At one point early on in Lee Chang Dong’s haunting film Burning, one character compares another to The Great Gatsby. It’s a rare moment, along with some Faulkner name dropping, of the film wearing one of its many influences on its sleeve. But once the comparison is there you realise that there is more than that in common, the film could well be read as a reinterpretation of many of the same themes and a recycling of some similar narrative beats, refracted through the same dreamy nihilistic prism as Lav Diaz’s reworking of Crime and Punishment, Norte the End Of History.
The film follows the consternation and growing dread of Jong-su, an young college graduate and aspiring novelist when his girlfriend Hae-mi returns from a trip to Kenya with a sinister new friend in tow. Steven Yuen’s Ben, wealthy, sophisticated and everything Jong-su is not, or simultaneously fears, loathes and aspires to be, comes across as a cross between the aforementioned Jay Gatsby and Patrick Bateman as Jong-su begins to fear that he makes a hobby out of preying on women like Hae-mi. The homoerotic mutual obsession catalysed by this insidious love triangle lays the ground for an introspective yet perhaps uninspired deep dive into the manhood of a man in his early 20s.
There are some uncanny narrative parallels to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s recent The Wild Pear Tree, both have a recent college graduate who grew up on a farm, has a fractious relationship with his father, is attempting to make a career as a novelist and there is a recurring well motif. Although given the concurrent releases a possibly more deliberate touchstone is Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day that was defined by a similarly languorous pace and protagonist lost in the isolation of a lingering sense of adolescence.
It’s a film told mostly through images both in the Hitchcockian manner of revealing insinuating evidence and in dreamy symbolism, most memorably in two parallel scenes of Hae-mi dancing trancelike into the twilight.
It’s a despairing and solemn film, yet vaguely sensuous and satirical as well, it suffers on occasion from pretentions and indulgences akin to those of The Wild Pear Tree and intrigues more in its familiarity than its novelty, but it’s an ambitious work combining a readable bluntness with a rewarding ambiguity.