If there’s a twist to Burning, it’s implied in two shots, both involving a windshield. The first comes as Lee Chang-Dong’s naturalistic saga is cresting into its third act. Protagonist Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is following someone, and it’s not an accident his windshield is filthy. Through unassuming visual, the film plants a seed: we may be looking through the eyes of someone whose worldview is blurring.
The second shot ends the film, and now we look from outside Jong-su’s haggard white pickup back through the windshield at the main character. It’s he, not the road ahead, we can barely see.
Doubt is the most profound theme at work in the South Korean director’s latest film — his first since 2010’s Poetry. It’s a remarkable trait in a movie that’s first half functions as a proper character study. Now, you’re never meant to stop scrutinizing Burning’s characters — the implacable Jong-su, the histrionic yet earnest Shin Hai-me (Jong-seo Jeon), and the aloof Ben (Steven Yeun). It’s just that Burning slow-plays the fact that it’s going to slip into gradients of subjectivity. We’re not talking Memento twists here. We’re talking the way you see on Facebook that someone from your high school did something wildly impressive or unspeakably terrible, and you quietly admit to yourself, “Huh. I guess I didn’t really know them that well.”
Burning opens with Jong-su working a dead-end job in the Korean city of Paju when he runs into a girl, Hai-me, who used to be his childhood playmate out in the country. They begin seeing a bit of each other: the young man is attracted to the woman’s sense of searching; she seems eager to have someone along for her life’s lonely but unpredictable ride. Then, Hai-me makes an extended pilgrimage of sorts to South-Central Africa and Jong-su, in turn, agrees to look after her particularly shy cat. When Hai-me returns, she does so with Ben in tow, a youngish do-nothing much like Jong-su — that is, except for his wealth, taste, the social gifts to make both evident, and sharper cheekbones. Jong-su can’t quite express what’s so infuriating about the newcomer’s amorphous privilege. How does he have the money to do that? Jong-su asks Hai-me while standing a few feet off Ben’s kitchen in one scene. Asked what, Jong-su stammers and responds, “Make pasta while listening to music.”
As the two-and-a-half-hour film stretches out, Yoo Ah-in expertly plays Jong-su’s pent-up anger as a disguise withering away, his dull farm-kid dignity shabbily obscuring baser impulses underneath. Inside there, he’s fed up with the Korean job market, with Hai-me’s elusiveness, with Ben’s ease of existence, with his mother’s abandonment of him years before, and with the fiction writing to which he bashfully says he aspires. Jong-su’s identity as a writer is one of a dozen small character strands the movie plants and then lets peter out in the silence of its conclusion. This particular one is Stephen King-esque: you’re left to wonder at a certain point, is he writing at all? We don’t see it, after all. Are we watching his unwritten story unfold before us?
Burning is the rare almost-thriller that puts plot second to character: there’s enough scintillating ambiguity in everyday unknowability to account for the needed excitement. We are all, in our ways, this close to making or wrecking our lives, and it takes real patience from film and viewer alike to examine that cracked, dirty reflection of man. This gorgeously shot, genre-bending, deeply thematic 2018 standout is steeped in it.