In Lee Chang-Dong’s latest Korean film Burning, characters and viewers are taken on a journey that both fascinates and unsettles. The last thing Jong-Su, played by Yoo Ah-In, expects to happen when he runs into his childhood friend Hae-Mi, played by Jeon Jong-Seo, is for his life to turn into a game of cat and mouse with his new acquaintance, Ben, played by Steven Yeun.
The film opens with the camera following Jong-Su busy city sidewalk filled with vendors, customers and delivery men. As he makes his way to his delivery location, you not only hear sales pitches being made by store promoters and various radio stations, but subtitles were also provided allowing the viewers to fully experience what he did. While this may seem like a trivial thing to mention it shows how much attention to detail Lee gives the film, making the lack of subtitles for a particular scene all the more obvious and impactful, but more on that later.
When Jong-Su reaches his drop-off point, he notices one of the promotion girls looking at him. As he’s leaving she approaches and introduces herself as a childhood friend Hae-Mi. While taking a brief smoking break Hae-Mi invites him back to her place to catch-up and meet her pet cat whom he agreed to take care of while she travels across Africa. At the apartment, Hae-Mi calls for the cat but it never appears. Eventually, they start making out, and as they’re having sex Jong-Su seemingly becomes fascinated with the appearance of a prism on the bedroom wall caused by the setting sun reflecting off the famous Namsan Seoul Tower. The next day Jong-Su goes to his father’s home in the country where he has to take care of the lone cow in the barn, while his father is in prison for assault.
As the weeks go by, he spends his time caught in the new routine of making deliveries, going to Hae-Mi’s to feed her mysterious cat and occasionally work on his first book, looking after the farm and working on his first manuscript. In these moments we learn bit-by-bit who Jong-Su is. While he seems comfortable at Ha-Mi’s apartment — he even works on his manuscript there —, Jong-Su clearly feels the opposite inside the farmhouse,. The only time he looks relaxed is when he’s tending to the cow or smoking outside.
When Jong-Su goes to pick Hae-Mi up at the airport, the last thing he expects to find is for her to introduce him to her new friend Ben, who she met in Kenya. At dinner, the atmosphere is tense as Jong-Su awkwardly tries to converse with Ben, and Hae-Mi goes through sudden mood swings ranging from happy to despondency. In one scene — and throughout the film — Jeon shows what she’s capable of as an actress. With very subtle changes she’s able to convey Hae-Mi’s inner turmoil, allowing the viewer to empathize with someone we know nothing about beyond what is told. At the end the trio part ways, Ben drives off in his sleek black Porche, which a friend had dropped off, and Hae-Mi leaves with Jong-Su in his beat-up white Suzuki truck.
Later in the week, Hae-Mi invites Jong-Su to Ben’s place, a posh condo in heart of Seoul. As Ben prepares dinner, Jong-Su asks Hae-Mi if she can trust Ben and questions where his money comes from as he doesn’t have a job and makes a reference to ‘The Great Gatsby’, but she brushes his concern aside and leads him back inside.
A few days go by then Jong-Su receives a visit from Ben and Hae-Mi, walking through the house they pass the television showing footage of American president, Donald Trump. When they reach the porch, a voice can be heard being broadcast over a loud P.A. system. Ben asks, what it is, Jong-Su tells him its a North-Korean propaganda message, and the reason it’s so loud is because they’re right on the border between South and North-Korea. I found this was very interesting because the P.A. message was the one time there were no subtitles in the film, thereby highlighting many of Burning’s themes such as Jong-Su’s issues with classism, his proximity to danger, and being stuck in the middle of a situation he’s not sure how to get out of.
