Shin Hae-mi’s (Jong-seo Jeon) apartment is very dark; sunlight only comes in once a day, when it is momentarily reflected off the Seoul Tower. Lee Jong-soo (Ah-in Yoo) sees it beaming upon the headboard while making love to her for the first time. He is mesmerised by this faint apparition, thinking that it represents the start of something beautiful. He should’ve taken it as a warning sign.
This image represents Burning in a nutshell, telling us to look past the literal to find the dark meaning beyond. Motifs of light and fire abound, as the film starts with just a tiny spark of attraction before finally conflagrating into a full-blown noir thriller. A masterpiece of misdirection, tension, and finely-tuned pacing, it’s reminiscent of the best Claude Chabrol movies for the way it depicts the nature of evil within a home-baked setting.
Hae-mi and Jong-soo grew up in the same village together, and are reacquainted when she spots him walking down the street while she is working at a raffle. She wins him a women’s watch, which he almost immediately gifts back to her as a present. So far so cute; what could go wrong? The thing is, Hae-mi has to take a trip to Africa in order to find herself first. Does Jong-soo mind feeding her cat while she’s away?
As Hae-mi asks this question, she does pantomime gestures with her hands. When simulating the presence of an object, she says, it’s not so much about pretending something is there, but not entertaining the possibility that it isn’t there. This contradictory theme of presence/absence is also represented by the cat Jong-soo is supposed to look after. He never sees the cat in the actual flat, but knows that it exists thanks to the mess in the litter. Small details such as these look like set-dressing at first, but they are carefully laid clues that will pay off later in both thematic and narrative terms.
Jong-soo’s love is challenged upon Hae-mi’s return, as she brings along another Korean man she met at Nairobi airport named Ben (Steven Yeun). This new man basically everything that the farm-living Jong-soo can’t be. He lives in the wealthy area of Gangnam, he drives a Porsche, and (in true Murakami style) he listens to jazz music while cooking pasta. The two suitors manage to discuss literature and Jong-soo’s plans for his first novel, trying their best to ignore the awkward tension growing between them. During one of these conversations, Hae-mi asks the men: “what’s a metaphor?” Tellingly, neither of them answer.
Transcribing Murakami represents a challenge for filmmakers, as the value of his writing consists more in the way he writes than what he writes about. He likes to have his characters plainly tell anecdotes that eventually become related to broader themes. The problem this poses for filmmakers is figuring out how to make that feel cinematic. Yet with such understanding of the material, and by juxtaposing dialogue-heavy scenes with those imbued with genuine beauty or dramatic tension, Lee Chang-dong keeps that engine churning right until the very end.
Throughout this playful meta-narrative, Lee invites the viewer to avoid literal interpretations. There is a dark centre to the story that cannot be easily solved or pinned down, not so much evoking any one thing in particular so much as suggesting unknown evils constantly lingering outside of our knowledge. Combining philosophy with a drizzly, noir mood, Burning sees the former novelist director in full command of his technique. Simply put, this is dazzling stuff.