Burning (Beoning , South Korea, 2018)

Twilight youth

This is the first Lee Chang-dong (he directed and co-wrote) film I’ve seen so I’ve obviously been missing out. It’s a slow burner that trades in ambiguity on many levels. If your protagonist, Jong-su played by Yoo Ah-in, is a writer (even if he doesn’t know what he wants to write about) the possibilities of a meta-fiction are raised, particularly when it’s based on a Murakami Haruki short story, itself based on William Faulkner’s ‘Barn Burning’. Faulkner’s Jong-su’s favourite writer and if it sounds like we may dealing with postmodern stupidity then I’ve misled you. Lee’s film is resolutely political as it deals with the travails and three youngster’s suffering, like many millennials because of globalisation, from ennui well before their time.

One of the characters, Ben played by Steven Yuen known particularly for The Walking Dead (US, 2010-), is rich and runs a Porsche. The source of his riches remains unexplained as does the exact nature of his relationship with Haemi (debutant Jun Jong-seo), the free-spirited young woman who seduces Jong-su at the start of the film. Being ‘free-spirited’ requires, apparently, dancing topless in front of the young men though the way it is shot is certainly more spiritual and sexual. Possibly to mitigate the potential sexism of the scene, there’s a brief conversation with another young woman who bemoans South Korean society’s vilification of females who are always ‘too much one thing and not enough of the other’. However, despite the fact Haemi has more ‘go’ than the men about her as she seeks the Great Hunger (the meaning of life), she is less the focus than Jong-su and Ben; boys’ stories apparently being more important.

The film doesn’t praise men but interrogates tangentially their existential angst: Ben is an empty shell surrounded by affluence; Jong-su has nowhere to go having been effectively abandoned by his parents and unable to parlay his creative writing degree into a career. In one scene he’s being interviewed for a job with six others and they are referred to as numbers; no wonder he walks away.

Hong Kyung-pyo’s cinematography is great: I’ve never seen desiccated plastic look so good (one of Ben’s apparent pass times is burning dilapidated greenhouses) as is the music; it includes Miles Davis’ for Lift to the Scaffold (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, France, 1958) when Haemi dances at twilight. I say ‘apparent’ because this may be an example of Ben’s braggadocio; he also claims he has superior DNA so never gets ill. This sounds big headed until we find he’s talking to his mum and so could simply be playfulness.

The 148 minute running time doesn’t drag and although the film’s cerebral it’s not difficult. Despite feeling slightly uncomfortable with the trope of ‘the female as a catalyst that helps men to understand themselves’, that doesn’t compromise the film. Haemi reminded me of the character Meimei/Moudan in Suzhou River (Suzhou he, Germany-China-France, 2000), which was a riff on Hitchcock’s Vertigo to which the Sight and Sound reviewer compares Burning. The film is allusive as well as elusive. The way these men ‘find themselves’ is not American style ‘self discovery’ but one that’s entirely in keeping with the mess humanity has got itself in by worshiping the god of profit – capitalism.

I always try and avoid spoilers in my posts and so won’t deal with the ambiguity mentioned at the start. There are plenty of what might be half-trues throughout the film and my reading is Lee is emphasising that, in life, if we think we know what we are doing, or what’s going on, then we are, at least in part, deluding ourselves. Like capitalism, bourgeois ideology trades in certainty; hence it cannot deal with the trauma of climate change which repudiates its basic principle of economic expansion. We would all be better off assuming we might not know what we’re doing rather than determinedly charging down a path that might lead to self-destruction. Many on the right accuse millennials of being ‘snowflakes’ to ensure older folk don’t need to feel guilty about the mess we’ve made of the world. They would do better to look in a mirror and consider themselves without certainty.

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