The film opens on Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo) making a delivery to a shop where he clearly catches the eye of one of the girls working at the front, scantily clad and dancing to promote the store's sales. Her name is Haemi (newcomer Jong-seo Jun), and it turns out that she's an old neighbor, whom he ends up not recognizing. It might be because of the plastic surgery she had, she offers blithely, or it might be because his memory of his childhood waxes insubstantial most of the time. He clearly doesn't remember the time that he crossed the street to tell her she was ugly when they were kids, but that also doesn't stop him from being completely taken by her now. She becomes the object of his desire, partially because of her attraction to him, and partially because of his...well, objectification.
Murakami is known for writing accomplished, lonely men who exist vaguely alienated. Jongsu is certainly lonely, but in him simmers an anger as well as an existential ennui. He's an aspiring writer who can't write because he doesn't understand the world around him; he's a college graduate who can't hold down a job, a former creative writing major who cleans cow droppings. Surprisingly, Murakami's cypher makes a sort of appearance in the form of Ben (Steven Yeun), the man who arrives to become the point of the love triangle involving Jongsu and Haemi. Mysterious and cosmopolitan, not quite belonging, and yet affecting an easy privilege as he cooks pasta while listening to jazz. His laconic posture and obvious wealth stun a round-shouldered Jongsu, who is only a few years younger and can't fathom this kind of achievement. At first, he can only sit idly by while Ben sweeps Haemi off her feet.
While Murakami's writing tends to leave loose threads at the end, Lee has created a story that permeates the ambiguity throughout. It's carefully orchestrated to heighten its nebulous qualities and it does so masterfully. Several of the key scenes are shot at dusk (including one incredible dance to jazz music which searches for greater meaning only to disintegrate into its lack -- it's quite possibly one of my favorite scenes of the year), that time where night is as strong as day. Lee explores those imprecise boundaries constantly: Jongsu's old farmhouse is an area of land that is slowly becoming encroached upon by the city and he lives close enough to the DMZ that he can hear North Korean propaganda being blasted from across the border. Ben is a character that doesn't entirely belong in South Korea, and even his highly sophisticated language is peppered with oft-Anglicized words and the accent is just off enough to make you feel its foreignness even if it's impeccable otherwise. But more than that are the borders between morality, which are played with constantly here. Even a brief side view of a newscast of Trump reminds us that not everyone operates on the same rules of truth.
Burning is stunning in every facet. The actors live their parts rather than act them out; there is a deep understanding that they have achieved of their characters that we as an audience will never fully know. Yeun is a revelation, making a new turn as a sinister, indeterminate figure. The story hinges on both the familiarity and stark unknowableness of his character, and Ben is at turns terrifying and suave. There's so much he claims to not feel and so much he gives the affectation of knowing, but neither stops him from thoroughly enjoying the spectacle before him. Yoo is a powerhouse of constrained emotion -- it's fitting that we never see the release of his masturbation and that one of his wrought confessions of love midway through the movie is just laughed away. Even as his helplessness and confusion mount however, the distortions are often only shown on his face in the aftermath of waking up from troubled dreams. Jun is also sensational here, literally fresh-faced, disarming in her childlike but not childish behavior. But it's the writing, the direction, and the colors that bring everything together. Burning is paced meticulously and it shouldn't surprise anyone that cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong's last film was The Wailing, which also has gorgeous fog-rimmed mountainous backdrops. Lee's beauteous long-shot takes subside into darkness, pushing the limits of what our eyes can make of expressions and feelings in the gloaming of its characters. His writing is clever and sophisticated, giving each character a different flavor, always revealing just enough to make us ask more.
I won't go into the details of the story, but it's clear that aspiring writer Jongsu isn't the only character who struggles to create a narrative, even going so far as to fabricate one when writing a petition partway through the film. Haemi is searching for what she calls "Great Hunger" and there's an effacement not only physically by changing what she looked like, but in the stories she weaves. There's a warring desire to be found, but also to disappear. Burning is about class disparity, an anger that has no outlet, and the destruction that comes from creating. Throughout the film, Lee gives us mysteries that will linger and mysterious characters. Who is Haemi? Who is Ben? The genius is that by the end, it burns out to ask us the actual question: Who is Jongsu?