Tom Hyde reviews Burning, a drama mystery with a dark twist.
In Lee Chang-Dong’s newest picture, one character uses the metaphor of burning greenhouses to surreptitiously confess a crime. It marks the turning point in a film that otherwise eschews inflection. Burning begins as it intends the viewer to believe it will go on: as the dignified – if slightly melancholic – Korean romantic drama expected from a February release date. It follows the story of Lee Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo), a part-time labourer in the South Korean city of Paju, after he meets an old school friend and potential love interest Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun). The couple’s courtship is somewhat plain in the outset: Jong-su is timid and withdrawn, leaving much of the flirtation to Hae-mi and her illusive pet cat. That is until, some menial day-to-days later, she returns from a holiday accompanied by Ben (Steven Yeun), a stylish and enigmatic love rival. It’s in his mysterious character that the film finds a mechanism for change, lighting the long, gasoline soaked fuse to the innocent outhouse waiting in the distance.
The greenhouse confession is an apt image in the context of the story and the character that says it: a bizarre, apparently idle statement pertaining to a heinous act but disguised as amoral vandalism. It would be antithetical to the spirit of the story, and indeed this review, to reveal the meaning of the metaphor immediately. For it is another that captures the experience of actually watching the film itself: not burning greenhouses, but boiling frogs.
Throw a frog into boiling water and it immediately hops out to safety. No real surprise there. But if you place a frog in tepid water and slowly bring it to the boil, the frog is unaware of any danger, and it will remain quite amicably simmering until it is cooked to death. It’s a metaphor often used to describe how people are incapable of reacting to gradual threats or problems: in life, in relationships – even in the cinema.
Burning is no raging inferno but a gentle incalescence. There’s no rapid tonal devolution nor a third act sucker punch, as is the case with, for example, Takashi Miike’s horror masterpiece Audition – a charming romantic tale about a widower and his quest to find a new wife, settling only for a lover with far more torturous intent (to extend the metaphor to his film, the frog would be plunged into a boiling vat of vitriol with a cast iron lid and no hope of a quick death, let alone escape). Lee doesn’t ambush you; he lulls you into some kind of confused anxiety dream amidst a ghostly omnipresence, all the while belied by elegant visuals and romantic tones. It’s not until well over an hour in, when the water is at our necks and the bubbles splash our face, that we finally realise our doom.
It’s a testament to Lee’s direction that the illusion lasts as long as it does; the calculated structural absences and misdirections in the script are dependent on visual subtleties easily fumbled by lesser artists. Even simple racking of focus, away from the subject in the foreground towards the apparently featureless greenery behind, is used to evoke a sense of portent barely brimming the subconscious. Viewers will find themselves scanning the environment, looking for something, somewhere – clues for a barely rumoured crime – without ever realising it. It is unlikely all these moments will be fully understood until the second or third viewing, if ever.
But what’s perhaps most impressive in Burning is how, after the veil is lifted and the truth is finally revealed, the film pivots so confidently from quiet unease to a focused, piercing dread. This owes its success not only to Lee, but also to Steven Yeun in the role of Ben. After Hae-mi suddenly and mysteriously disappears, the film as a whole racks focus once again, straight to the suspicion of Ben as her killer. We see him then without any modicum of the romance afforded to the many deplorables frenzying across the silver screen over the past decades. The result is one of the most ethically appropriate depictions of psychopathic evil in cinematic history. Lee’s gaze on the character of Ben is cynical and removed; what once passed for charm decays and is revealed as a tawdry deception. Burning greenhouses is revealed as complete moral annihilation.
Burning is, in many respects, the reciprocal to Miike’s Audition. Both films begin as benign, civilized romantic dramas; they both deal with mystery and unease. But where Miike suddenly bags you and thrusts you into the pot, Lee can be heard calling from afar: “Come on in, the water’s fine!”