Burning Shows That Korean Cinema Goes So Much Deeper Than Octopi and Train Zombies

Chang-dong Lee’s suspenseful, thematically rich new thriller stars Steven Yeun.

Steven Yeun in Burning.
Steven Yeun in Burning. Pinehouse Film/CGV Arthouse

Contemporary Korean cinema has become largely synonymous abroad with boundary-pushing genre fare: the operatic violence of Oldboy, the tonal somersaults of The Host, the relentless momentum of Train to Busan. In their home country, though, South Korean filmmakers have long taken a keen interest in exposing social ills and critiquing inequalities. Like The Host, Train to Busan, and The Handmaiden, the slow-burn thriller Burning—South Korea’s submission for the 2019 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar—feels both grounded in Korean concerns and able to travel anywhere. It’s unsettlingly tense for much of its runtime, but its greatest accomplishment is its portrait of youthful alienation, and what can happen when individuals are unable to ever connect.

You probably haven’t heard this one before: Boy meets girl. Girl takes a trip to Kenya. Girl asks for a ride from the airport, then arrives with a slightly older man who comes from the kind of wealth you can immediately feel in your bones. Girl seems happy, but she still says things like, “I want to vanish like that sunset.” When Girl cries thinking of her desire for nonexistence, the older man remarks, “It’s fascinating to me when people cry”—he says he has yet to know what shedding a tear feels like. Later, when the two men share a joint, the rival admits a secret: He’s compelled to burn greenhouses, doing so gives him an incomparable thrill, and he’s already picked out his next target. Soon after, Girl disappears.

Burning is a tale of all-consuming jealousy, tempered not at all by the fact that our protagonist, Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo), is perhaps right to suspect the worst of Ben (an ice-cold yet slyly funny Steven Yeun). Even with a college degree, the best work that Jong-su, a farmer’s son, can get is as a part-time delivery driver. When he asks Ben what he does for a living, the assiduously courteous, always slightly bored sophisticate shrugs, “I play.” Later, more insidiously, Ben says he’d do anything for fun. But is he a monster, or is Jong-su too eager to believe that he is one—and to punish him for it? Adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami by director and co-writer Chang-dong Lee (Poetry, Secret Sunshine), Burning concludes with an eruption of catharsis that preserves the script’s most tantalizing ambiguities.

Caught between the two men, Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon) initially appears to be the most obviously struggling of the three. She drinks at bars until she falls asleep and regularly takes her shirt off because she doesn’t know how else to feel free. In her first role—a job she booked at her first audition, according to Yeun—Jeon is so raw and unselfconscious it feels like you’re watching someone without any skin. As Jong-su watches her, and watches Ben watch her, he is indignant but paralyzed, frittering away his own days in a parallel but unwanted idleness, taking care of the family’s tiny farm after his violent dad is sentenced to jail. At least Jong-su and Hae-mi know they’re just floating through life. It’s unclear whether Ben realizes money has unmoored him too. With his weaponized yawns and minimalist apartment overlooking Seoul, Ben seems above the suffering of mere mortals. But the closest he can come to other human beings is by collecting them. He seems incapable of genuinely liking another person. The most he can do is be distracted by them for a little while.

As Burning unfolds, it reveals new thematic layers until the film brims with allegorical potential. The portrayal of the main trio comprises a threnody for a lost generation, and the conflicts between them an indictment of class divides and a lament for a traditional Asia that’s being bulldozed in favor of a bland, anonymous cosmopolitanism. Hae-min, with plastic surgery, and Jong-su, with his novelist aspirations, want to reinvent themselves too. But the world will tolerate many more destroyers than dreamers. Things are all too easy to demolish. Sometimes people are, too.