July 17, 2019

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Korean drama shocks with slow burn

deck deck deck

Well Go USA</p><p>Walking Dead actor Steven Yuen plays the polished, polite Ben in Lee Changdong’s Burning. </p>

Well Go USA

Walking Dead actor Steven Yuen plays the polished, polite Ben in Lee Changdong’s Burning.

The threat is there from the beginning, in this haunting social and psychological drama from Korean writer-director Lee Chang-dong (Poetry, Secret Sunshine).

It’s hard to say exactly when this drama of three young South Koreans and their seemingly aimless, shifting relationship morphs into a thriller. An expanded adaptation of a story by Haruki Murakami, Burning (in Korean, with subtitles) is a masterful exploration of mood, its mundane moments gradually building up an ambiguous but inescapable sense of tension and menace. By the time the shocking final scene bursts into full flame, you realize the violence was there all along.

Jong-su (The Throne’s Yoo Ah-in) is an awkward introvert barely getting by with a series of low-paying, dead-end jobs. One day on a crowded street in Seoul, he meets the impulsive and unpredictable Hae-mi (newcomer Jeon Jong-seol). She is from his hometown of Paju, though their memories of this shared childhood seem oddly different and he can’t quite recall her face. Plastic surgery, she explains (“I’m pretty now”).

They sleep together once, a scene handled with poignant, painful naturalism. Hae-mi asks Jong-su to look after her cat while she’s travelling, a task he dutifully performs even though he never actually sees the animal — and Hae-mi’s micro-apartment is less than 150 square feet.

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The threat is there from the beginning, in this haunting social and psychological drama from Korean writer-director Lee Chang-dong (Poetry, Secret Sunshine).

It’s hard to say exactly when this drama of three young South Koreans and their seemingly aimless, shifting relationship morphs into a thriller. An expanded adaptation of a story by Haruki Murakami, Burning (in Korean, with subtitles) is a masterful exploration of mood, its mundane moments gradually building up an ambiguous but inescapable sense of tension and menace. By the time the shocking final scene bursts into full flame, you realize the violence was there all along.

Jong-su (The Throne’s Yoo Ah-in) is an awkward introvert barely getting by with a series of low-paying, dead-end jobs. One day on a crowded street in Seoul, he meets the impulsive and unpredictable Hae-mi (newcomer Jeon Jong-seol). She is from his hometown of Paju, though their memories of this shared childhood seem oddly different and he can’t quite recall her face. Plastic surgery, she explains ("I’m pretty now").

They sleep together once, a scene handled with poignant, painful naturalism. Hae-mi asks Jong-su to look after her cat while she’s travelling, a task he dutifully performs even though he never actually sees the animal — and Hae-mi’s micro-apartment is less than 150 square feet.

When Hae-mi asks Jong-su to meet her at the airport on her return, she has brought along Ben (Steven Yuen of The Walking Dead), a polished and polite guy she met in Nairobi. Ben has vast wealth and no clear job. Jong-su, an aspiring writer, calls him "the Great Gatsby."

This triangular relationship unfolds through dinners, drinks, clubbing and smoking dope. Jong-su’s resentment and envy simmer, especially when he sees that Ben views the guileless Hae-mi as a curiosity he can exhibit to his bored, wealthy friends.

Ben also has a voyeuristic interest in Hae-mi’s emotions. He admits he finds other people’s tears fascinating because he himself can’t cry, or maybe even feel. He later confesses to Jong-su that his hobby is burning down abandoned greenhouses, adding that he’s scouting for his next "project" near Jong-su’s broken-down family farm.

After an enigmatic turning point, Jong-su’s obsession with Ben gets cranked up, leading to Vertigo-like scenes of cars following cars, with Jong-su’s clapped-out truck trailing Ben’s sleek Porsche. The exact outlines of this fixation remain ambiguous, partly because Lee is interested in larger mysteries.

Burning explores the situation of dislocated youth in a divided country. Hae-mi’s crummy apartment is always dark and cold, but once a day, she tells Jong-su, the sun reflecting off the Seoul Tower lights it up for a brief moment.

Referencing Korea’s massive youth unemployment and crippling credit-card debt, Lee suggests that modern urban prosperity remains for many people a fleeting, flashing promise.

With patient physical observation, Lee contrasts Hae-mi’s crammed, cramped room with Ben’s expansive, ruthlessly minimalist apartment. He suggests a rift between country and city, between a traditional past and a consumerist mirage of the future. All three characters are adrift, their family ties cut. Paju, once a productive rural area, has become a mostly scrubby waste-ground, full of those abandoned greenhouses Ben finds so alluring.

There’s also the space between men and women. Burning explores an undercurrent of misogyny, not just in Ben’s condescension toward Hae-mi but in Jong-su’s desperate and increasingly resentful and possessive love. Hae-mi, beset by expectations, dreams of escape, but as one female character sardonically suggests, "There is no country for women."

The subtext is pointedly political but always expressed through Lee’s subtle cinematic intensity, with evocative views of murky interiors and landscapes that dissolve into dusk and darkness. The three lead performances, layered and enigmatic, match this ambiguity, making Burning a powerful and poetic mystery.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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