SFIFF 2018 - "Burning" 

Director Lee Chang-dong's slow-burn thriller is a love triangle. In this atmospheric psychodrama, Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo) is a disaffected young man down on his luck. He wanders the commercial districts of Paju, South Korea, delivering merchandise amid market carts and hustlers hawking items at discounted prices and luring customers with perky young women. One of these is a seemingly innocent childhood acquaintance of Jong-su's named Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon). He doesn't recognize her at first, as she says she recently had plastic surgery. Hae-mi is eccentric and precocious, while aspiring writer Jong-su has an introverted personality, and yet they become lovers.

Among the film's prominent themes is reality versus illusion. In an early exchange, Hae-mi practices pantomime for Jong-su, explaining that the trick to pretending to eat a mango is to forget that the mango isn't actually there. When she tries to introduces Jong-su to her cat, the skittish feline stays hidden, and Jong-su wonders if it might not be a figment of her imagination. "Should I forget that there 'isn't' a cat?" he asks.

Hae-mi asks Jong-su to watch over her apartment while she's gone on an extended trip, and he immerses himself in this microcosm of her world. When she returns, she's not alone, accompanied by Ben (Steven Yeun), a suave, confident young man--everything Jong-su isn't. It's the setup for a psychological confrontation, as between the three characters, much is implied but nothing is certain. After getting stoned one evening, Hae-mi strips and performs, mimicking a ritualistic African tribal dance she says is called "The Great Hunger." The camera slowly pans away to the softly rustling branches of a tree. The scene is more wistful than foreboding; we assume Hae-mi passed out or fell asleep outside, or perhaps that something sexual took place between the three, as in the next scene, the two men carry her limp body inside and put her to bed. What happened is never explained. All of this action takes place in near silence.

Jong-su reveals some of his family history to Ben: His mother left when he was young, he says, because of his father's anger problems. In retaliation, his father made him burn all of her clothes. Ben listens with a smirk and a slightly sinister glare. Then he tells Jong-su his own secret, relating a penchant for arson. He beams with pride in the telling, but perhaps his ecstatic expression comes more from the knowledge that Jong-su is being played.

Everything starts to feel like a game with noir-ish overtones. Jong-su, alienated and lost, seems the perfect antihero one moment and the perfect patsy the next. When Hae-mi disappears without a trace, Jong-su suspects that Ben's arsonist tendencies serve a darker purpose: as a cover-up for murder. He begins to follow Ben, watching his every move. Burning builds slowly to a stunning climax. Like the great hunger described by Hae-mi, the movie itself is like a ritual dance around a blazing bonfire, casting only shadows. It's an expertly crafted film with no solutions to its mysteries, only dark possibilities. A nominee for the Palme d'Or at Cannes, Burning is one of the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival's standout offerings.

By Michael Abatemarco

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