October 28, 2018

Burning: The Greenhouse Effect

Lee Chang-dong's creepy movie Burning hints at a lot of things. Is Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) hyper-observant or increasingly paranoid? Is Ben (Steven Yeun) a despicable self-absorbed rich kid or a charismatic serial killer? Is Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-su) a longtime pathological liar and even if she is, does she have a cat or not? Furthermore, are abandoned greenhouses truly being set on fire by a pyromaniac or is this a metaphor for something much more sinister? As the movie progresses, you tend to side with the worst possible answer for every uncomfortable question not because Lee is a nihilist but because the class war is real and the indifference of the haves and the rage of the have nots must naturally manifest in various pathologies which lead to some pretty twisted behavior. Lee isn't telling us mankind is inherently evil; he's showing us how society warps us. At least that's one interpretation of Burning which feels so rich with detail that you could do a master's thesis interpreting its allusions and imagery.

And while I don't think it's ever stated outright, Yeun's turn as the Americanized Ben adds a global dimension to the story: He ultimately comes to represent the gluttonous traveler, the carefree, uncaring tourist who sees the world as his playground and people as disposable playthings. His impersonal apartment looks like a hotel room; his car, like a status symbol more than a mode of transportation. Jong-su refers to him as "The Great Gatsby" at one point, and, a writer himself who favors Faulkner, he's aware that this isn't a compliment by a long shot. There's nothing glamorous of wealth without purpose. By the time this semi-platonic ménage à trois gather together to smoke a joint outside of the struggling farm where Jong-u has landed now that his dad (Cho Seung-ho) is in jail, you know that something terrible is going to happen to at least one of them but I for one had no idea which one or ones or how or why. And even though now I do, I'd watch it all again in a heartbeat.

Lee's last film before this was eight years ago: Poetry. I couldn't be happier he's back.