Burning, a Korean mystery, opens Friday at the Capitol Theatre. It was up for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival this summer and will be the South Korean entry in the Foreign Language Film category at next year's Academy Awards.
Written and directed by Chang-dong Lee (Poetry, Secret Sunshine), and based on the short story "Barn Burning" by Haruki Marukami, itself an adaptation of William Faulkner's famous short story "Barn Burning" from 1939, the film follows a mysterious triangular relationship between a lower-class young man, Jongsu (Ah-in Yoo); an upper-class man, Ben (The Walking Dead's Steven Yeun); and the woman between them, Haemi (Jong-seo Jeon).
The source material is rich in themes of class conflict, paternal influence, jealousy, justice and revenge. And while the simmering film explores all of these to varying degrees, the effect is muted, the conclusion unsatisfying. It's definitely a 'journey-not-the-destination' movie. Some viewers may appreciate the seductive, mysterious route, but others will no doubt find it simply boring. This is a symptom, in my experience, of film adaptations of short stories, which tend to rely on atmospherics in the absence of scripted material. Most viewers will likely experience, as I did, that there's just not enough dialogue or plot for a film that's two-and-a-half hours long.
That said, there is much to recommend. Ben is first introduced when Jongsu picks up Haemi from the airport after a long trip to Africa. Jongsu grew up with Haemi and recently rekindled a relationship that he has reason to believe is trending toward an exclusive romance. He recently slept with her, for example. So he's naturally jealous of the wealthy stranger whom Haemi met at the Nairobi airport. They all go out to dinner, and every exchange between Jongsu and Ben is laced with class recognition and resentment. "What do you do for a living, if I may ask?" Jongsu asks Ben early on. "I play," Ben says.
The dynamic is often deliciously tense. The scenes with all three characters are forever on the verge of boiling over. When Ben and Haemi visit Jongsu on his family farm, which he's maintaining while his father serves a prison sentence — this is in the rural area directly north of Seoul, near the North Korean border — Ben confides to Jongsu in a post-marijuana haze that he likes to burn down greenhouses. He does it every couple of months, he says, and is never caught because the police don't care. He says he's already picked out the next greenhouse he plans to burn. It's nearby.
This admission drives Jongsu on an obsessive hunt to find out which greenhouse Ben intends to burn. But as this pursuit and the underlying metaphor become the film's ultimate mystery, the earlier and much more interesting mysteries — Who is Ben? What is the source of his wealth? — are completely forgotten.
Among other things, the score is also a triumph. It's a bouncing minimalist bass riff that arrives with force in the film's second half and corroborates the suspicion that this character drama has become, subtly, a full-blown thriller.