Early on in Burning, the gripping new psychological thriller from South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong, a shy, troubled young man named Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) returns to a small farmhouse in the town of Paju, where he’s lived since childhood. President Trump can be seen and heard blaring from a TV in the background, a throwaway detail that becomes more disquieting when it’s revealed that Jongsu lives close to the border with North Korea.
Adapted and transplanted from a 1992 short story by Haruki Murakami, Burning is less about any geopolitical turmoil than it is about class privilege, youthful ennui and frustrated longing.
But for Lee, the 63-year-old writer-director of such acclaimed character studies as Secret Sunshine (2007) and Poetry (2010), there is something undeniably resonant about his first film in eight years arriving at a tense, historic moment on the Korean peninsula.
“This is a film about anger. I think everyone is angry these days. I think it was also some people’s anger that made Trump president,” Lee says. “What I pay attention to is the anger of young people.
“Youngsters don’t understand why they don’t have a future or hope. They don’t have a specific target for this anger.”
The movie keeps that rage pulsing, steadily but ambiguously, in scene after scene; it’s the very definition of a slow burn. Lee was a renowned author before he became a filmmaker, and his movies are often praised for their novelistic density – their deliberate pacing, subtle emotional modulation and richly textured sense of place. While these stories come to poignant, sometimes tragic ends, they never feel rigid or deterministic, thanks to Lee’s ability to capture moments that feel carefully sculpted yet powerfully unresolved.
Burning is no exception. For two-and-a-half hours, this leisurely but ruthlessly unpredictable movie follows Jongsu as he falls hard for an old childhood friend, Haemi (Jeon Jong-seo), only to watch as she begins seeing Ben (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun), a rich, young man from Seoul. Rather than erupting immediately, the tensions remain on a low simmer, gradually propelling this romantic triangle into mystery-thriller territory.
The result is an empathetic but unsparing study in human fragility and torment, much like Secret Sunshine.
A long search
During the eight years between Poetry and Burning, the director considered several other projects, three of which became finished screenplays before falling apart.
“I was searching for something different... but I wasn’t sure what it was exactly. I cannot say that Burning is an entirely new and original kind of film, but it’s a film that has come closest to the new style of storytelling that I’ve been searching for.”
Some elements from those aborted projects made their way into Burning, which deviates significantly from Barn Burning, the Murakami short story on which it’s based. Securing the rights to the material delayed the production by a year, during which time Lee and his co-writer, Oh Jung-mi, elaborated and deepened the script. The movie’s second half is almost entirely of their own devising.
It was also during this waiting period that Lee, who had been planning to cast a local Korean actor as Ben, decided to look further afield. He ended up casting the Seoul-born, Michigan-raised Yeun, who remains best known for playing Glenn Rhee on The Walking Dead.
Burning marks Yeun’s second collaboration with a major Korean auteur after Bong Joon-ho’s Okja (2017). Joining Lee in conversation, Yeun admits he didn’t feel confident initially about working with Lee, whom he reveres.
“I don’t want to ruin his filmography,” he recalls thinking. “I don’t want to do something I had no business doing.”
But Lee persuaded him that he was a good fit for Ben.
“The first reason I cast Steven was because he was a successful man,” Lee says. “He has power and money, and he is someone young Korean people today admire. While being all that, he also has a kind heart ... Ben had to keep a delicate balance, to be an uneasy and mysterious character until the end.”
That emotional inscrutability is typical of Lee’s characters, who are in no hurry to reveal every facet of themselves. Although Ben is outwardly generous and hospitable toward both Jongsu and Haemi, his every word, breath and gesture can’t help but convey an ingrained sense of superiority.
For Yeun, Lee’s instinct for casting, borne out by the performances he elicits from his actors, stems from “an understanding of humans at a level that most people probably don’t see”.
It would be hard to imagine a more unusual (or more persuasive) choice for the role of a humble country boy like Jongsu than the 31-year-old Yoo Ah-in, a well-known and somewhat controversially outspoken actor and fashion icon. By contrast, Burning is the first screen credit for Jeon Jong-seo, 23, who uses her newcomer status to underscore Haemi’s little-girl-lost quality.
As for Yeun, he prepared for the role of Ben by reading Nietzsche and working hard to nail the nuances of his all-Korean dialogue. But what really makes the performance work is an element of emotional reserve, an outsider quality that Yeun frames in terms of his immigrant background.
“I think there’s something inherent about being in Korea when you don’t feel completely integrated into it,” he says. “It cultivates its own sense of loneliness.”
Loneliness and not-belonging are constants in Murakami’s fiction, and they are crucial to the effect of Burning. Foregrounding class tensions far more than he has in his previous films, Lee continually draws visual contrasts.
The result is not a movie that Lee expected he’d make at the outset of his career, even though it is, to a remarkable degree, a movie that no one else could have made.
An optimistic phrase that he continually uses, while describing the shaping of the material through its many setbacks and delays, is “the destiny of this film”.
Yeun says: “He would always say that this movie is making itself. We just need to go with it.” – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service