I missed Lee Chang-dong‘s Burning in Cannes, but caught it late last month in Manhattan. A chilly Patricia Highsmith-meets-F. Scott Fitzgerald drama about class envy and resentment, Burning is creepy, thoughtful and mystifying in a good way. It percolates and resonates and stays with you.
But it’s a half-hour too long (148 minutes) and suffers, I feel, from an underwritten protagonist (Jong-su, played by Yoo Ah-in) who’s allegedly a writer but doesn’t talk like one, and who regards everyone and everything with a kind of dazed, open-mouthed stupor.
Fitzgerald and William Faulkner are referenced by Jong-su, but he looks and behaves more like a lazy student than a writer hungry to say something. At one point he notes that South Korea is full of Jay Gatsby types — that’s the sum total of his insights shared in the entire film. Plus he dresses poorly and has a dorky flat-top haircut. Sorry, bruh, but will you close your fucking mouth, please?
The film starts intriguingly when Jong-su falls for Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), whom he vaguely knew and found unattractive as a teenager, but he soon realizes she has a rich, blase. socially connected boyfriend named Ben (Steven Yeun) who drives a Porsche.
Jong-su, Hae-mi and Ben became a kind of odd trio, hanging out and going to parties, etc. Around the halfway mark Ben casually reveals he’s into burning rural greenhouses, presumably as an expression of sociopathic contempt for the middle and lower classes. Then Hae-mi disappears, and Jong-su begins to wonder if Ben might have killed her for sport.
Based on “Barn Burning,” a 26 year-old New Yorker short story by Haruki Murakami, Burning will open in New York on 10.26 and in Los Angeles on 11.2 before opening nationwide on 11.9.