As the three of them sit, watching the sunset, Ben takes out a blunt, lights it and offers it for sharing. Now, this is where the individual character arcs really start shine for me. Even though Hae-Mi and Jong-Su are habitual smokers they have very different reactions to marijuana. Where she becomes relaxed to the point of going topless, Jong-Su coughs and seems uncomfortable at first, causing Ben to make his first and only genuine smile and laugh during the entire film. As Hae-Mi stands in silhouette, with arms raised imitating a flock of birds flying in the distance, Ben tells Jong-Su of his hobby of setting green-houses on fire and his intention to torch one close by. Jong-Su tries to shrug it off, but the seeds of doubt and fear have already begun to take root.
A few days later Jon-Su realizes that he hasn’t heard from Hae-Mi, worried that something has happened to her he goes to the condo. There he finds Ben and a group of his friends being regaled with stories by a young woman who bears a striking resemblance to Hae-Mi. As the camera focuses on Ben what at first glance appears to be a look of contentment is revealed to be anything but. You realize that look on his face is one of a man who cares nothing about the people he’s looking at, what he feels is disdain and possibly scorn. In that one moment Jong-Su and you, the viewer gets it. You see that Ben is quite possibly a psychopath, and Steven Yeun is amazing.
Known mostly for his role as Glenn Ree in The Walking Dead, character fans love because of his caring and impassioned nature, Yeun plays the complete opposite as Ben. Ben is a man who has money to travel on a whim, surrounds himself with people but prefers to watch from the periphery with a calculating and vaguely threatening air. While I was watching the film one phrase kept popping into my head every time Yeun was onscreen; “If looks could kill”, and I believed with every fiber of my being that if he could do it, Ben would kill every person sitting in his living room and feel absolutely no two ways about it. There are very few characters I’ve seen in the last few years that made me as uncomfortable as Ben, and as someone who prides herself on not being easily creeped out, I have to hand it to Steven Yeun for doing just that. His portrayal is a lesson that to achieve the best results less really is more.
From here the real cat and mouse game begins. Jong-Su becomes obsessed with finding not only Hae-Mi but also the greenhouse Ben wants to burn. While he literally runs around in a frenzy, Ben continues on unbothered. Yeun and Yoo play off of each other brilliantly. Yoo manages to keep a balance of Jong-Su’s inherent awkwardness, with a new sense of resolve and determination. As he puts the pieces together about what may have happened to Hae-Mi, Jong-Su becomes consumed by his anger, like the greenhouses engulfed in flames created by Ben.
With subtle changes in lighting, sound, and acting, Burning moves from a slow, somewhat awkward film, into one with uncomfortable and sinister undertones that make you tense without noticing, in a way the film is an embodiment of the main characters. Lee fills the film with subtle metaphorical warnings that beg to be noticed, beginning from Hae-Mi’s penchant of referring to past events that only she can recall, to what I think is Lee’s literal interpretation of Schrödinger’s cat, and most importantly the greenhouses — representative of youth — being destroyed.
In all my praise for Burning, I have to say that my one issue with it is that not enough time was spend with Hae-Mi as an individual. The reason you care about her has more to do with Jeong’s portrayal of her than what was written. As a character, she exists as motivation for Ben and Jong-Su and not for her own purpose. But I do think it’s very important that Burning, an Asian film, does a great job as a film that helps to further dispel the myth that Asian characters (and actors) are not expressive or emotional. All three main characters went through the gamut of human emotions, they were sexual beings, heroes and villains.
Burning was co-written by Lee Chang-Dong and Oh Jung-Mi and is based on the short story “Barn Burning” by Haruki Murakami. Since it’s premiere at the 2018 CANNES International Film Festival, the film has received numerous awards including the Fipresci International Critics’ Prize for best film. Burning opens in select American theatres October 26, and the TIFF Bell Light Box in Toronto November 2, 2018.
Watch the official TIFF18 trailer for Burning here.
Carolyn is a Freelance Film Critic, Journalist, and Podcaster – and avid live tweeter. Member of the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), her published work can be found on But Why Tho, The Beat, Observer, and many other sites. As a critic, she believes her personal experiences and outlook on life, give readers and listeners a different perspective they can appreciate.