suggest that flighty young Hae-mi didn’t run off on another trip. Everything that comes before the third act is a clue in its puzzling mystery.

Lee baits the audience with red herrings and misdirection so that there are many plausible scenarios to Burning’s gnarled enigma. The smart casting of Ah-In and Yeun as the male rivals is one of the film’s pleasures as the contrasting personalities, screen presence, and acting styles of the men create a natural face-off between the Alpha and the Beta. Burning builds to a showdown between the men as Lee creates characters who are different on the surface, but share traits too commonly associated with their sex. The film simmers with male rage as Jong-su and Ben play a cat and mouse game with one another and Hae-mi’s life presumably serves as the prize.

Most reviews and programming notes liken Burning to a thriller, but if one needs to peg this enigmatic film, one could argue that it fits well within the lineage of South Korean horror films. Many of the best Asian fright fests are all about the slow burn as audiences follow wayward protagonists and villains towards a brief violent climax. The same goes for Burning, which ensnares its audience in a tangled web of everyday horror. It’s about the generations of male aggressors, noted in the play-by-play of the trial of Jong-su’s father, who enact violence daily. Seemingly mundane settings are perfect traps for predators. There are fields of them with crops of unsuspecting victims to sow. When Lee finally provides the shock of violence we’ve been anticipating, it’s unnervingly—and effectively—unsatisfying.

Burning opens in Toronto at the Lightbox on Nov. 2 and in Vancouver at Vancity Theatre on Nov. 9.