In the tradition of great Asian cinema, “Burning” (2018) is intensely strange and immensely engrossing. Fittingly, lead actor Ah-in Yoo, as Lee Jong-su, seems to barely be giving a performance, but we’re right there with him as his life gets weirder and weirder.
A quiet recent college graduate, Jong-su wants to be a writer – although he’s quick to admit he has written nothing – but he works on his father’s small and diminishing ranch, where he takes care of a single calf he is hoping to sell. But the fascinating Shin Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun) keeps drawing him back into Seoul – at first by invites, but eventually by the magnetic hold she has on him.
Broadly reminiscent of the plot of “A Simple Favor” but operating on a grander scale, “Burning” starts with Jong-su reluctantly taking a raffle ticket from Hae-mi outside a storefront. He wins the drawing for a pink woman’s watch, and she offhandedly asks him out for a drink. He’s shy, but Hae-mi is beautiful, so of course he can’t say no. Before long, Jong-su is feeding her cat while she’s on vacation in Africa. When she returns, it’s with Ben (“Walking Dead” veteran Steven Yeun) in tow; they bonded in Kenya over being the only two Koreans there.
So now Jong-su has two fascinating oddballs in his life.
Without stating anything explicitly, the screenplay by the director and Jungmi Oh – based on a short story by Haruki Murakami – allows the viewer to project his own feelings onto Jong-su. Hae-mi seems to like him, but she’s also spending lots of time with Ben. What are her romantic aims? Is she toying with him? Is he misunderstanding their relationship?
Meanwhile, Ben is rich but — when asked what he does for a living — he says he “plays.” And Hae-mi is poor – piecing together pitchwoman jobs – yet she somehow can afford a trip to Africa. Jong-su is feeding her cat while she’s gone, yet he never sees the cat in the tiny apartment.
“Burning” is jam-packed with mysteries, not only the broader ones mentioned above, but also smaller ones. It’s the type of film that sucks you in with each new question to the point where every event becomes something from which you’re hoping to glean meaning.
And as much as Jong-su is the audience surrogate, his background is not fully explained either, so we feel complicit and a bit wary as he investigates Hae-mi’s disappearance, something that could be serious but could also have a valid explanation.
The answers turn out to be less satisfying than the questions, and that’s what keeps the film from full marks, but not to the point that you’ll regret the journey.
For Western viewers doing a bit of sightseeing via cinema, “Burning” – often through the windshield of Jong-su’s hulking industrial cab – also offers the pleasures of gaudy commercial districts in Seoul, bleak countrysides filled with rundown greenhouses, and glimpses of a lake and mountains.
A memorable moment finds the trio on the porch of Jong-su’s ramshackle abode, enjoying the sunset as a North Korean propaganda broadcast floats on the air from the other side of the mountains. We’re reminded of how thin the veneer of civilization is, but “Burning” is not a broad, statement-making film. It’s about Jong-su as he questions his own small but bizarre world – and those stakes seem plenty big.