By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Chang-dong Lee’s “Burning,” adapted from a short story by Japan’s Haruki Murakami, opens in a low-key fashion and moves along slowly. It runs more than two-and-a-half hours, and devotees of action, explosions, car chases, and fights might well come away disappointed. Stick with the film, though, and you’ll discover an unsettling inquiry into the nature of life, the nature of being, and the nature of trust.
It begins simply enough when Jongsu (played by Ah-in Yoo) goes walking in Seoul one day and finds an old friend from his hometown, Haemi (Jong-seo Jun, making her film debut). They share memories of old times over food and drinks. They wander aimlessly through the downtown lights.
You get the strong sense that Jongsu wants something more than a friendship, but he’s awkward in a charming sort of way. He thinks that if he hangs around Haemi long enough, she’ll get the hint. But Haemi’s often lost in her own thoughts, her own philosophies.
She’s also getting ready to leave on a trip that she’s expecting to completely change her life. She leaves Jongsu to care for her cat — a feline which is not seen, and just might not actually exist. That’s Haemi’s sense of humor, and a touch of her philosophy. Maybe, pretending something exists is more fun and interesting than the thing itself.
Jongsu waits for her to come back, his life pretty much on hold. She returns, but not alone. A flamboyant young Korean man called Ben (Steven Yeun) ran into her and glommed on to her while she was away. Ben’s got a fancy car, a fancy pad, a ready smile that smears into a superior smirk, and no forthright explanation for his wealth. “I play,” is all he’s willing to say, with one of those smirks.
Yeun came to fame through the American TV show “The Walking Dead,” which finds him fighting zombies across the map. “Burning” marks his first starring role in a South Korean film, and he holds the screen whenever he crosses it. You can tell simply by the way Ben holds his head, that he thinks himself better than anyone else around. Jongsu seems like a simple hick to him.
But, in a dynamic hardly limited to Koreans, the two men play at liking each other, pretend to tolerate each other. They act okay with each other’s company, but each one is thinking three’s a crowd. And of course, each one wants Haemi to himself.
Murakami’s original story, “Barn Burning,” appeared in “Playboy” magazine for the English-speaking market, then in the short-story collection “The Elephant Vanishes.” It’s several pages long, though a long way from novel length, and it emphasizes how mysterious each of the three protagonists seem to the other two. Motivations for the men seem obvious enough; they want the woman. But none of the protagonists have names (Murakami isn’t big on naming characters, figuring that if he writes compellingly, you’ll follow along without needing them).
And at the end of several pages, the mystery remains. “Come December, the birds strafe overhead,” remarks the first-person narrator, the man who becomes Jongsu in the film. “And I keep getting older.”
Director Lee, who co-wrote the movie script with Jung-mi Oh, has a more definitive answer in mind for the end of the movie story. All the unanswered questions fueling all the frustration, he seems to be saying, is eventually building up to something. A boiling point. Be forewarned, though. Even such a climax won’t answer all the questions, won’t clear the air entirely. No matter how you strike at it, sneer at it, or try to walk away from it, life remains a heavy haze.
“Burning” opens on Dec. 7 at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Avenue, Seattle. For prices, showtimes, and other information, visit nwfilmforum.org/films/burning-lee-chang-dong-steven-yeun.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.