One of my goals at the VIFF is to see at least one film which is a nation’s entry into the Academy Awards for the Best Foreign Language Film category. The first of three I saw during the VIFF was Burning from South Korea.
The film begins with Lee Jong-su performing odd jobs in Paju. One day he runs into a former neighbor and classmate from his childhood. Her name is Shin Mae-hi. Mae-hi confesses to Jong-su that she always liked him but he always ignored her. Could it be because he was a farmer’s son and she was more urban? At the date later on, Mae-hi tells Jong-su that she has pursued an acting career. She’s disappointed to see that Jong-su hasn’t pursued a career in writing as he wanted to do in college.
The romance sparks up so high, they have sex in her apartment. She lets Jong-su know she will have an acting gig in Nairobi very soon and she wants him to feed her cat. He agrees. Jong-su never sees the cat, but always sees the food gone and the litterbox used. Also when he’s at her place, he masturbates in her bedroom. Mae-hi returns, but three days later than expected because of a terror warning. Mae-hi also returns with a Korean man named Ben: a man she bonded with during the crisis. The three have dinner together. Mae-hi recalls a sunset she saw during the trip. She cries, confessing she wanted to disappear. Ben doesn’t understand why people cry and admits he never cried himself.
Jong-su has things to take care of back home. He has to look after the family house and farm as his father is awaiting trial. Jong-su often watches the relationship with Mae-hi and Ben from afar with envy. However he’s suspicious of Ben. Ben is confident, but doesn’t mention what he does for a living. Jong-su pays a visit to Ben’s place and notices an area where there is a lot of women’s jewelry and decorations in the bathroom. Jong-su later joins the couple in a restaurant. There Mae-hi shows them the dance she learned in Nairobi. Jong-su likes what he sees, but he notices Ben is unamused.
The trio then go to Jong-su’s farm where they find themselves getting high and Hae-mi dancing topless. Hae-mi recalls a memory where Jong-su rescues her from a well. After Hae-mi falls asleep on a sofa, Ben makes a confession to Jong-su that he like to burn an abandoned greenhouse every two months. He notes his area is full of greenhouses. Ben claims the next burning will be close to Jong-su’s house. Ben also tells Jong-su that Hae-mi considers him her best friend. But as she awakens from her drunkenness, Jong-su calls her a whore as they leave.
Jong-su takes this to heart as he is careful over the neighborhood to spot out of any gas houses are burned down. None are, but he receives something even more disturbing. He received a phone call from Hae-mi one night that cut out after that cut off after a few seconds of ambiguous noises. The concern grows as Jong-su makes call after call to Hae-mi with no response. He goes to her apartment which is surprisingly clean and shows no sign of the cat. Jong-su contact’s Hae-mi’s family, but they say they haven’t heard from her in some time and she owes them a lot of money. Even Ben makes claim of Hae-mi not returning calls as Jong-su approaches him.
Suspicious of it all, Jong-su starts stalking Ben. Ben is unaware that Jong-su is stalking him, but treats Jong-su with friendliness. Ben even introduces Jung-su to his new girlfriend and even says they have a new cat. As Jong-su makes his way to the bathroom, he sees the watch he gave Hae-mi. Looks like the truth about Ben and what happened to Hae-mi came out. It’s just after Jong-su’s father has been sentenced that we get the final act of the drama.
The film is a quiet mystery. I call it quiet because there is little if any score. The film quietly lets the events unravel as they happen. It lets the facts quietly but surely become clearer over time. We learn more about what happened to Mae-hi. Mae-hi may be very free as is expected of an artistic person, but no sign of her for a long time does rise to suspicion. We soon learn more about Ben. He comes across cool and confident and the type of person who wouldn’t hurt anyone, but it’s Jong-su who sees Ben’s true colors. We also learn more about Jong-su. Jong-su comes off as an awkward son of a temperamental farmer undecided about his dreams. Jong-su comes as the type of person too awkward to do anything seriously violent, but as truths unfold, the monster inside him comes out. The story comes just as his father is sentenced for his violent actions, Jong-su becomes judge, jury, and executioner on Ben. Having all this happen in a film with no score or any other cinematic gimmicks works well for the film. I think something like a musical score may have hurt the drama.
In addition, the film answers more with what we don’t see than what we see. The value of the unseen is first given credit involving the scenes of tending to Hae-mi’s unseen cat. We never see the cat and neither does Jong-su, but the food is eaten and the litterbox is used. The unseen is key for resolving the mystery of Ben. The unseen is where Ben acquired all the female jewelry and decorations. He talks of his ‘hobby’ of burning gashouses down. However it becomes more obvious about what these burning are. And it took the piece of Hae-mi’s jewelry just after Hae-mi goes missing to get the sense that Ben is a killer, and the burnings is a secret word for murder. It’s at the end that the burnt gashouse ends up being Ben’s car with a fatally-wounded Ben inside.
Top credits go to Lee Chang-dong. Lee has had an impressive film making career in South Korea. However it was 2003’s Oasis where he won the Best Director award at the Venice Film festival that he first caught international notice as well as the Chief Dan George Humanitarian Award at VIFF 2003. Poetry took his career to a new height after he won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. This film in which he directs and co-wrote the script with Oh Jung-mi is an excellent work of its own. It won the FIPRESCI Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Fest. Awards aside, the film does keep one intrigued. The story doesn’t make a lot of sense at first, but the drama slowly builds over time. Yoo Ah-In does a very good job as Jong-su. He does a great job of playing a character who first seems harmless, but has a monster inside of him. Steven Yeun, a Korean émigré to the United States, does a good job as playing a character cool and calm, but has a dark secret. Jeon Jong-seo is also very good as the free-spirited Hae-mi.
Burning is a suspense that starts quiet but slowly builds over time. Its quiet drama is its best asset and adds to the film.