Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning” initially presents itself as a simple boy-meets-girl tale, set in South Korea. Protagonist Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo), a young deliveryman who passively dreams of putting his degree in creative writing to use, bumps into his childhood friend Haemi (Jong-seo Jun) while she dances outside a discount store to attract customers. They catch up over dinner and sleep together that night, with Jongsu becoming so enamored of the spirited Haemi that he agrees to feed her cat while she travels to Kenya to satiate what she calls her “great hunger” for life experience.
Although Jongsu fills the cat’s bowl with food each day, he never actually sees the animal, a manifestation of the uncertainty that lurks throughout the film. Gradually, “Burning” begins its descent into thriller territory when Haemi returns from Kenya with Ben (Steven Yeun), a charming, slightly older man who lives in Gangnam and has everything Jongsu doesn’t: money, friends and some sort of romantic relationship with Haemi. Yet despite this, Ben still seems dissatisfied with his life, telling Jongsu that he sets greenhouses on fire every two months for fun: In just 10 minutes, Ben says, he can “burn it all down, as if it never existed.”
Based on Haruki Murakami’s 1992 short story “Barn Burning,” the film is a captivating character study that takes its most poignant scene directly from Murakami’s story. Shortly before a central character goes missing, Ben and Haemi visit Jongsu at his home in the countryside, situated so close to the North Korean border that they can hear the propaganda broadcasts. As Ben and Jongsu relax outside, basking in the dusk light, Haemi begins to dance, swaying to jazz music and removing her top. But her performance is as much for herself as for the two men; she is free of all constraints and, for once, doesn’t feel trapped.
As the film’s object of desire, the character of Haemi comes close to being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but Jun’s performance has enough depth to steer clear of that cliche. Making her screen debut, the actress manages to capture both Haemi’s wide-eyed innocence and her troubled spirit. In one dinner scene, she playfully pantomimes peeling tangerines with as much energy as she brings to a scene in which she bemoans her existence.
Jongsu complements her erratic nature, with Yoo’s expressionless baby face deliberately revealing little about what he thinks or feels. He remains hard to read, even when Haemi reminds him that he once crossed the street to tell her she was ugly, before she got plastic surgery. Rage is the only emotion he expresses, as tension builds between the two men. (Tellingly, this theme is shared with the 1939 story “Barn Burning” by William Faulkner, Jongsu’s favorite author.)
But the standout performance belongs to Yeun, an America-based actor whose presence is commanding enough to shift the entire tone of the film. “Burning” marks his first foray into Korean cinema, and the actor’s quintessentially Western mannerisms add an unsettling dimension to the character of Ben. Yeun can even make a yawn seem menacing.
Lee plays the actors off one another to create a compelling exploration of human nature. South Korea’s official Oscar submission, “Burning” culminates in a finale so astonishing that it will sear itself into viewers’ memories for years to come.
Unrated. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema and the Angelika Film Center Mosaic. Contains graphic violence, drugs, sex, nudity and some strong language. In Korean with subtitles. 148 minutes.